NFL Nation: Demaryius Thomas

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.
CHICAGO -- A reunion between John Fox and Adam Gase seemed realistic when San Francisco and Denver both bypassed Gase to fill their respective head-coaching vacancies.

But is it that simple?

Gase was scheduled to interview for the Chicago Bears offensive coordinator position on Wednesday, sources close to the situation tell ESPN, a full five days after Fox became the 15th head coach in franchise history.

Gase’s employment options have dwindled, so perhaps the 36-year old coordinator does reach an agreement with Fox to coordinate the Chicago offense.

[+] EnlargeAdam Gase and John Fox
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsAdam Gase, left, is scheduled to interview Wednesday to be the Bears' offensive coordinator.
But according to multiple NFL sources, the belief in league circles is that Fox and Gase were content to go their separate ways when Fox left the Broncos, who in turn plucked Gary Kubiak away from Baltimore to be Fox’s replacement.

One source noted that while Fox and Gase “have a strong mutual respect for one another,” they have differing views on offense, with Fox preferring a more traditional ground attack, mixing in impact plays down the field when available, while Gase is described as a “cutting edge offensive mind” who places of higher emphasis on passing the ball.

Fox is not opposed to throwing the football. Under Fox’s watch, Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad thrived in Carolina’s offensive system, and Fox reaped the rewards of having talented pass-catchers Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker in Denver.

However, Fox is known as an old-school head coach who comes from a hard-nosed defensive background.

Gase’s offense enjoyed tremendous success in Denver, led by one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, Peyton Manning. With Gase calling plays, the Broncos won 25 regular-season games, two straight division titles, and earned a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.

But for all the accolades, the organization and both men parted ways.

The Bears moved fast to snatch up Fox, but Gase remains in limbo, passed up not only for a handful of head-coaching gigs, but also for potential offensive coordinator openings in Atlanta, Jacksonville, Baltimore and Oakland.

Why?

One source explained that perhaps the reason Gase is still available is because teams have concerns that he will bolt after 2015 for a head-coaching job.

Does a team on the rebuild, such as the Bears, want to have to look for a new offensive coordinator after only one year?

It’s also curious that Fox didn’t move sooner to bring Gase aboard in Chicago, if in fact, the veteran head coach wants to rekindle their working relationship.

However, Gase has several things working in his favor in Chicago. He’s the son-in-law of longtime New Orleans Saints assistant coach Joe Vitt, who worked with Bears general manager Ryan Pace. Gase and Pace have a good relationship. Gase also interviewed to be the Bears’ head coach before Fox and Pace were hired.

Maybe the Bears feel like Gase is simply the best available offensive coordinator (he probably is), and whatever professional disagreements exist between Fox and Gase can be squashed.

But if for whatever reason the Bears decide to let Gase leave Wednesday without a contract, remember that Fox has a proven track record of finding quality assistant coaches -- including Gase, Mike McCoy, Dennis Allen and Jack Del Rio.

The head coach always has the final say on the coaching staff. If Fox doesn’t want to reunite with Gase, then so be it. Fox’s background earns him the benefit of the doubt.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have opened their search for a new head coach in earnest. And the elephant in the room is that John Fox is no longer the team’s head coach after four consecutive division titles, 46 regular-season wins, and one Super Bowl trip.

So if that’s not what executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway wants, what kind of coach would fit the bill? Well, it will be one who better know the job description.

A guy who understands the key words

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJohn Elway demands a high level of success from his head coaches, something the new Broncos coach must be able to handle.
Since Fox and the Broncos “parted ways," there has been some surprise by the move from Elway. Perhaps folks just weren’t paying attention.

On the day Elway was first introduced in his current job -- Jan. 5, 2011 -- he said this;

“When you go back to the culture of the Denver Broncos -- and the culture is winning, and the culture is competing for World Championships -- we have been there before and we know we can do it."

He said this at Tuesday's announcement of Fox's departure: “I look for a guy that’s very smart, that’s competitive, that is aching to win world championships like I am."

Moral of the story? If you don’t want to live the Super-Bowl-or-bust life, don’t accept the job.

A guy who can work with Elway. A guy Elway wants to work with.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is really the only guy who lives a life similar to Denver's coach, as his general manager is Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome.

Elway casts a big shadow in this city; he’s a Super Bowl winning quarterback who's led the Broncos to countless comeback wins. He’s seen his Super Bowl dreams shattered more than once, lived life in the fishbowl, and has felt what it took to finally hoist the trophy.

As a result he’s going to have some ideas on the topic. The buzz around the Broncos’ complex is that Elway and Fox were drifting apart on personnel matters a bit, and there were some who believed Fox didn’t think his voice was being heard enough on those matters.

That’s often the tone of the discussion after a football divorce, but either way Elway and new head coach have to get on the same page -- that “like-minded’’ area Elway talked about Tuesday.

A guy who knows expectations await

The Broncos have 10 players in the Pro Bowl. There’s plenty to work with on a roster that has won 38 regular-season games over the last three seasons. Elway and Fox shook hands and parted ways not because of how things went between September and December, but because Elway and team CEO Joe Ellis did not like what the playoff exits looked like.

“I think if there is one thing that you would like to have and you want to feel, at least in the last game, you want to feel like you go out kicking and screaming," Elway said. “When you’re right there and I think two years in a row it didn’t feel like we went out kicking and screaming because of the fact the way we played the last game."

A guy who can embrace some change

The Broncos have 17 free agents. The list includes two of the team’s Pro Bowl selections in wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.

But it also includes starters such as defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, safety Rahim Moore, wide receiver Wes Welker, guard Orlando Franklin, tight end Jacob Tamme, tight end Virgil Green, and linebacker Nate Irving.

Add in the will-he or won’t-he decision quarterback Peyton Manning will make, and the Broncos will have to show plenty of flexibility as they usher in a new coaching staff to go with plenty of new faces on the roster.

Denver Broncos season report card

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
11:52
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video» AFC: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- From the moment the Denver Broncos got up off the mat after a 35-point loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII a year ago, they said 2014 would be different.

The Broncos never hid from their Super Bowl-or-bust beliefs. Offensive players said it, defensive players said it and as they won their fourth consecutive AFC West title, the Broncos, at least, had themselves in the mix to live up to it.

But much like the 2012 and 2013 seasons, 2014 ultimately became another year when the Broncos aced the class week after week, but simply failed the final. And it cost coach John Fox his job.

Team MVP: There are plenty of candidates. Quarterback Peyton Manning threw 39 touchdown passes, second in the league. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. played his way into some hard-earned recognition as one of the elite at his position. The Broncos had two 1,000-yard receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders while running back C.J. Anderson positioned himself as a future 1,000-yard rusher as the team’s lead back. But in the end linebacker Brandon Marshall gets it. He went from practice-squad guy to the first-team defense in 2013 to every-down linebacker in ’14. He led the team in tackles (110) despite missing two games with a foot injury. Marshall played in all personnel groupings and gave the defense some much-needed versatility in a year when two starting linebackers (Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving) ended up on injured reserve.

Best moment: There were plenty of double-take moments. There was Anderson’s improbable 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown in Oakland, just minutes from his hometown, when he seemingly ran through, or around, half the Raiders’ defense. There were Demaryius Thomas’ seven consecutive 100-yard receiving games. Or Harris' sustained excellence in the season. Still, tough to top history. On Oct. 19, in a 42-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Manning passed Brett Favre as the league’s all-time leader in touchdown passes with 509. Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for an 8-yard score with 3:09 remaining in the first half of the game for that 509th career scoring throw. By season’s end Manning had pushed his career regular-season total to 530.

Worst moment: The 24-13 playoff loss to Indianapolis meant yet another season of Super Bowl ambitions that were not met. But in terms of singular moments that were difficult for the Broncos to overcome, Trevathan's third left leg injury of the season may have been the toughest. Trevathan, who was the team’s leading tackler in 2013, suffered a fracture at the top of his tibia in training camp, then Oct. 12 suffered another left leg fracture and, finally, Dec. 14 suffered a dislocated left kneecap against the San Diego Chargers.

2015 outlook: The Broncos face whether Manning will return. On Christmas Eve, Manning said he would be back in 2015, but then backed off that statement following the team’s loss to the Colts Sunday. After the game, Manning said “I could not say that" when asked if he was coming back in '15. Beyond that the Broncos have 17 free agents -- unrestricted or restricted combined -- including Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Terrance Knighton, Wes Welker and Rahim Moore. They have a core of playmakers on a team that has won four consecutive division titles, but the offensive line needs some attention. With the clock ticking on Manning's career, the Broncos need to decide whether Brock Osweiler is next in line or if there is more work to be done there.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Almost everyone in the NFL dreams big in March.

Moves are made and checks are written (free agents are far from free).

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware, Von Miller
Kevin Terrell/AP ImagesThe Broncos hope their revamped defense will be the difference-maker in the postseason.
And for many, the tone of spring conversation is filled with football sunshine and Super Bowl rainbows.

The Denver Broncos were certainly one of those teams, having dropped big coin in free agency to revamp their defense and help give them “the mindset,” as John Elway has put it, to win a championship. Well, it’s January, the bill has come and it’s time for that improved, fast, athletic, championship-worthy defense to play that way until no more games remain this season.

Because, as the adage goes, defense travels. It was true decades ago, and despite the league's constant zeal to pump up scoring, it's still true now.

“I think guys in this locker room, in this defense, are ready for that,” defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “We want that.”

Or as safety Rahim Moore put it: “Nobody remembers what you did in September, October, November, December. All they care about is January and this team right here.”

Yes, the Broncos still have Peyton Manning at quarterback, they have an elite receiver in Demaryius Thomas, and despite all of the hand-wringing about their offense at times, they did finish second in the league in scoring, at 30.1 points per game.

But Denver has seen this offense-driven movie before. Last season the Broncos scored more points -- 606 -- than any team in league history. They had five players with at least 10 touchdowns when no other team in NFL history has had more than three. And none of it was enough when push really came to shove last February.

Because that’s when the Broncos picked the worst day to have a bad day and were trampled by the Seattle Seahawks in a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Those who know Elway will say he's the most competitive human being they have encountered whether the arena is business, football or both. And armed with the Broncos’ checkbook as well as the blessing of the Bowlen family and team CEO Joe Ellis, Elway did what he has often done in his football life: He took aim at the defense.

Elway signed defensive end DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. He also drafted cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round. Add those four to a group that already included Knighton, Moore, Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr., and the Broncos improved from 14th in total defense (356 yards per game) to third (305.2).

Elway's aim was not just for games like this against the Indianapolis, but for a month like this, to get through whatever the postseason throws at the Broncos, to give them the ability to be far more than another pretty face without a trophy in the case. Elway was also making the Broncos into the kind of team that put two Super Bowl rings on his own fingers.

He built a team that can stop people, force turnovers, run the ball and not need the quarterback to be some kind of touchdown-throwing machine.

The Broncos will certainly need Manning to be better this postseason than he was in the Super Bowl last February. And they’ll need better special teams to go with a run game that’s more than a decorative item in the playbook.

But what would give them a real championship pedigree, what would make them a team that turns a question mark into an exclamation point, is if the Broncos' defense, which was bought and paid for in the offseason, finds that level Knighton has described as “being that group that, no matter what the offense does, has an answer.”

Because if the Broncos are good on defense, they are a title contender. But if they are great, they can be a champion.

Broncos vs. Colts preview

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
8:00
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When: 4:40 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High TV: CBS

For many, well, for most everybody really, it will be difficult to get past the quarterbacks in this one. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will face his former team and the player the Indianapolis Colts selected with the No. 1 pick in the draft, Andrew Luck, just after the Colts released Manning in early 2012 -- all with a slot in the AFC Championship Game on the line.

In some ways there is a bit of old-news flavor to this divisional-round game given it will actually be the third time Manning will face his former team after a meeting in Indianapolis in 2013 (a Colts win) and this year's regular-season opener in Denver (a Broncos win).

But this is the first postseason dance. The Broncos (12-4) are trying to earn a return trip to the Super Bowl and the Colts (12-5) are trying to keep the momentum they earned with Sunday's wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at the quarterbacks as well as other issues in the playoff matchup.

Legwold: Mike, any concern there, even with Luck's heroics, the offense has become too one-dimensional? And how much could they adjust in a week?

Wells: The Colts are one-dimensional on offense. They didn't become one-dimensional on purpose. The goal was for them to have a balanced offense. That thought vanished when Ahmad Bradshaw was lost for the season in the middle of November because of a fractured fibula. Trent Richardson has been so much of a disappointment that he's now the No. 3 running back for the Colts. The Colts finished 22nd in the league in the rushing department during the regular season. The only hope the Colts have in the running department is with Daniel "Boom" Herron. He rushed 12 times for 56 yards and a touchdown against Cincinnati on Sunday. Besides that, Luck's arm will have to carry the offense. The Colts are fine with that because he did lead the NFL in touchdown passes during the regular season and was third in passing yards.

Running back CJ Anderson only carried the ball four times in the Week 1 matchup with the Colts. He had back-to-back games of 167 and 168 yards rushing during the regular season. How much has he helped take the load off of Manning and the passing game?

Legwold: Since an inexplicable loss Nov. 16 in St. Louis, when the Broncos ran the ball just 10 times, they have tried to balance things out the offense. They have run the ball at least 29 times in five of the last six games to close out the regular season. The exception was a 19-carry effort in the loss in Cincinnati. So, when they've pounded the ball down the stretch they've won games. They showed a little more of their pass-first chops in the regular-season finale against Oakland, but Anderson is the No. 1 option in the run game right now. Anderson's roster spot was a rather large question mark when he arrived to offseason workouts too heavy and looked sluggish, but he showed up to training camp far leaner. And when Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman were both injured Anderson got his chance. He has shown vision and power when he runs the ball as well as a good awareness in pass protection to go with his work as a receiver. They've only shown it in glimpses thus far, but if the Broncos can find a way to smooth out the rough spots as they transition from run to pass during games, the offense could certainly be built to work in the grind-it-out environment of the postseason.

Wes Welker didn't play in the season opener for the Broncos, Demaryius Thomas lined up in the slot because of that without a lot of success so it was tight end Julius Thomas who finished with three touchdown catches -- all in the second quarter. What do you think the Colts expect from the Broncos' offense this time around?

Wells: The Colts know Manning will be Manning. The difference for them is Anderson. The last thing the Colts can afford is for Anderson to get going early because it plays right into the hands of Manning with the play-action pass game. Manning is lethal even when he doesn't have a running game behind him. He's going to be almost impossible to stop if Anderson has the Colts on their heels in the running game. I asked former Broncos safety Mike Adams what's the biggest difference with Denver since their Week 1 matchup and the first player he mentioned was Anderson. The Colts have to find a way to put pressure on Manning when he drops back in the pocket. Good luck with that. Manning was only sacked 17 times during regular season. The Colts were 25th in the league in sacks.

The Broncos' defense sacked Luck three times and picked him off twice back in September. What is the key from Denver's defensive perspective in slowing down Luck and the offense?

Legwold: If there is one play in this past Sunday's game that showed the task at hand for the Broncos it was Luck's touchdown throw to Donte Moncrief with Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap wrapped around Luck's leg as he made the throw. The Broncos see Luck as a power runner in a pocket passer's body, a combination that is difficult to handle. It's not that they have to just get to Luck, but they have to get him down when they get there. Luck has shown himself to be particularly adept at escaping four-man rush packages that close in on him, especially if the two edge-rushers get too wide or rush too deep into the backfield in their efforts to get to him. The Broncos will try to keep him contained, allow a secondary with three Pro Bowl players to cover and force Luck to stay put, hold the ball and work through his progressions. Down and distance will also be important. If the Broncos don't allow the Colts much production on first down, they'll get the option of using some of their specialty packages, with five, six or seven defensive backs. Opposing quarterbacks have had some trouble moving the ball against those looks.

In the end, we all know about the quarterbacks, we all will be watching them perform Sunday, but if you had to name one or two other players who have to have an elite player type of day for the Colts to win, who would it be?

Wells: Linebacker Jerrell Freeman. As you recall, Jeff, Broncos tight end Julius Thomas dominated the Colts on that Sunday night in early September. Thomas had seven receptions for 104 yards and three touchdowns. The Colts tried a number of different players on Thomas, even safety LaRon Landry. None of those players could slow him down. You can expect Freeman to spend a lot of time defending Thomas. Freeman is coming off his best game of the season when he had a season-high 15 tackles to go with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He's the only Colts linebacker athletic enough to defend Thomas.

Still, it wouldn't be right if we previewed this game and I didn't ask a Manning question because of the obvious connection with the Indianapolis. Manning said earlier this season that he'll be back as long as the Broncos will have him. You've been around him for the past three seasons, how many years do you think he has in that arm?

Legwold: Most folks look at Manning's right arm when they discuss his future, how he throws, the velocity on the ball, his ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field. But in terms of how many seasons he will play beyond this one, I believe in many ways he will make the call on when to call it a career, by how his legs are doing. He often talks about the “ability to move around and protect yourself,'' as being an important part of how he feels. And it is worth noting -- and I see him in practice every day -- he still throws the ball much the same as when he arrived in Denver in 2012 and that all of his injuries, at least the ones serious enough to show up on the injury reports, have been leg injuries. Last year he injured, and re-injured, both ankles and played with pain down the stretch. And this year he suffered a right thigh injury in a December win over the San Diego Chargers that affected his ability to plant and throw down the stretch. In the end, Manning has already said he plans to come back next season. His contract runs through 2016 and there are some in the Broncos organization who could see him finishing out the deal, but it will depend on Manning's health overall, including his ability to move in the pocket, to slide and to keep himself out of harm's way.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Early in the season there was a thought Julius Thomas was taking his breakout season of 2013 – 65 catches and 12 touchdowns -- and making it look like a football hors d’oeuvre.

As he punished the Indianapolis Colts in the regular-season opener on the way to seven catches, 107 yards and three touchdowns in the second quarter of a Broncos win, Thomas looked to be headed toward his first 1,000-yard season and a place in the best-at-the-position conversation.

The Colts are again on the Broncos’ docket four months later, this time in a Divisional round playoff game, but this time Thomas is hoping to re-gain some of that September mojo.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
John Leyba/Getty ImagesJulius Thomas is hoping the bye week will get him back in the flow of the Denver Broncos' offense.
“I’m just excited about playing in the playoffs," Thomas said Monday. “It’s a great opportunity. It’s something that you can’t take for granted. To go out there and play and give your team a chance to possibly get back to the Super Bowl is great. I was able to have a lot of success against them in that first game. I would imagine they will do some things a little bit differently. So you can’t say, ‘I had a great game against them the first time. I’ll have three touchdowns on them again.’ You just never really know."

In the nine games following that opening-night touchdown binge, Thomas caught nine more touchdown passes. By the time the Broncos played in St. Louis Nov. 16, Thomas had a league-leading 12 touchdown receptions. But Thomas injured his left ankle in that game and is still working his way back from that.

He missed two games and was in uniform for a third without playing a snap. He had a combined three catches for 63 yards with no touchdowns in the final three games.

Thomas played 33 snaps on offense in the Broncos' regular-season finale, but was not targeted on any of Peyton Manning’s pass attempts. That was the first time Thomas didn't have an reception in a game he played in since Sept. 30, 2012.

It’s why Thomas hopes the Broncos’ bye week, which came with three full days off for the players and four days off from on-field work, will put him in a position to test the Colts' defense once again.

“It was a big week for me," Thomas said. “It was good to get some rest. Every doctor will tell you the most important thing is rest, but it’s tough to do in the middle of the season. So I got a little bit of time to stay off it and get some treatment on it. It went well."

The Broncos did not hold Thomas out of their two practices last week as they did with others such as Manning, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Broncos head coach John Fox has consistently said he believes Julius Thomas is making progress, something Thomas agrees with.

Still, Thomas, who missed much of his first two seasons with a severe ankle injury, has said the current injury is “nothing like" the one he suffered on his first NFL catch in 2011.

“I feel better," Thomas said following Monday's workout. “(I was) able to loosen things up a little bit and start to have a little more movement out there, so it’s definitely coming along."

Despite all of the hand-wringing about the Broncos’ offense as they tried to add some more pop in the run game, the team still finished with the No. 2 scoring offense in the league behind Green Bay. And the 482 points was the third-highest single-season total in franchise history.

But Thomas' re-emergence in the offense would give the Broncos their full allotment of match-up issues for an opposing defense. It would also make it more difficult for defenses to crowd the Broncos’ beloved crossing routes, something defenses have done with more success since Thomas’ injury.

“Even though we’ve been fortunate enough to be in the playoffs four years in a row, it’s not something that guys get," Thomas said of another postseason chance. “We have to make sure we relish this opportunity. But I think you don’t need to be reminded."

2015 Denver Broncos free agents

January, 5, 2015
Jan 5
8:00
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos have 18 players – or 34 percent of the roster – who will either be unrestricted or restricted free agents as the team enters the 2015 season. Two of those players have been Pro Bowl selections with the team in Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas. The new league year opens at 2 p.m. Mountain Time March 10, when unrestricted free agents can sign with any team and restricted free agents can secure offers of which the Broncos would have to decide to match or let the player go.

Here’s a list of the Broncos unrestricted and restricted free agents:

Unrestricted:

Demaryius Thomas, wide receiver
Wes Welker, wide receiver
Jacob Tamme, tight end
Terrance Knighton, defensive tackle
Rahim Moore, safety
Orlando Franklin, guard/tackle
Nate Irving, linebacker
Quinton Carter, safety
Virgil Green, tight end
Julius Thomas, tight end
Will Montgomery, center
Tony Carter, cornerback
Mitch Unrein, defensive tackle
Ben Garland, guard

Restricted:

Brandon Marshall, linebacker
Steven Johnson, linebacker
Aaron Brewer, long snapper
Paul Cornick, tackle
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As far as playoff predictions go, here is one to get out of the way.

Quarterback Peyton Manning will not give much time, or public comment, to the idea he’s playing his former team in Sunday’s AFC Divisional round game in Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Indianapolis Colts, Manning's vocational home for 14 seasons before he signed in Denver after the Colts released him in 2012, earned the trip to Denver with a 26-10 victory Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Manning, who often says he doesn’t want to stroll down memory lane when he’s working toward something else, will almost certainly deflect the playoff angle with Indianapolis in the coming days.

Since signing with Denver, Manning has already faced the Colts in Indianapolis, during the 2013 season when the Colts played a tribute to Manning on the stadium's video boards. He also faced the Colts in Denver, in this season’s opener.

Just after the Colts defeated the Bengals on Sunday, Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas officially became the first Broncos player asked about the Manning-Colts connection.

"I think Peyton’s been doing fine," Thomas said. “I don’t know if it’s about hype. I know it’s just another playoff game. I can’t answer that question for him but I think he’ll be fine. We had them the first game of the season and he was fine. It’s a playoff game so it’s a little bit different because if you lose, you’re done and if you win, you keep going. I can’t really talk for Peyton, but I think he’s fine.”

Some weeks Manning, after 17 years and countless questions, will politely and respectfully offer the suggestion to go “look at some old clips or something like that." This figures, with the Broncos trying to earn their way back to the Super Bowl, to be one of those weeks.
DENVER -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Denver Broncos' 47-14 win Sunday over the Oakland Raiders at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:
    Thomas
    Thomas
  • Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had X-rays on his right middle finger after Sunday's victory and left the stadium with a splint. However, Thomas said he did not suffer a fracture. "It was a play in the second quarter," Thomas said. "I'll be all right." Thomas still finished with eight catches for 115 yards, but the injury probably resulted in a dropped touchdown pass with just under six minutes remaining in the third quarter. Thomas has played through a right ankle injury in recent weeks but set career bests in catches (111) and receiving yards (1,619) this season.
  • Safety David Bruton Jr. was taken off the field while strapped to a stretcher after a block in the back by defensive end Denico Autry during a Raiders punt return with 5:15 left in the game. Autry's hit was away from the play and directly on Bruton's back, replays showed. Bruton was taken by ambulance to a local hospital but was alert and had feeling in all of his extremities. He was released from the hospital shortly after the game and had been treated for a concussion. Several of Bruton's teammates saw the hit as unnecessary, dirty and worth a fine from the league. "That was straight flagrant," Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. "That shouldn't happen ... that shouldn't happen ever."
  • Thomas' season yardage total broke Rod Smith's franchise record, set in 2000. Smith was on the Broncos' sideline Sunday. "It means a lot to me because it was Rod Smith," Thomas said, adding that he has respect for what Smith accomplished in his career. "
  • Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who has dealt with a right thigh injury over the past three weeks -- he suffered it just before halftime in the team's Dec. 14 victory over the San Diego Chargers -- put himself among the list of players happy they earned a first-round bye. "Think this bye, we needed it. We're a little beat up physically -- I know I am," he said. Asked later how he felt at this point in the season, Manning said, "I feel like all the other players in that locker room -- guys that have played 17 weeks of physical football -- so I think this bye week is coming at a good time."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

December, 28, 2014
12/28/14
7:50
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DENVER – A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 47-14 win over the Oakland Raiders:

What it means: The Broncos, even with 22 players on their injury report this week, earned a needed and coveted bye week in the first round of the postseason. Denver also finished with an 8-0 record at home for just the sixth time since the schedule expanded to 16 games. The Broncos earned a home game in the divisional round and the AFC’s No. 2 seed.

Stock watch: Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas set a single-season yardage record with a second-quarter catch that, at that moment, gave him 1,614 for the year. He had 110 yards receiving by halftime -- his 10th 100-yard receiving game of the season -- and continues to be a matchup nightmare for defenses, despite the fact they give him a lot of attention. Thomas has played through an ankle injury in recent weeks and on Sunday battled through a finger injury as well. The Broncos won’t let the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent hit the open market. They’ll either sign him to a long-term deal or use the franchise player tag on him in 2015 as they continue to work toward a deal.

A nice addition: Running back Ronnie Hillman played in his first game since he suffered a left foot injury Nov. 9 in Oakland. His return gave the Broncos a little more pop in the offense. Hillman’s speed gave the Broncos a little different look Sunday, and he proved to be a quality option with C.J. Anderson in the run game. Anderson averaged 6.7 yards per carry with three rushing touchdowns in 13 carries, and Hillman averaged 3.7 yards per carry in 15 carries. Defenses have packed the middle on the Broncos in recent weeks. Hillman’s return, with his threat to the perimeter, should give Denver another way to clear some of that traffic out of the way.

Game ball: It’s been a season in which the Broncos have consistently been measured, especially on offense, against last year’s Super Bowl team. No player has had a quality season get lost in the comparison more than quarterback Peyton Manning. While linebacker Brandon Marshall certainly has a claim to be the team’s MVP this season, as do cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and wide receivers Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Manning overcame four changes in the offensive line, injuries at running back and another year in his own aging process, as the Broncos tried to diversify their offense mid-stream with more emphasis on the run game. He entered Sunday’s game as the league leader in touchdown passes -- Andrew Luck threw two TD passes Sunday to pass him -- and the Broncos, after finishing 12-4, are 38-10 in games he starts.

What’s next: The Broncos are expected to give the players a little bit of time off this week -- but not too much -- as they prepare for their first playoff opponent. They will clean up some loose ends on the practice field with some self-scouting work and hope the bye week gives them the opportunity to get as healthy as possible. The only significant injury added to the list Sunday was a concussion to guard Orlando Franklin.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are times this season, such as a 21-point third quarter Monday night in Cincinnati, when the Denver Broncos' offense looks every bit as comfortable in sling-it-around, go-fast mode as it did last season when it became the NFL's first team to score 600 points in a single season.

And there are times this season, such as a 45-carry, 214-yard rushing effort on a frigid night in Kansas City, when the Broncos have looked just as comfortable as a that's-going-to-leave-a-mark offense.

But with the regular-season finale approaching Sunday against the Oakland Raiders and the playoffs looming, the Broncos would like to smooth out some of the rough spots in between.

"Everybody is trying to find a rhythm and it's just like, 'Who's it going to be? Passing game? Run game? Is it going to be the quarterback, the running back, the wide receiver?'" said offensive coordinator Adam Gase on Friday. "The whole group, everybody's trying to find their own personal rhythm. That's where my job has to be, 'How do I get our whole group rolling in the right direction as fast as possible?' I think there have been some games where we've felt that way, where we've felt like, 'Alright we're going pretty good.'"

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsWith the playoffs looming, the Broncos' offense is still trying to find its rhythm.
It isn't as if the dark clouds of touchdown-less doom have swirled around the Broncos. With 435 points after 15 games, the current season still marks just the sixth time in franchise history the team has topped 400 points.

Yes, it's certainly a long way from last-season's 606 points, but that was uncharted ground before the Broncos went there in 2014. By comparison, the New England Patriots, who lead the league in scoring at the moment, need 41 points Sunday just to reach 500 this season.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning leads the league in touchdown passes with 39, and the Broncos have three players (Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders) with at least nine touchdowns.

"We're certainly capable of moving the ball and scoring points," Manning said.

However, there have been times when Manning has looked out of sorts. Monday night was his first four-interception game since 2010. Manning has struggled when the Broncos haven't protected well, haven't controlled the line of scrimmage and when they've let scoring opportunities slip away.

Often the 19- to 22-yard field goals are the glowing red symbols of drives that got away since those are drives that stalled inside the 5-yard line. This season, two Broncos kickers (Brandon McManus and Connor Barth) have made six field goals combined between 19 and 22 yards.

Turn those six drives alone into touchdowns and the Broncos are sitting at 459 points, or tied with the Patriots for the league lead.

After failing to come away with a title in either of the last two 13-3 seasons, the players understand one too many field goals, one too many sacks allowed, one too many missed blocks or one too many runs for negative yardage can be the difference in a playoff game.

"I think we just feel like there's more we can do," said Demaryius Thomas. "We want to be consistent. We have to be more consistent. When we get those opportunities to make plays, we all have to make them, we can't leave anything out there and sometime we leave plays out there."

Monday night it was exactly those things with Manning's four interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, a missed field goal right before halftime or the four plays for negative yardage (three runs, one pass).

"Got a little feel at the end of the first half [Monday] and then when we came out in the second half, that third quarter really felt good," Gase said. "[The players] kept coming back to the sidelines like, 'OK, I feel like we're getting it rolling pretty good here.' And in the fourth quarter we just kind of got stuck in a couple of situations where we had some game-changing type things happen. We thought we were alright and we either have a penalty, or we have a drop, or a sack or a tackle for loss that kind of changed the momentum of what we were doing in the fourth quarter. ... And we've had a couple games where we've had some rough starts and didn't really get going until the middle of the game or in that third quarter. So we've just got to try to find it earlier. The sooner we can find that rhythm in a game, the better it's going to be for our offense."

"I'm not sure if the tempo really is what it's about as much as just the execution," Manning said. "We just have to be more sound. I have to be more on the details, more on the little fundamentals to get us started, to give each play a chance to succeed. Hopefully I can do a better job of that this week."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos continued through their preparations Friday for the regular-season finale, the chances continue to increase that running back Ronnie Hillman will be part of the mix on offense Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

Hillman
Hillman, who has missed the last six games after suffering a left foot injury Nov. 9 against the Raiders, practiced fully again Friday. It meant Hillman was a full participant in all of the team's practices this week.

Before his injury, Hillman had taken a turn as the Broncos' lead back with 100 yards rushing in the win over the New York Jets on Oct. 12 and 109 yards rushing in an Oct. 23 win over the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos will be happy to have his speed back in the lineup. Of the team's eight runs of at least 20 yards this season, Hillman has three -- all three came in a three-game span in October -- and he's had two of the team's three runs of at least 30 yards.

"He's got good burst, good explosion, same things you saw before the injury," said Broncos head coach John Fox following Friday's practice. "He looks to be back in that form and we'll see how that goes, he hasn't played football in six weeks. Get nervous a little bit about that, but he has a good week of practice."

Hillman was formally listed as probable for Sunday's game.

Linebacker Brandon Marshall, who suffered a left foot injury in the Broncos' win in San Diego, did not practice this week and was formally ruled out of Sunday's game. Marshall did work with the strength and conditioning staff this week and continues to progress.

He would certainly benefit from a Broncos win on Sunday, which would give the team a bye in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Safety T.J. Ward, who suffered a neck injury in Monday night's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, was limited Friday and listed as questionable. Given the nature of the injury and the way Ward plays in the defense, the Broncos may be inclined to hold him out Sunday.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (hip) was also limited Friday and listed as questionable, but is expected to play. Reserve tackle Paul Cornick (toe on right foot) was the only other player limited in Friday's practice.

Again the Broncos had lengthy list of other players with injuries on the report who took part fully in Friday's practice, including Peyton Manning (right thigh), left tackle Ryan Clady (right thigh), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (right ankle), tight end Julius Thomas (left ankle) and running back C.J. Anderson (left ankle). All are listed as probable and expected to play.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tucked within a long injury report as the Denver Broncos prepare for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders was running back Ronnie Hillman taking part in his first full practice since he suffered a left foot injury Nov. 9 in the Broncos' first meeting of the season with the Raiders.

Hillman
It was also Hillman's first full practice since Nov. 7. Hillman has practiced at least some during the last two weeks, but has missed the six games since his injury.

And as defenses continue to pack the middle of the field to take away the Broncos' favorite routes in the passing game and crowd the line of scrimmage in the run game, Hillman's speed to the edge could be a welcome addition back into the offensive huddle.

"We've had a chance to watch him all week, participate and he's obviously further ahead than he was this time a week ago," said Broncos head coach John Fox following Wednesday's practice. "And the fact we're on grass, not on Astroturf, lot of variables, but I like what I see."

The Broncos have had a wave of illness go through the locker room in recent weeks with defensive end Derek Wolfe and quarterback Peyton Manning among those who have felt the effects.

Wednesday linebacker Lamin Barrow, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein and guard Manny Ramirez were all held out of practice because of illness. Linebacker Brandon Marshall (left foot) was also held out of practice.

Safety T.J. Ward (neck), who was injured in the fourth quarter of Monday's loss, took part in practice on a limited basis. Ward underwent X-rays at the stadium Monday night to go with some additional tests, including an MRI, on Tuesday after the team had returned to Denver.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (hip) and tackle Paul Cornick (toe on right foot) were also limited in practice.

The Broncos also listed 13 other players with injuries on the report who took part fully in Thursday's practice, including Manning (right thigh). Tight end Jacob Tamme, who has dealt with a rib injury in recent weeks, was listed with a foot injury and took part fully Wednesday.

Left tackle Ryan Clady (right thigh), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (right ankle), tight end Julius Thomas (left ankle) and running back C.J. Anderson (left ankle) were also among the players who took part fully in Wednesday's practice.
video » 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.

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