NFL Nation: Demarcus Ware

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – As teams around the league continue to jettison veteran players to take some contracts off the books in advance of the formal opening of free agency, the Denver Broncos will always take a look at the list if they believe a player will fill a need.

But most of the time, the players simply do not fit the profile of what the Broncos are usually searching for in free agency, as in they are often in the 30-something club, coming off big-money, multiyear deals and hoping for another.

In short, the Broncos prefer players heading into their second NFL contracts, or the kind of players who usually aren’t getting released before the start of free agency.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Jack DempseyJohn Elway and the Broncos typically aren't major players on the opening days of free agency.
And while this new era of the salary cap – estimates are that it will come in between $143 million and $145 million per team, a significant jump from the $133-million limit in 2014 – has forced plenty of decision-makers across the league to wrap their heads around the idea of what is “too much" to pay a player at a given position. The Broncos have stuck to their profile for the most part.

At least in the big-ticket signings. You can take quarterback Peyton Manning’s signing in 2012 as the outlier, as Hall of Fame quarterbacks with football left in the tank don’t see the open market, so the Broncos dove in with a $96-million deal.

But overall, for much of John Elway’s early tenure with the Broncos, the team’s signings for those older free agents were usually on one-year contracts, usually well after the opening bell of free agency, especially if the player was well beyond his first contract in the league.

The players signed in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 free agency classes were largely veterans on one-year deals – Keith Brooking, Justin Bannan, Jim Leonhard, Dan Koppen, Brandon Stokley, Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips, just to name a few. Most of the exceptions didn't get much longer deals. Wes Welker got a two-year deal, Terrance Knighton got a two-year deal and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie got a two-year deal on paper, but the second year was voided five days after the Super Bowl following the 2013 season.

The exceptions in those earlier seasons were Manning and guard Louis Vasquez. But Vasquez was a 20-something was making his first venture into free agency, and the Broncos gave him a four-year deal for what was his second contract in the league.

He has been a starter, an All-Pro, the kind of return the Broncos want. Even in the 2014 splurge in free agency of the four high-profile, big-money, multi-year signings – Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and DeMarcus Ware – only Ware was older than 28 when the contracts were signed while Ward and Sanders were signing their second NFL contracts.

All four of those players went on to play in the Pro Bowl this past January.

So, when you see all of the veteran players released now, before free agency opens, the Broncos aren’t going to be all that active with those players because the price is the highest. Yes, they've already had tight end James Casey in for a visit, but only because Casey has played four seasons in Gary Kubiak’s offense.

The Broncos are looking to free agents more in line with Ward, Sanders and Vasquez, players just completing their initial contracts, players still ascending. Those are the kinds of players who will be shown the Broncos' checkbook in the coming weeks.

They’ll fill with older players later if they feel they need to, with "later" being some time after the initial flurry of free agency dies down.

Because with some of their needs, Elway has already said the Broncos will look within as well, especially to those in the 2014 draft class who didn’t play much last season – such as wide receiver Cody Latimer – or at all last season – such as tackle Michael Schofield.

As Elway put it: “They’re going to have expectations for those young guys to be able to step in and be able to contribute early. That’s the coaching staff, that’s Gary’s mindset, the coaching staff’s mindset -- they’re not afraid to play young guys. They’ll get them trained up to play, which is going to be beneficial to us."

So, as the list of veteran free agents already on the market grows, as teams shave their salary caps and send signed contracts into the wind, the Broncos will look. Just don’t expect them to dive in on most of the most familiar names.
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A closer look at the areas the Broncos could address in the draft. We'll continue today with a look at the linebackers, which are scheduled to work out Sunday in Indianapolis.

Position of need: As they install Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense, they have plenty to work with at the position, starting with impact edge rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to line up at outside linebacker. Add in Brandon Marshall, the team's leading tackler this past season, to move into one of the inside linebacker spots as well as the Broncos' hope for a healthy return of Danny Trevathan, and that's a quality group. But the Broncos will still be on the hunt for a bigger, early-down presence on the inside to go with building some depth behind Miller and Ware.

Three players the Broncos could target in the draft:

Denzel Perryman, ILB, Miami (Fla.): Perryman measured out at 5-foot-10 5/8 inches tall at the Senior Bowl and weighed in at 242 pounds. He is a consistent tackler who plays with power in the middle of the field and has shown good range to with good instincts. When you look at the game video you see he prepares and is rarely fooled.

Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State: Like Perryman, if the Broncos want a chance at him they would likely have to commit their first-round pick (28th overall) to do it. McKinney is a tall, athletic player with a big reach and may even translate to one of the outside linebacker spots because of it. But he usually squares up blockers in run defense, sheds and plays the ball well. He's a taller player, so when he does miss tackles he misses them because he took on the ballcarrier too high.

Nate Orchard, OLB, Utah: Take a look at the Senior Bowl practices and you see a prospect who showed pass-rush skills, did just fine in coverage and understands how to hold the edge in run defense. He's got good size (6-3 1/4, 251 pounds at the Senior Bowl), a high-effort player who was a three-year starter. Knows how shed blockers and use his hands to keep himself in a position to make plays.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Talk about a housewarming gift.

Wade Phillips, with his four decades of NFL experience, has arrived as the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator to find the cupboard, talent-wise, pretty full.

"I’m pretty good at what I’m doing; I’ve done it a lot of times," Phillips said this week. "This is probably the best situation, defensively, that I’ve come into -- or way better than any other situation I’ve come into. Normally they’ve had a bad year and they’ve brought me in as defensive coordinator. This team has a lot of talent on defense, but we’re going to do better. That’s what I do, is improve them."

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWade Phillips will take over a Denver defense that returns five Pro Bowlers from 2014.
The Broncos were third in total defense this past season -- surrendering 305.2 yards per game -- tied for 16th in scoring defense at 22.1 points per game, tied for ninth in sacks (41) and have five Pro Bowl defensive players who are all under contract for 2015. This is not an extreme makeover.

Or as cornerback Chris Harris Jr., one of those Pro Bowl participants, said before Phillips was hired: “Whoever comes in is getting a defense ready to go. We can do big things."

The Broncos will do those things with a different scheme on defense. Phillips said Tuesday what most thought when he was formally announced as Jack Del Rio's replacement, that the Broncos will move to a 3-4 look on defense.

Former Broncos coach John Fox, first with Dennis Allen at defensive coordinator and then Del Rio, used plenty of hybrid fronts and often lined up in a 3-4 look in situational work over the past four seasons, including using a traditional 3-4 look when they faced teams who worked comfortably out of two-tight end formations or had a read-option quarterback.

But while Phillips’ scheme will be a far more traditional 3-4 look, he believes, especially with the ability to line up Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware as the team’s outside linebackers, to go with three Pro Bowl players in the secondary -- Harris, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward -- the personnel on hand will make it a smooth transition.

"The outside ‘backers, you want them to be the rush guys," Phillips said. "I’ve been lucky to have a lot of really good ones. Simon Fletcher here had (16) sacks and I think he set the sack record here for a long time. So we can utilize the guys that have talents to rush. I’ve always said, ‘Hey, if he can rush well, if he’s a really great rusher, let him rush.’ It seems simple but sometimes people want to drop them in the pass and all that stuff. It’s also the cornerbacks, what they can do. It’s what Harris can do, what Talib can do. It’s whatever they can do really well, then we’re going to utilize that."

Miller, who has had at least 11.5 sacks in three of his four seasons with the Broncos, offers Phillips the kind of starting point he had in 2011 when Gary Kubiak hired Phillips to be the Texans defensive coordinator following a year when they finished 30th in total defense.

Ware played for Phillips in Dallas from 2007-10 and had 14, 20, 11 and 15.5 sacks in those four seasons. Also at linebacker, Brandon Marshall is expected to be a quick fit into one of the inside spots, as would Danny Trevathan if his recovery from an injury-marred 2014 -- three separate injuries to his left leg -- goes well.

“That’s what a defensive coordinator is in the NFL, you take the talent of the players you have and the really talented ones, you do what they do well and let them do it,’’ Phillips said. “It’s not the scheme itself, it’s the players … Utilize their talent, and that’s what we try to do and we’ve been pretty successful with that.”

In terms of the players on hand, the Broncos will have to answer the roster question at nose tackle. Terrance Knighton, who would be the most likely candidate there, is an unrestricted free agent who would be a coveted player for Del Rio in his new job as Oakland Raiders coach.

If Knighton isn’t re-signed -- and he is likely to get the biggest offer elsewhere -- then Sylvester Williams would get some work in the middle of the defensive line. The Broncos also have two players on the roster who project to be productive players at the two defensive end spots in a three-man front in Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson.

So, given all of that, Phillips was asked this week if there would be added pressure with the new gig.

"I don’t think there’s pressure not to mess it up, I think it’s to get them better," Phillips said.

"I’ve been lucky to get into the right situations with good players and I think we have them here."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – If the NFL Players Association’s salary-cap projections are close, or higher, than what the NFL’s management council has already projected for teams, the Denver Broncos will have enough room in 2015 to try to attack the long list of their own free agents and perhaps make a quality late signing or two to fill in the gaps.

But a splash like last year's is not in the cards this time around.

Teams around the league, the Broncos included, were told just before the end of the season the 2015 salary cap was expected to be between $138.6 million and $141.8 million per team, up from this past season’s $133 million per team.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesJulius Thomas' future with the Denver Broncos could be in doubt because the tight end is an unrestricted free agent.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said last week in Phoenix that the union also will, for the first time, issue its own cap projections for the coming season, just before the NFL’s scouting combine begins Feb. 17. Despite the combine's main purpose being the place where the most of the highest-rated prospects for the 2015 draft are evaluated, it’s also the place where agents and team officials get together with free agency on the horizon so the union would like its own projections in the discourse.

The union has long held that the league's cap projections have been too conservative and artificially hold down spending. It certainly didn’t hold down the Broncos’ spending last March when they dove into free agency for cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. All four of those players played in the Pro Bowl.

But this year, with 17 restricted and unrestricted free agents combined, the Broncos’ plan will have a more local feel than the last year’s when the Broncos simply let their highest-profile free agents head into the market without an offer from the team. Just after the Broncos hired Gary Kubiak as the franchise’s 15th coach last month, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway more than hinted that this year, the team will be looking in-house first.

“We like our roster, we like where we are with the moves we’ve made," Elway said. “We’re always looking to improve and will bring in any player we think is an improvement over guys we have, but we have some of our own guys coming up, and we want to do what we can there."

If the salary cap officially comes in at, near, or even a little above the league projection of $141.8 million per team to go with an expected rollover of some cap room of this past season, the Broncos would (conservatively) have about $25 million in projected workable salary-cap space if you take their top 51 salary-cap figures at the moment into account.

Some of that room will have to be set aside for their draft picks, and Elway said last month he expected to “have at least eight" draft picks.

The Broncos have limited their dead money against the cap, and at the moment, kicker Matt Prater’s cap charge of just more than $800,000 is the biggest hit there for '15. The Broncos also don’t have many big-roster bonuses due in the coming weeks, either, other than Ryan Clady’s $1.5 million roster bonus, to go with a $2.5 million roster bonus for Ward and $500,000 for Talib.

Also something to consider is Ware, Talib, Ward and Clady have all, or part, of their 2015 salaries fully guaranteed within the first week of the new league year, as well -- so between March 10-14.

With Peyton Manning's $19 million guaranteed on March 9, the Broncos will, if Manning returns to play for 2015, have guaranteed $40.5 million in base salaries to those five players by the time March 14 rolls around. It's why, with the oldest deal in the pile, after groin and thigh injuries this past season, Clady could be a target for a contract redo if the Broncos are searching for some additional room.

It all means the Broncos' focus will be largely on their own free agents. The top priority is wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, whom the Broncos would certainly like to sign to a long-term deal, but at minimum will be poised to use the franchise player tag on him for ’15.

That’s a guaranteed one-year deal. For the 2014 season, it was $12.312 million for a wide receiver, so that would take a slice out of the this year’s cap, as well, and would be the team’s second-highest figure behind Peyton Manning’s $19 million, which is guaranteed March 9, if he’s on the roster.

As a result, tight end Julius Thomas, also an unrestricted free agent, will be a tougher get. His representatives have made it clear he wants to have a contract among the league’s highest-paid tight ends after back-to-back seasons with 12 touchdown receptions.

The Broncos would not have the cap space, nor the inclination with a tighter cap fit for them on the horizon in 2016, to put both Thomases at the top end of the pay scales at their respective positions.

Terrance Knighton will get a long look from the Broncos, but Jack Del Rio is going to want Knighton in Oakland as much as he wanted Knighton in Denver. And Knighton, who has called Del Rio “a genius,’’ has made no secret of his affinity for playing in Del Rio’s defense. Safety Rahim Moore, tight end Virgil Green, tight end Jacob Tamme, guard Orlando Franklin, linebacker Nate Irving and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein also are among the team’s unrestricted free agents.

Among the restricted free agents, linebacker Brandon Marshall showed more than enough as the team's leading tackler to draw interest from elsewhere if the Broncos don’t put a high enough tender on him. The Broncos do have the right to match any offer to him, as well.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There could be times Sunday night when the Pro Bowl actually feels like August for a few Denver Broncos players.

When, much like a training camp practice, cornerback Aqib Talib could be locked up on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders or left tackle Ryan Clady could trying to slow down Von Miller in a third-and-long situation.

When the Pro Bowls rosters were completed Wednesday night, Talib and Clady were on a team selected by Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin while the other six Broncos who are slated to play in the all-star game, including Sanders and Miller, will be a on team selected by Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin.

The team Irvin selected will be coached by the Dallas Cowboys’ staff and will also feature Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (thigh), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (ankle, toe) and tight end Julius Thomas (ankle) had been selected for the game, but elected not to play because of injuries. Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas are each scheduled to be unrestricted free agents on March 10.

Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET.

Quick Take: Broncos vs. Colts

January, 4, 2015
Jan 4
4:11
PM ET
» Divisional Round: Schedule » AFC: BAL-NE | IND-DEN » NFC: CAR-SEA | DAL-GB


Three things to know about the Denver Broncos' matchup against the Indianapolis Colts at 4:40 p.m. ET Sunday in an AFC divisional round game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

1. Luck is on their side: When Indianapolis running back Ahmad Bradshaw fractured his fibula in November, it essentially cratered the Colts’ ability to have any sort of offensive balance; they rushed for 1 and 64 yards, respectively, in the final two games of the regular season. While quarterback Andrew Luck carried the majority of the Colts’ fortunes before Bradshaw’s injury, he carries them all now. His ability to run when he has to and find the correct receiver under duress -- i.e., his 36-yard touchdown throw to Donte Moncrief in the third quarter Sunday with the Bengals’ Carlos Dunlap wrapped around his leg -- mean a championship day from Luck can lift the Colts against any team. The Broncos have to create pressure and not allow Luck to run his way out of the trouble. When the Broncos beat the Colts 31-24 in the regular-season opener, Luck threw for 370 yards despite being sacked three times and intercepted twice. The Broncos' defensive front, especially edge players Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, will need to keep Luck hemmed in and get him off his primary read as often as possible.

2. See what you get: The Colts' defense, through plenty of injuries, has been one of the real riddles in the league this season. The group allowed just 135 yards to the Bengals one week and then surrendered 639 yards to the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week. In the season-opening win, the Broncos went after the Colts' linebackers and safeties, with tight end Julius Thomas finishing with 104 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Wes Welker was suspended for that game, so the Broncos lined up in a two-tight end set for just more than 50 percent of the snaps. The Colts likely will try to force the ball short in the passing game and clog the middle of the field as so many have tried against the Broncos with varying amounts of success in the season's second half. But Indianapolis puts a lot on the shoulders of cornerbacks Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, so with some patience the Broncos should eventually find some man-to-man matchups down the field to their liking, especially if the Colts feel like they have to blitz to get to Peyton Manning.

3. Live the moment: The book on these Broncos from some of their peers in the league is a talented, championship-worthy team that can be rattled in the postseason if an opponent can force a mistake early. In short, many folks in the league believe the Broncos are wound too tight at times in a playoff setting and simply haven’t responded with their best effort on the biggest stage. They let home-field advantage slip away with a double-overtime playoff loss to the Ravens to close out the 2012 season and got blown out in the Super Bowl a year ago after too many early mistakes. The Colts will fit the profile of a potential upstart with a franchise quarterback in Luck, a win already on their résumé in this postseason and little pressure coming in. The Broncos will have to find the elusive balance between sweating the details and playing with that know-they-can-win edge against a team that likely will play as if it doesn't have anything to lose.
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

SELECTIONS

Peyton Manning, QB, 14th Pro Bowl selection: People have asked him about wobbly passes or if he’s hurt, and he had his first four-interception game since 2010. But at 38, Manning has led his team to 11 wins, he leads the league in touchdown passes with 39, and he is fourth in both passing yards (4,454) and passer rating (102.9). With a win Sunday, Manning and the Broncos will have the AFC’s No. 2 seed.

Whom he beat out: The Chargers' Philip Rivers, with former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy as his head coach, did not make the Pro Bowl cut, despite 31 touchdowns.

Demaryius Thomas, WR, Third Pro Bowl selection: Thomas is second in the league in receptions (103), third in receiving yards (1,504) and tied for seventh in touchdown receptions (11). He also became just the third receiver in league history with three consecutive seasons with at least 1,400 yards and at least 10 touchdown receptions.

Whom he beat out: There is no scenario that doesn't include Demaryius Thomas on the Pro Bowl roster, but Thomas' selection likely kept, for the most part, the Broncos' Emmanuel Sanders off the roster.

Julius Thomas, TE, Second Pro Bowl selection: Folks obviously gave Julius Thomas credit for his fast start. He had 12 touchdown receptions in the first nine games and led the league at that point. Since he injured his left ankle Nov. 16 against the St. Louis Rams, however, Thomas has not played in three games, and he had three catches combined in his past two games.

Whom he beat out: Thomas' back-to-back 12-touchdown seasons were part of the reason Antonio Gates didn't make it. Gates also has 12 touchdowns to go with 65 catches this season.

Ryan Clady, T, Fourth Pro Bowl selection: Clady has played through some lower-body injuries (groin and right thigh) this season, but he has often been the guy the Broncos have left singled-up in pass protection. Although this season’s injuries have affected him at times, especially as he continues to come back from last season’s foot surgery, Clady hasn’t had the consistency of previous years. But in a jumbled offensive line, Clady has been the guy the Broncos have consistently given the toughest jobs.

Whom he beat out: The Bengals' Andrew Whitworth will certainly make many snubbed lists, especially as the Bengals have pounded the ball in the run game in the season's second half.

DeMarcus Ware, DE, Eighth Pro Bowl selection: When Ware signed with the Broncos, John Elway said he liked to “sign Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders." Ware has 10 sacks through 15 games, and if he gets at least one more in the regular-season finale Sunday, he will, at age 30, have had his eighth career season with at least 11 sacks.

Whom he beat out: Three of the Buffalo Bills' defensive linemen made the Pro Bowl, but the one guy who didn't was Jerry Hughes, who has 9.5 sacks this season.

Von Miller, LB, Third Pro Bowl selection: Miller underwent ACL surgery last January and still rebounded with what might have been his best all-around season in terms of learning all facets of his job. He has 13 sacks (seventh in the league), leads the team in hits on the quarterback (27) and is second on the team in tackles for loss (14).

Whom he beat out: It's hard to remove Miller from the mix, but a player such as Oakland Raiders rookie Khalil Mack didn't have the sack numbers to get on the radar, though he has certainly played with down-to-down impact each week.

Aqib Talib, CB, Second Pro Bowl selection: Talib is tied for the team lead in interceptions with four and has been the physical presence at the position the Broncos wanted. He’s fourth on the team in tackles (59) and has consistently been active along the line of scrimmage, as well as being a reliable defender when matched up down the field.

Whom he beat out: The position didn't have the kind of snubs as some others, but there are guys with interceptions, such as Perrish Cox (five) and Leodis McKelvin (four).

Chris Harris Jr., CB, First Pro Bowl selection: After not finishing in the top 10 in fan voting at the position, Harris must have won the vote from players and coaches in a landslide. Harris has lined up all over the defensive formation this season -- he has taken snaps at both outside spots and in the slot on both sides of the formation -- which makes him one of the most versatile players at the position.

Whom he beat out: See above.

T.J. Ward, S, Second Pro Bowl selection: The Broncos signed three defensive players in free agency -- Talib, Ware and Ward -- and Ward’s selection to the Pro Bowl means all three players were selected for the all-star game. Ward has lined up at a traditional safety spot this season, has essentially played weakside linebacker in the specialty packages and played in coverage with the Broncos more than he was asked to do with the Cleveland Browns. He’s second on the Broncos in tackles (74), and the Broncos have spent much of the year as the league’s No. 2 run defense.

Whom he beat out: San Francisco 49ers safety Antoine Bethea played at a Pro Bowl level for a team that did not make the postseason.

SNUBS

Emmanuel Sanders, WR: Although it was Sanders who said when he signed with the Broncos last March that he was coming to “wide receiver heaven," the Broncos are thanking just as many lucky stars. Sanders is fifth in the league in receptions (95) and sixth in receiving yards (1,331) -- both career highs. He has also displayed remarkable toughness, as he has made impact plays lined up both on the outside in the formation and in the slot.

Whom he should have beaten out: It’s hard to bump anybody at receiver in these pass-happy times, and it's a little quirky to say a team that got nine Pro Bowl slots missed out on a couple, but Sanders’ ability all over the formation was worthy of a spot. Although it's difficult to say Calvin Johnson shouldn't be among the group, his injury-marred year wasn't to his usual standards.

Terrance Knighton, DT: Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall was a snub on performance, given what he’s done as an every-down player to lead the Broncos in tackles, but Knighton makes what the Broncos do on early downs go and constantly surrenders his own opportunities at some statistics because his job is to clear the way for others.

Whom he should have beaten out: The Kansas City Chiefs are 28th in run defense and allow 128.3 yards per game, so Knighton's body of work is, according to several personnel executives, at a higher level than Dontari Poe's.

W2W4: Broncos vs. Bengals

December, 22, 2014
12/22/14
3:30
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A few storylines to watch Monday night when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Denver Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium:

Ayodele
Knighton
Line anchors: Keep your eyes trained on the Bengals' offensive line. Not only will the unit have a massive challenge to contend with in the running game -- both literally and figuratively -- in the form of Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, but it will have a pair of tough-to-block edge rushers in the passing game, too. An athletic 330 pounds, Knighton is adept at plugging holes on interior rushing plays. The presence of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller on the outside doesn't make it easy for rushers to cut back outside if the inside run is a no-go. Ware and Miller also are among the game's most effective rushers in passing situations. If the Bengals have any hope at moving the football Monday, it will be to play physically with Knighton in the run, and to provide solid pockets when quarterback Andy Dalton is passing. One way the Bengals are doing that on the right side of their line, in particular, is by anchoring the unit with veteran Eric Winston. Expect him to get his first Bengals start there, lining up opposite Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Red zone a factor: Cincinnati's defense will try hard to keep the Broncos out of the red zone, but recent trends show that might not be a bad thing if it happens. According to ESPN Stats & Information, after leading the league in red-zone completion percentage, touchdown passes and total QBR through his first 11 games, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning ranks outside the top 20 in each category over the past three weeks. The absence of tight end Julius Thomas for two of those three contests correlated with the declining production inside the 20. Although Thomas returned last week, he wasn't that effective on his hurt ankle. He is considered healthier this week, which means you should look for him to play a bigger role in the red zone Monday for the Broncos. He entered the week leading the league in red-zone touchdown catches with nine.

Green
Toss it to Green: As much as we have hammered home all week the importance of the Bengals running the football in this game, you simply can't ignore the fact that this is a team with A.J. Green on its roster. Cincinnati has to be smart with the way it runs the ball, but it also has to be savvy about the way it utilizes Green, the Pro Bowl wide out who went on a four-game tear in November and early December, catching 33 passes for 529 yards and three touchdown. He was at his best in that stretch in the deep passing game. Of his 33 catches, 12 came on throws that traveled 10 yards or more in the air. All three of his touchdowns came on such throws, including an 81-yard reception against Pittsburgh. What helped him get open downfield for those catches? The running game. Specifically, the play-action pass that resulted from it. With linebackers and safeties flowing up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Green has been single-covered by the end of recent games. Be on the lookout for similar opportunities Monday if Cincinnati's running game gets going early.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As DeMarcus Ware essentially dragged himself, willed himself really, through the 2013 season, his elbow hurt, his thigh hurt and sometimes his pride hurt.

"I just didn’t feel like myself," Ware said. "I tried to play, had some good moments, but the season didn’t go like I like seasons to go. I knew I had better in me."

So when the Dallas Cowboys released Ware last March, the profile was declining player coming off injury-filled season. But that is not what the Denver Broncos saw.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Jack DempseyDenver has limited pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware's workload this year, and he has responded with one of the best seasons of his career.
The Broncos looked down the road, projected a healed, managed, Ware into their defense, where the quality of the snap count would trump quantity. As executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has put it; "We thought once he got healthy, and if we could put him in the situations where he could be his best, he had a lot of football left in him, a lot of football."

As the Broncos head down the stretch toward the postseason with Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the team has monitored how much football Ware plays and gotten his best because of it.

Fourteen games into the season, with what the Broncos hope are the biggest games still to be played, Ware has played 669 snaps on defense or 70.3 percent of the defensive plays. There are times on early downs, sometimes even on pass-rush downs, when Ware is on the sideline.

Quanterus Smith, who has played 279 snaps, or 29.3 percent of the defense’s plays thus far, is usually the one working in Ware’s defensive end spot as the Broncos pick their spots for their member of the 100-sack club.

The result has been that Ware, at 32 and in his 10th season, feels, and has played, as good as ever.

"I feel like this right here is probably at this time in my career the best I’ve ever felt," Ware said. "I don’t feel like there are any dings on my body where it’s prohibiting me from doing certain things. Every player gets out here and they’re sore or they’re tired -- that comes with football. But once you rehabilitate yourself and recoup during the week and feel 100 percent before each game, I’ve felt that way this year and it feels great."

The result has been 10 sacks to go with just the third interception of his career. The Broncos also hope it allows Ware to power his way down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Last season he had one sack over the Cowboys' last six games, and in 2012, when he finished with 11.5 sacks, he had 1.5 sacks over the last six games. Ware has one sack in the Broncos’ current four-game win streak -- it was against the Kansas City Chiefs.

"We use a lot of people," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "We want people to be in the best situations for us for what we need to get done ... We’re always going to have (Ware) in the best situations."

For Ware it’s all about playing in his first postseason game since the 2009 season, and all about trying to reach the title game for the first time in his career. Following the game in Cincinnati, the Broncos will close out the regular season in Denver against the Oakland Raiders, with Denver still clinging to a chance at home-field advantage in the AFC if the Broncos win both remaining regular-season games and the New England Patriots lose one of their last two games.

"Every game I feel like is a must-win game," Ware said. "You’ve got to think about it that way, because you want to go into the postseason on a high and motivated. You can look at a lot of teams around the league -- some of them are trying to get in, some of them are trying to get a berth or wild card or whatever it is. Every game you’ve got to play like it’s your last one."

Broncos vs. Bengals preview

December, 19, 2014
12/19/14
8:00
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video
When: 8:30 p.m. ET Monday Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati TV: ESPN

Peyton Manning is good. Under the lights, the Cincinnati Bengals are not.

But if the Bengals have plans of joining the Denver Broncos as a playoff-bound team, they will have to overcome the future Hall of Fame quarterback and put to rest their atrocious recent prime-time showing.

Since 2011, the year Andy Dalton became its starting quarterback, Cincinnati is 2-9 in nationally televised playoff games and night games on Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights.

Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this week's "Monday Night Football" game:

Harvey: Manning is 8-0 against the Bengals, including a 3-0 mark against them in December. He has thrown 10 touchdowns and no interceptions against them in December. For the Bengals to have any hope of stopping him, what are two things their defense must do?

Legwold: As an opposing defensive coach told me this season, "I don't know why anybody needs to list the stats for him; let's just assume they're good against everybody and go from there." Manning has won at least eight games against 10 different teams in his career. And defensively, the formula is not complicated, yet difficult to do. Defenses who succeed against him generally create some kind of consistent pressure in the middle of the field -- they win the A gaps -- keeping him from setting his feet, and they don't give him room to climb the pocket to step into his throws. Those defenses also limit the Broncos' ability to use their variety of crossing routes. They play physically against the Broncos' receivers and limit yards after the catch because they tackle well. Not rocket science, but difficult to do because the Broncos are creative in play design. Manning delivers the ball quickly and consistently makes defenses pay for sending extra rushers (game video shows Manning had five completions this past weekend against the Chargers' blitz for 111 yards and a touchdown). So, a defense has to get all of that done largely by rushing four players, and it can't miss assignments behind that rush.

Defending a rookie in his first NFL start is one thing, and the Bengals did well in a 30-0 win against the Cleveland Browns with Johnny Manziel behind center last week, but how do you expect them to defend Manning?

Harvey: You just summed it up perfectly, Leggy. I'll add this. A defense can best stop Manning by sending a standard four-man rush and hope and pray the coverage downfield holds up. Last week, in fact, this was exactly what allowed the Bengals to bully Manziel. Only twice did they send blitzes on the mobile young quarterback. The rest of the time, they did exactly what you prescribed: They attacked the A gaps with great interior pressure from the line and forced Manziel to roll to his right. Obviously, Manning isn't rolling anywhere, but the Bengals have to hope Geno Atkins is up to pushing back the line the way he has finally started doing in recent weeks. With the Bengals also expected to use a lot of nickel defense to counter the Broncos' multi-receiver and tight end looks, don't be surprised if defensive end Wallace Gilberry goes inside to give some extra athleticism to the interior rush.

Jeff, it seems like over the past seven weeks, running back C.J. Anderson has exploded onto the scene for Denver. First, why did it take so long to get him involved in the run game, and second, what did Buffalo do so well to hold him in check two weeks ago?

Legwold: During the Broncos' offseason work, especially in minicamp, there was some thought around the team that Anderson's spot was pretty tenuous and that he might not make the roster because he had tried to bulk up a bit and looked sluggish. Anderson showed up to training camp leaner and looked far better, but Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman had already pushed their way in front of him. Anderson had routinely flashed in practice and in his limited game work, at least enough to stay in the mix, and when injuries forced the Broncos to hand him the ball, he showed patience and vision as a runner -- perhaps more than they thought he had -- and he almost always made the first defender miss or powered through the attempted tackle. If you're looking for a play that got everybody's attention, it was his 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown in Oakland when he made a one-handed grab on a screen pass -- a play Manning said he thought was "going to be a 1- or 2-yard loss" -- and five different Raiders had a chance to bring Anderson down and did not. In terms of Buffalo's plan, it was a sound group that was assignment-disciplined and tackled well; defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has faced Manning plenty over the years because of Schwartz's time with the Titans. The Bills came into the game against the Broncos leading the league in sacks, and they didn't sack Manning in the game. Anderson did pound the ball into the end zone three times, but his 2.8 yards per carry were the lowest since he became starter.

The Bengals are one of six teams averaging more than 30 rushing attempts per game this season; the Broncos are No. 2 in run defense. Do you think the Bengals will still try to pound away some to limit the Broncos' possessions, or because they believe they will be able to make some running room?

Harvey: One of the Bengals' most recent additions is NFL Players Association president Eric Winston, an offensive tackle who, before coming to Cincinnati three weeks ago, spent six seasons with the Texans and one with the Chiefs. He had an up-close look at Manning twice a season during the Texans' AFC South games when the quarterback still played for the Colts, and saw him twice in Kansas City in 2012. This week, Winston said those teams' mindset against Manning always involved running. So yes, I believe the run should, and will, be the Bengals' approach. Besides, Jeremy Hill has been running well in the past six weeks, topping 140 yards three times in that span. His hard running and guard Kevin Zeitler's constant pulling made for a nightmare day for Cleveland's defense. Also, I noticed that of the four times this season when teams have run 25 or more times against Denver, they beat the Broncos three times. To me, Cincinnati's best hope of winning is to run well, run often, get a late lead, and play keep-away from Manning.

Jeff, I'm sure the Broncos' many pass-rushers will be hounding Dalton all night, but why has Denver's front seven been so good against the run?

Legwold: Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is -- even nationally, perhaps -- an undervalued player when it comes to what he means to the Broncos' run defense. He's disruptive, ties up blockers and doesn't get turned in the hole. He stays square and takes away run lanes. The Broncos also have plenty of team speed across the front and pursue the ball well. Even their pass-rushers, like DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, are disciplined in their run fits. Ware especially has shown himself to be reliable in how he sets the edge, and as a result, offenses haven't been able to run the ball to the inside shoulders of Ware and Miller because they play with some vision as they move up the field. That wasn't always the case earlier in Miller's career, when offenses would catch him at times being a little too aggressive as he tried to get upfield. The Broncos have tackled well for the most part, too. They have helped themselves with good work on first down, as well. Offenses are routinely facing second-and-8 or third-and-7, and that takes those offenses out of any rhythm to run. For example, the Chargers ran the ball 10 times on first down last Sunday. Only one of the runs went for more than five yards -- an 11-yard run by Branden Oliver early in the fourth quarter -- and six went for three or fewer yards.

Few players take as much heat for their prime-time and/or postseason performance as Dalton. Is there significantly more pressure on him in this one given it is the "Monday Night Football" regular-season finale and the Bengals need the win to keep the inside track for a shot at the division title?

Harvey: It's more of the latter, Jeff. The pressure will be raised on Dalton this week because the Bengals simply have to get it done. Though there is an outside shot they will sneak into the playoffs as an AFC wild card if they lose the next two games, they would do themselves so many favors if they won at least one. The finale at Pittsburgh next week won't be a cakewalk, either. The heat Dalton has taken is real and deserved. It seems like he's mostly great at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoons. But turn on the lights and he's not. From a personal standpoint, Dalton wants to make up for his last nationally televised outing. The Bengals lost to Cleveland 24-3 in a Thursday night game last month in which Dalton registered a 2.0 passer rating.

Bills vs. Broncos preview

December, 5, 2014
12/05/14
8:00
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When: 4:05 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver TV: CBS

Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris pretty much spoke for any and all folks who still find themselves in the playoff conversation this week.

Asked what the Broncos (9-3) need to do over the last four games of the regular season, Harris said: "I've been saying, we need to treat every game like a playoff game because everybody we play is going to be looking at us like that. So, we need to be our best, play our best, because anybody we play is going to be doing that. You don't want to look back and think you let a game slip away."

The "fourth quarter" of the regular season, as Broncos coach John Fox calls it, starts with the Buffalo Bills' visit to Denver. The Bills (7-5) have designs on a playoff spot as well, and bring along a familiar face to Broncos fans in quarterback Kyle Orton.

Orton started 33 games for the Broncos before Denver's coaching staff benched him after the team's 1-4 start in 2011, replacing him with Tim Tebow. Orton won the most recent game he started against the Broncos -- a 7-3 Chiefs win to close out that '11 season after Denver had released him.

ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Sunday's matchup.

Legwold: Mike, the Bills have had an ownership change this season, a home game in Detroit because of the enormous winter storm, and their share of injuries. How have they kept their balance, and do they feel like they are an ascending team?

Rodak: It definitely has been a season unlike any other for the Bills, especially when you consider their change at quarterback. From this perspective, players and coaches have shown poise throughout all of the bumps in the road. Buffalo's 38-3 win over the Jets at Ford Field two weeks ago was a good example of that: Despite the upheaval of its normal week of preparation, the team turned in its best all-around game of the season. Players have credited a long training camp (they stayed in dorms for nearly five weeks), an extra preseason trip to Canton, Ohio, and two days of joint practices with the Steelers on the road with helping the team bond. So when some of these outside factors have invaded, the team has responded well.

Jeff, I get the sense that Bills fans have some hope in this game after watching the Dolphins go into Denver a few weeks ago and nearly take down the Broncos. Between that game and Denver's loss to the Rams a week earlier, what made the Broncos so vulnerable?

Legwold: Denver's 22-7 loss to the Rams in St. Louis is certainly one that got most people's attention. So much so that this past Sunday, the Chiefs tried to run the same play the Rams used for a 63-yard scoring pass. It didn't work for the Chiefs, a small indication the Broncos learned at least some of their lessons from a bad outing in St. Louis. For the most part, the same formula gets the Broncos in trouble at times. They allow pressure on quarterback Peyton Manning in the middle of the field, they don't run the ball effectively enough to slow down opposing pass-rushers with play-action, and they don't defend the run well enough out of some of their specialty packages on defense. The hangover from the Rams loss lasted until almost halftime of the following week's game against the Dolphins, when the Broncos trailed Miami 21-10 with less than two minutes to go in the first half. But Manning and the Broncos put together an 80-yard touchdown drive before halftime, dominated the second half against the Dolphins, and overpowered the Chiefs this past Sunday. They've used a far more balanced look on offense -- 80 run plays over the past two games -- and it has settled things down on both sides of the ball.

Staying with the quarterbacks: Orton arrives to face his former employer with a team in the playoff mix. How has he played for the Bills?

Rodak: Orton has teetered between adequate and inadequate -- never truly great and never a disaster. His QBR since taking over the starting job is 44.1, which is ahead of only a handful of other quarterbacks, some of whom have lost their jobs. He's been worse over the past month than he was in his first month as the starter, losing some of his accuracy that made him an instant upgrade over EJ Manuel. Orton completed 67.4 percent of his passes and averaged eight yards per attempt over his first four starts. His completion percentage has dropped to 61.3 over his past four starts, while he's been averaging 5.81 yards per attempt. Yet it's still arguably better than what the Bills were getting from Manuel over the first four games -- a 58 percent completion rate and 6.4 yards per attempt -- so Orton remains the starter. As far as returning to Denver, Orton brushed off the notion of Sunday's game having any extra meaning when we asked him about it Wednesday. Of course, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz also did that before the Bills' game in Detroit this year, and he ended up getting carried off the field, per his wishes. So you never know.

The strength of the Bills' defense is their line and its ability to create pressure, yet Manning is notorious for getting the ball out quickly. How well have opposing defenses been able to get pressure on Manning this season?

Legwold: The short answer is not very well overall. Manning, even with all of Denver's offensive line struggles, is still the least-sacked starter in the league (13 times). The Jets, 49ers and Rams are the only teams to have sacked him at least twice in a game. Those defenses that have some success usually have to do it with four rushers with the ability to drop seven players into coverage. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has had more success than most against Manning, routinely chooses coverage over pressure as he rushes three or four defenders at Manning much of the time. The pressure in the middle is the key since Manning tends to identify any potential pressure from the outside in his pre-snap work, and gets the ball out. Those teams that take away his ability to climb the pocket and step into his throws do far better against him. The Broncos, at least until the past two games, have surrendered more than their share of unblocked rushers in the A gaps. But as they have pounded out 201 and 214 yards rushing in the past two games, they slowed down the Dolphins' and Chiefs' fronts. The Raiders, Rams and Chiefs did bat down some of Manning's passes by making a conscious effort to get their hands up into the throwing lanes when they couldn't get to Manning.

In that vein, the Bills lead the league in sacks, and Marcell Dareus was a player the Broncos took a long look at in 2011 when they selected Von Miller. How aggressive do you think the Bills will be in coming after Manning?

Rodak: I wouldn't expect them to blitz much. First of all, that's not their forte; they've done an excellent job generating pressure just from their four-man line, which includes three Pro Bowlers and can be considered the best in the NFL. Because of their strength up front, they've blitzed on just 19.8 percent of plays, the third-lowest rate in the league. Second of all, I don't think blitzing Manning is the wisest idea, given his ability to diagnose defenses and get the ball out quickly. Manning averages 2.22 seconds before he passes, the quickest rate in the NFL. The better strategy from the Bills may be to drop more players into coverage. There aren't many weaknesses on this defense, but their secondary and linebackers have shown some vulnerability when their front four isn't as effective. Having the numbers advantage against the Broncos' receivers should help.

Opposing defenses have tried (and succeeded) in taking Sammy Watkins out of the Bills' most recent games, whether it's been by "rolling" coverage or putting a top cover man on the rookie. How well-equipped are the Broncos to do that?

Legwold: When all hands are in the lineup, the Broncos have two matchup cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and Harris. That gives them more flexibility than most in how they disperse their resources in coverage. Champ Bailey said last month that Harris is playing "the best of anybody at his position in the league," and the Broncos use Harris all over the formation since he has been the nickel cornerback early in his career, so he can play the outside spots or in the slot on either side of the formation with equal comfort. Rookie Bradley Roby has also played well enough. He should get at least some consideration for defensive rookie of the year. The Broncos do play more man coverage than most teams in the league, so there is always potential for a big play if a receiver can win the matchup down the field before Miller and DeMarcus Ware disrupt things up front. Miller and Ware are a key part of the coverage equation as well. Overall, the Broncos have surrendered just 11 pass plays of more than 25 yards, and no team has had more than two pass plays of more than 25 yards in any game against them this season. There are opportunities for offenses, it's just that when receivers have found some room to get open, Miller and Ware have closed the deal before the quarterback can deliver the ball.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In a league that puts its franchise quarterbacks on the tallest of pedestals as indispensable, coveted, oh-so-rare pieces of the championship equation, most pass-rushers have a slightly different view as they try to tackle the glamour guys.

DeMarcus Ware is in his 10th season chasing quarterbacks ans is part of the 100-sack club (127 and counting, with 10 this season). Ware said a skittish quarterback has a certain, well, odor.

Ware
Talking about a near-sack or two in the Broncos' victory over the Kansas City Chiefs this past Sunday night, Ware said Thursday: “At least I felt the quarterback, smelled him a little bit."

Asked what a nervous quarterback smelled like, Ware offered:

“Like smelly socks, jersey that’s been sitting in his locker for a long time, little skittish, you see ghosts coming from him a little bit when you get close to him. But a quarterback is a quarterback."

And asked if that meant even Manning, a future Hall of Famer who seems to set a record every time he throws a pass, smells like smelly socks as well, Ware said, with a smile, “Sometimes he does; I’m not going to lie."

Ware’s 10 sacks in 12 games mean he has reached double digits for the eighth time in his career, but he also believes he should have added to the one sack he was credited for in Sunday’s win. Ware said he should have earned some credit -- a half-sack perhaps -- on a sack awarded to linebacker Brandon Marshall and another that was awarded to safety Quinton Carter.

“I was too low, maybe I was too fast -- maybe they didn’t see (No.) 94,’’ Ware said. “They didn’t see him by the quarterback when they had the ball. But I do have the pictures. So, I’m still going to turn them in and see if they change their minds. … On one of them, me and Brandon Marshall hit at the same time and … I twisted him and I know I’m on top of the quarterback, I know I got him, but no, they still gave it to Brandon. And then [Carter] came in on a blitz, and he hit him first, I hit him second, I took him down, still, gave it to Q."

It means Ware might add a little more post-play activity if he believes it would help his cause.

“I think I’m going to do that, the guy who gets up and celebrates [is] usually the guy they give the sack to," Ware said. “So, I’m going to start celebrating again … if I just tap him, I’m going to celebrate."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Before each game, Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware tapes his wrists and hands so tightly, and at such an angle, he has said, “I’m not sure I could even catch a ball if it dropped into my hands."

As Ware comes down the stretch toward what would be his first chance to play in a postseason game since 2009, he has answered questions about his health, how much he has left in the career tank and, now, the answer to the interception question. Ware reeled an Alex Smith pass deflected by defensive tackle Terrance Knighton in the third quarter of Sunday’s victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. It was Ware's third career interception.

“I lost the ball in the lights, and I’m like, 'Is it close enough for me to catch it?'" Ware said. “When it fell in my hands, I actually panicked. I turned around, it was like a 360 and I was like, 'Where is everybody?' And then I look and I seen like the red jerseys and I said, ‘Oh, I need to go this way,’ because all of [the Chiefs] were right there in front of me. That was a big play ... and I finally figured out where I was going."

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Reed HoffmannBroncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware made his first interception since 2006 on Sunday against the Chiefs.
It was just one play, but it was yet another example that Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway’s mantra in free agency has worked out just fine. Elway, just after the Broncos signed both quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012 and Ware this past March, said, “I like to get Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders."

Manning has continued to pile up touchdown passes and wins, and Ware needs two more sacks to have his best season statistically since his 19.5 sacks in 2011. The Broncos took some financial risk in signing Ware, who was coming off a six-sack season in 2013 in which he missed the first three games of his career because of injuries. The Dallas Cowboys considered him a declining player.

While the contracts given to Aqib Taib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders had significantly less salary-cap risk after the first seasons if things didn’t work out, Ware was the oldest player -- the only 30-something -- in the Broncos' initial spending binge this past March. And his three-year, $30 million deal had $16.5 million guaranteed as soon as Ware signed the deal and another $3.5 million that’s guaranteed on fifth day of the new league year next March.

But now, 12 games into Ware’s first season in Denver, it certainly looks like everybody got what they hoped to get.

“DeMarcus? DeMarcus has shown he’s still got it; everybody can see that," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “A lot of people were saying stuff about DeMarcus about his game. But his game is still at the top, and I think he’s just going to get better and better as we, you know, chase quarterbacks more and more."

Ware has 10 sacks, tied for eighth in the NFL. It's his eighth season with at least 10 sacks. And his presence has prevented offenses from piling too many blockers on Miller’s side of the formation as well. Miller has 12 sacks, tied for fourth in the league.

Ware signed with Denver in the hopes that the Broncos could lead him to the playoffs, that games in December and January would push him to the one in February.

In nine seasons with the Cowboys, Ware played in four playoff games, with appearances to close out the 2006, 2007 and 2009 seasons.

“I’ve been in December seasons where you are already in at 8-8," Ware said. “But now, being 9-3 and looking for some kind of playoff berth and make it to the end, where everybody wants to make it and that’s the Super Bowl. But you’ve got to take it one game at a time and just ... attack it each week."

Ware leads the Broncos with 14 tackles for loss and is second in sacks behind Miller, and his 34 tackles are already more than he had all of last season (24). In Sunday’s win over the Chiefs, Ware had a sack and two tackles for loss to go with the interception.

Asked Thursday whether it was his best game since he signed with the Broncos, Ware also gave the answer the Broncos want to hear as well.

“I think the best is yet to come."
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If you were to make a list of the conditions the Denver Broncos didn't want in a football game, Sunday night included most of them.

The game was:
  • A. On the road.
  • B. Windy.
  • C. Frigid.
  • D. And quarterback Peyton Manning simply wasn't going to be in a position to carry them to the win.

Yet, in a rather tidy show of what Denver is going to need to be in the postseason, the Broncos flashed their playoff profile with a power-run game fueled by C.J. Anderson, a dominant defense and a variety of game-tilting special teams plays in a 29-16 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

"It has to be like that," defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. "Defensively, we have to stop the run. Offensively, they've got to come with that tenacity where they run the ball when we need to and like they did. The last two weeks, what, they rushed 200-some yards? That's very big. We have to play like that every week, and we showed people we can have that look."

The Chiefs, at least on paper, completed Job 1 against the Broncos. They kept Manning from beating them.

Manning finished with a season-low 179 yards passing, a season-low 17 completions and a season-low 50 percent completion percentage in a game that started with a windchill of 14 degrees and only got colder and windier as the night went on. Yet, the Broncos won by 13 points.

They did it with Anderson growing into a No. 1 running back right before the Broncos' eyes. Anderson, who suddenly finds himself as the team's workhorse back after injuries to Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, finished with 168 yards on 32 carries.

Last week, in the win over the Miami Dolphins, Anderson had 167 yards. He is the first back in the league since Adrian Peterson in the 2012 season to have back-to-back games of at least 150 yards rushing. The Broncos' 214 yards rushing yards gave them back-to-back games of at least 200 yards on the ground.

Asked about that balanced, grind-it-out look, Manning said: "I like it, I like it. I like winning games." He then added: "Our offensive line was awesome."

"We knew to give us a chance to win we had to stop the run," Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston said. "And we didn't do it."

The Broncos dove-tailed Anderson's work in the run game with a get-it-done defense, despite having two of their top four cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib (left hamstring) and Kayvon Webster (right shoulder) -- out of the lineup. The Chiefs had minus-10 yards to their credit at the end of the first quarter and wound up with a paltry 151 total yards. They finished with five drives that were three-and-outs, three in the opening quarter.

The Broncos registered six sacks for 43 yards plus 12 hits on Alex Smith. Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr. shadowed Dwayne Bowe all over the formation and held him to two catches for 18 yards.

"It was a good day for us," linebacker Von Miller said. "We knew it was going to a tough kind of game. … We stopped a lot of stuff they were trying to do."

Toss in five field goals from Connor Barth, who has been a Broncos kicker since Tuesday, a fake punt that turned into a fourth-down conversion by safety David Bruton Jr. and Omar Bolden's recovery of a Broncos punt that bounced off Chiefs cornerback Marcus Cooper's left leg, and you have the full everything-but-Manning win many have wondered if Denver could pull off.

Two weeks ago in a dismal 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams, the Broncos had 10 rushing attempts, one of which was a kneel-down by Manning before halftime. In a Nov. 2 loss in New England, the Broncos' defense couldn't get the Patriots off the field, Brandon McManus missed a field goal and Denver looked out of sorts on a cold night.

The Broncos now have run the ball 80 times in their past two games, both wins. They've put themselves back in the conversation about the AFC's top seed, which they can earn if they win out and the Patriots stumble at least once.

"I think you need to be able to win different types of football games," Manning said.

"Sometimes, this is how it looks," Ware said. "You have to play in the cold. You have to win on the road. You have to be physical on both sides of the ball. We can do those things. We've shown we can do those things, and we want to be able to do whatever we need to do to win however we need to win. Those are the best teams."video
IRVING, Texas -- When Jason Garrett replaced Wade Phillips as head coach in the middle of the 2010 season, the Dallas Cowboys were a mess.

A 45-7 loss at Green Bay the previous week forced owner Jerry Jones to do something he never wanted to do: fire a coach during the season.

So in came Garrett, then the offensive coordinator, who was faced with taking on the New York Giants on the road in his first game.

The interim head coach wanted to change the culture around Valley Ranch, everything from dress codes to the approach. And the result, at least that day in East Rutherford. New Jersey worked.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsJason Garrett has changed the culture of the Cowboys since taking over as their coach.
 The Cowboys beat the Giants, 33-20, for Garrett's first victory.

"I remember we had a really good team, and we weren't winning," defensive end Anthony Spencer said of the time. "We needed a win. I loved Wade and the year before we went to the playoffs. But things just didn't work out for us the next year."

Many players didn't really know Garrett.

To deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur, Garrett was simply known for the color of his hair.

"Just knew him as Red and he was the quarterbacks coach, calling plays and then he goes by Coach Garrett," Ladouceur said. "Different freaking business now. I think he was overwhelmed, too I think every coach is thrown into it. It's like any job, you got to be a rookie at some point and you got to learn and learn on the fly, which as a NFL head coach, is even harder because you're scrutinized like crazy. But where we've been and where we're going and the way he's been handling [things] I think he's been doing a good job."

Of course, Garrett became the head coach permanently, and the Cowboys have finished the past three seasons at 8-8, missing a postseason berth with a loss in the regular-season finale.

Sunday night, Garrett takes his Cowboys, tied for first in the NFC East into MetLife Stadium again, to take on the Giants nearly four years since he became the coach.

A victory would give Garrett eight wins for the fourth consecutive season, and it would be the first time he's led a team to it's eight before December in his career. In the past three seasons, the Cowboys didn't earn it's eight victory until mid or late December.

Reaching eight victories now could fuel discussions the Cowboys might finally end their four-year playoff drought.

The players have brought into Garrett's one-game-at-a-time mantra. There are awards for scout team players, sayings posted on the walls of the practice facility about doing your job/not giving up and remaining focus on the task at hand.

Garrett has changed things from the hard nosed old-school approach of Bill Parcells and grandfatherly ways of Phillips, to how the Cowboys' did things in the 90s, when they won three Super Bowls.

Popular players such as outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware were released to make way for younger players.

“Well, we knew we had to make some hard decisions from the outset, and we had to make some decisions to move on from some players who had been cornerstone players for us and then get new players in here and along the way you have to compete. So that’s what we tried to do," Garrett said.

Along the way, they found a dominant running attack, which they have with DeMarco Murray who leads the league in rushing, and a young, hungry offensive line. The Cowboys invested three first round picks on linemen and changed the defense from a 3-4 to the 4-3, led by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli who demands his players hustle.

It's all changed for the better.

"My honest opinion, I’m just speaking on our personnel relationship, I didn’t too much understand his mindset because he went to Princeton, I’m from this small, country town [Lufkin, Texas], I didn’t understand his whole type of structure," wide receiver Dez Bryant said. "I used to always think, coach, he’s always on me, he’s always on me. I guess as I grew, he didn’t treat me no different as he treated the rest of the players. He seen a lot of potential in me, and I took that as he believed in me, so it was my job to show him what he want me to be or better, and I think he does an outstanding job with us. He don’t BS around with us. He lets us know the truth."

The truth is the Cowboys have a chance to do something for themselves in the next few weeks with a win on Sunday night. But it all started that windy day at MetLife when Garrett took over the Cowboys.

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