NFL Nation: Lance Ball

Broncos' day plays out on Twitter

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
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The Denver Broncos' top football executive, John Elway, has consistently preached the benefits of youth, homegrown players and in the era of the seven-round draft the importance of finding an undrafted rookie or two along the way who can help his team.

And as the Broncos made moves on the way to trimming their roster to 53 players, there was a little of each of those tenets.

The Broncos did not officially file most of their Friday moves to the NFL’s personnel department by the end of the day, meaning none of them are tabulated in their roster total until they do. (The only transaction they filed was an injury settlement with rookie wide receiver Quincy McDuffie.) But they did inform a small group of players that they were no longer with the team. Veteran running back Lance Ball was one of them, and he took to Twitter after getting the news:



Ball was always an "a-little-of-this, a-little-of-that" player for the Broncos over the last three seasons, a solid pro who played in 41 games for the team, including 15 last season and 16 in 2011. But as a vested player heading into his fifth season, Ball’s $1.323 million salary would be guaranteed if he is on the roster for the season opener. And with this move the Broncos appear to have cleared a spot on the running back depth chart for undrafted rookie C.J. Anderson.

At least that’s what Anderson believes, given that he took to Twitter to say "I'm a bronco." An hour or so, later Anderson followed with "Lets get 2 work."

It would mean the Broncos have had at least one undrafted rookie make the opening 53-man roster in 10 consecutive seasons. It would also mean the Broncos think enough of Anderson to keep him even though he could be three weeks away from being game-ready because of a sprained MCL suffered in practice following the Broncos’ first preseason game.

In that game, against the 49ers, Anderson finished with 69 yards on 15 carries. At 225 pounds, he also gives the Broncos' offense some short-yardage power, something they team has not always shown with the top three backs -– Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno. If the Broncos also keep Jacob Hester (he is the only back who has lined up at fullback for the team), that makes five running backs on the depth chart, the same total the Broncos kept last season when they made the cut to 53. The Broncos kept just four backs when they exited camp in 2011.

Anderson also sent a tweet to Hester on Friday that read (in part), "keep helping and being that great vet."

Also released Friday, according to several team sources, were wide receivers Gerell Robinson and Lamaar Thomas, cornerback Aaron Hester and linebacker Damien Holmes -- though again, none of those moves were formally filed to the league, and the Broncos could reverse field on Saturday. Of the four, Robinson would be the best candidate to land on the practice squad (that's where he was last season).

The Broncos can sign eight players to the practice squad beginning on Sunday.

The Broncos will have to make 17 more roster moves by 4 p.m. MT Saturday afternoon. They are expected to have made all of them by the time Elway is scheduled for a media gathering at 2 p.m.
The Denver Broncos, like the rest of the league, will tie a bow on the preseason Thursday night. Most of the team’s regulars will get the night off against the visiting Arizona Cardinals, but decisions still need to be made at a few spots at the back end of the roster.

With that in mind, some things to keep an eye on:

One of the most difficult spots for the Broncos to make cuts ahead of Saturday's deadline to pare the roster to 53 players -- the bulk of which will come Friday -- will be in the secondary.

The Broncos kept nine defensive backs on the opening-weekend roster in 2011 and 10 last season -- five cornerbacks and five safeties. The issue this year is that Denver has two young, homegrown cornerback prospects in Omar Bolden and rookie Kayvon Webster, who have shown themselves to be worthy of the roster and would raise the overall athleticism at the position.

With Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Rahim Moore, Duke Ihenacho, Chris Harris, David Bruton and Tony Carter having worked in the top seven slots all through the preseason, that doesn’t leave room for Webster, Bolden, Mike Adams and Quentin Jammer to all make it.

If the Broncos stick with nine players in the secondary, they are essentially choosing between youth and experience for those final two spots. If they keep an extra cornerback, however, it may be an indication they feel they need to open the season with some insurance for Bailey’s foot injury.

Unless Denver takes the uncharacteristic step and keeps 11 defensive backs, Bolden and Webster both figure to play plenty against the Cardinals to state their cases.

  • Brock Osweiler is slated to get the start at quarterback behind what is largely a backup line. That has been a tough combination thus far in the preseason for Osweiler, who has been sacked eight times in the three previous games behind the reserves. It makes it difficult for the Broncos to work out of the three-wide look as much as they’d like given that they haven’t consistently protected the quarterback in it -- even when the starters have been in the game -- this preseason. If things get dicey they might have to go big again, as they did last weekend against the Rams. After opening the game with three wide receivers and allowing too many rushers to get too close to Peyton Manning, the Broncos went to a two-tight-end look. They lined up in a two-tight-end look on 29 of the next 35 plays after the opening three-and-out, including all 12 in a drive that ended with a blocked field goal. The Broncos might feel like they need to give Osweiler a little more beef up front.
  • The last few rosters spots will be decided on special teams, and the Broncos could use a good showing there. In the past two games they have surrendered a 107-yard kickoff return for a score, a 33-yard punt return, an 81-yard punt return and seen a field goal blocked. Many of the Broncos' youngest players will have a chance to help their causes against Arizona, with Denver special-teams coach Jeff Rodgers looking for those who display speed and smarts.
  • [+] EnlargeKayvon Webster
    AP Photo/Eric BakkeCornerback Kayvon Webster, a third-round pick, gets a last chance tonight to show he deserves a roster spot.
    The Broncos have lost five fumbles in three preseason games -- two by Osweiler, two by Ronnie Hillman and one by Julius Thomas. Hillman is not expected to play Thursday, but things need to be cleaned up. Lance Ball and Jacob Hester figure to get some work as the Broncos face some tough decisions at running back as well. Hester has not had a carry in the preseason and is the only back that has lined up at fullback thus far.
  • The Broncos have to sort things out in the offensive line, where they kept nine players in both 2011 and last season. After the starting five -- Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin -- the Broncos need a swing tackle, likely Chris Clark, and a swing guard/center or two, with Ryan Lilja, Steve Vallos and Philip Blake in the mix. Blake, a fourth-round pick in 2012, has been headed the wrong way on the depth chart -- the Broncos didn’t even work him much at center in the preseason, a position he played in college and one they originally drafted him for. Blake is decidedly on the bubble -- a long way down for a player some believed was pushing to start before a thumb injury ended his rookie season. He has regressed since that point, so he's either not getting the message about the changes in the offense or is not reacting well to the coaching he's getting. Rookie tackle Vinston Painter has shown the kind of athleticism that deserves a roster spot, but the Broncos may be in a position where they have to hope he makes it through waivers so they can sign him to their practice squad. Lilja is a tough call, too. Denver certainly likes him in the offense, but he had microfracture surgery on his knee just a few months ago and has missed significant amount of practice time of late because of the knee.
  • Rookie quarterback Zac Dysert will likely get his most significant work of the preseason. Dysert has shown some quality scrambling skills in practice, so he could have an entertaining down or two if he gets loose. He projects to the practice squad, but the Broncos would like to see some better accuracy from the pocket, especially in the shorter and intermediate routes.
  • Linebacker Lerentee McCray and wide receiver Lamaar Thomas are the undrafted rookies with the best chance to make the final 53 -- especially McCray. If the Broncos don’t keep McCray, there are at least two other teams that would consider signing him. He’s a big-bodied linebacker who, while not always showing good instincts, has the ability to disrupt an offense and closes to the ball with speed and intent.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos wrapped up the public portion of training camp Thursday morning and quarterback Peyton Manning finished his day on the field by tossing a pass or two to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

In all the Broncos set an attendance record at their practice complex with 41,925 fans over the 15 open workouts held at their Dove Valley complex. The total surpassed the previous record of 41,304 over the 15 open workouts in last summer’s training camp, which was also Manning’s first year in Denver.

The Broncos do not have bleachers next to the main practice fields, so fans simply sit on a grassy hillside to view the action. The Broncos also drew a crowd of 44,439 to a rain-soaked scrimmage Aug. 3 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

“[The fans] are unbelievable,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox. “The epitome of that was our practice down at the stadium when it poured rain and they stuck around to see us play.’’

[+] EnlargeC.J. Anderson
AP Photo/Eric BakkeC.J. Anderson, who has had an impressive training camp, could now be out for as much as six weeks.
• Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, an undrafted rookie who led the team with 69 yards rushing in the preseason opener in San Francisco last week, severely sprained his right MCL during Thursday morning’s practice.

Anderson, who was taking snaps with the second-team offense because Knowshon Moreno is currently sidelined with a bruised right knee, was helped to the locker room with just more than 20 minutes remaining in the workout.

Depending on swelling and how Anderson’s rehab goes in the coming days he could miss as much as six weeks in all. The Broncos must cut to 75 players on Aug. 27 and to 53 players on Aug. 31.

"It's awful, just awful," Manning said. “ … It surely did not look good. You could hear him out there grimacing, which is not a sound any player likes to hear."

“He’s having such a great camp,’’ said cornerback Champ Bailey. “ … I just hope he can bounce back faster than normal.’’

With Moreno not expected to play in Saturday’s preseason game in Seattle after being held out of practices Wednesday and Thursday, Lance Ball figures to get plenty of work in the second half of the game against the Seahawks.

Anderson has made a significant jump on the depth chart with his work thus far in camp. At 224 pounds he is also the team’s biggest back and has looked like a potential fit for one of the reserve spots when the roster choices get made.

Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball have split work with the starters all the way through camp -- Hillman has been the No. 1 -- with Moreno working as the No. 3 and Jacob Hester the No. 4. Hester can play at running back when needed and at fullback when the team uses a two-back set. He is also one of the team’s most consistent pass protectors at the position and has a full docket of special teams work.

MCL sprains as severe as Anderson’s routinely take a minimum of four weeks to heal and players, particularly skill position players, usually are not ready for a full return until six weeks have passed.

The Broncos will likely have to consider Anderson’s progress when they make their roster decisions.

• Linebacker Von Miller was excused from practice for personal reasons -- he was in Washinton D.C. meeting with officials from the NFL Players Association -- so the Broncos offered a glimpse of how the defense would look to open the regular season if the All-Pro selection does not win his appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

As they have shown in recent days, Stewart Bradley would play the middle in the base defense while Nate Irving, who was the starting middle linebacker through all of the offseason program, lined up on the strong side. When the Broncos went to some of their specialty packages in passing down work, times when Miller moves to defensive end or another rush position, Shaun Phillips played in Miller’s usual spots.

“Shaun Phillips was in there playing linebacker and playing defensive end some on third downs and you had Nate Irving in there as well with Stewart Bradley,’’ Manning said. “Any time you have a player injured or a player that is not able to go, somebody else has to step up and that’s what teams have to be able to do.”

Miller is expected to start and play in Saturday’s game in Seattle.

• Broncos director of pro personnel Tom Heckert, who had been suspended without pay for a month in the wake of a drunk driving arrest in June, returned to the team Thursday. Heckert will travel to Seattle with the team Friday and has resumed his normal duties. He was arrested June 11 in Parker, Colo., just 36 days after he had been hired by the team.

“I walked by his office and he was all smiles,’’ Fox said. “It was good to see him back and we support him.’’

With Broncos’ director of player personnel Matt Russell also suspended indefinitely for a separate drunk driving arrest, Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway had not elected to hire an outside consultant or former general manager to help with player evaluations during the suspensions. Instead the duties were divided among other members of the Broncos' personnel department such as Lenny McGill, the team’s assistant college scouting director, and assistant pro personnel director Anthony “Champ” Kelly.

• Odds and ends:

With just more than 2,000 fans on hand Thursday, the Broncos still used a speaker system to simulate crowd noise when the offense had the ball in team drills … The starters are expected to play most, or all, of the first half Saturday night against the Seahawks … Bailey intercepted Manning in the endzone during team drills. When asked if he will enjoy watching it later on the practice video, Bailey said; “Oh yeah, love watching that. When Peyton throws it, it’s even more meaningful.’’

• In addition to Moreno, running back Jeremiah Johnson (knee), wide receiver Quincy McDuffie (hamstring), wide receiver Greg Orton (ankle), wide receiver Lamaar Thomas (concussion) and safety Quinton Carter (knee) were held out of practice. None are expected to play against the Seahawks unless they show significant improvement in Friday’s short workout before the team leaves. Tight end Joel Dreessen (knee) is still expected to miss the preseason.
A look at the Denver Broncos' roster and the Class of 2009 doesn't have as many players in the team's foundation as it should.

Those picks are now fifth-year players and should be several members of the core lineup -- poised to be signed for the long term with the team if things have gone the way it was hoped.

Just three draft picks -- running back Knowshon Moreno, defensive end Robert Ayers and safety David Bruton -- and two signed as free agents remain -- running back Lance Ball and punter Britton Colquitt.

Moreno is currently third on the depth chart at running back. Ayers is trying to make the most of his best to be an impact player in the defense after Elvis Dumervil's departure. Ball hopes he can do enough to carve out a roster spot. When the Broncos look to re-sign the players in that class, they have to go to special teams.

Earlier this offseason the Broncos signed Bruton, a safety/special teams ace, to a three-year, $5.5 million deal. Sunday the Broncos finished work on a three-year extension for Colquitt worth $11.7 million.

"Kind of surreal right now, hard to believe,'' Colquitt said. " ... I'm humbled and grateful ... I've already had a few of my friends and people text me 'my son's going to be a punter, I'm sending him to you when he's 15' or whatever. I always tell people special teams is the way to go.''

At least part of the depth issues the Broncos faced in the two previous seasons as well as in this training camp at times, can be traced to the significant hole left behind from both the 2009 and 2010 drafts.

The team selected 19 players combined in those two drafts, including four first-rounders. Ayers, Colquitt, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Zane Beadles are the only current starters from those two drafts -- center J.D. Walton, a 2010 pick, has also been a starter, but is currently on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.

Beadles, a second-round pick in 2010, is in the final year of his original deal and the Broncos will face a decision at the end of the season about his long-term value and future with the team.

Even Colquitt, now the highest-paid punter in the league at $3.9 million a year average on his deal, didn't stick at first in '09. He was cut at the end of training camp and was out of the league until the Dolphins signed him to the practice squad in December of that year.

Eight days after joining the Dolphins practice squad Colquitt was signed to the Broncos active roster to close out the '09 season and he has been with the Broncos since.

"It was very humbling not to make it (in camp) that year when I thought I could,'' Colquitt said.

In the end Colquitt and Bruton are good at what they do, and are needed pieces in a playoff team's puzzle. But the fact they are the two players to re-sign long-term from all who arrived in 2009 is also a sign that while the Broncos have made significant progress since 2010's 4-12 finish, the work isn't done.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC West team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Denver Broncos: The Broncos still have Willis McGahee, but he could become a salary-cap casualty. McGahee still runs hard and effectively (he’s averaged 4.4 and 4.8 yards the past two seasons), but this will be his 11th season and he missed six games in 2012. When McGahee went down last year, Knowshon Moreno filled in admirably. But his role is undefined right now after the Broncos used high picks on the position in the past two drafts. They used a second-rounder this year on Montee Ball, which was a win-now type of pick. Ball is a no-nonsense runner who handled a heavy workload in college. He fits this athletic zone scheme quite well, and I just have a hunch that John Elway saw a little of Terrell Davis in Ball when he made that selection. Ronnie Hillman was Denver’s third-round pick in 2012. With his lateral agility, Hillman is unlike any of the top backs on this roster. If he proves himself as a worthy pass protector, Hillman could be a very solid third-down back who also gets snaps on early down-and-distance situations. Lance Ball remains on the roster, but it seems like an uphill climb for him to make the final cut, which is also the case for Mario Fannin and Jeremiah Johnson. Of course, whoever is getting carries for Denver will be aided greatly by Peyton Manning’s fantastic skill of getting Denver in the correct play at the line of scrimmage and exploiting defenses that are playing the pass heavier than the run.

Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles is a superstar who could even get more productive, especially as a receiver, with Andy Reid as his head coach. As a runner, he is more than just a home run threat, but few are as dangerous as Charles when he gets some daylight. The 26-year-old speedster caught just 35 passes a year ago. That number might double in 2013. Charles is in line for a gigantic season. The Chiefs used an early third-round pick on Knile Davis. There were quite a few backs on the board I would have picked before Davis, but he is a fine combination of speed and size, although injuries and fumbles are major issues for this incoming rookie. Also in the fold are Shaun Draughn and Cyrus Gray, who will have to prove their worth on special teams and in the passing game to stay with the team.

Oakland Raiders: The Raiders are going back to a power-run scheme, which suits Darren McFadden better and might get him back on track. But scheme will not help him stay healthy, which is clearly the biggest knock on him to this point. He is still young, and when right, McFadden runs with great aggression to go along with long speed. McFadden also can be a major contributor as a receiver. One of my favorite players in the league is Marcel Reece, who stepped up huge last season with McFadden out of the lineup. Reece does it all. He is equal parts fullback and running back but has extremely soft hands and is an excellent route runner. Every team in the league would love to him on its roster, even though he might never be considered a full-time running back. The Raiders also signed Rashad Jennings, who had a terrible year for Jacksonville in 2012. He, too, struggles to stay on the field, which might open up a prominent spot for Latavius Murray, a sixth-round pick this year. Murray has a rare combination of size and speed, but is very much a work in progress. Look for him to get an opportunity at some point, as McFadden is up for free agency after this season. The Raiders will need to see what they have in Murray.

San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews is right there with McFadden as the most maddening and untrustworthy running backs in the NFL. But once again, it looks like Mathews will be getting an opportunity to be San Diego’s foundation back. And there is no questioning his ability, which ranks among the best in the league. At 25, he should be thriving now, even behind San Diego’s poor offensive line. He has missed 10 games in his three seasons as a professional. Surprisingly, the Chargers didn’t bring in another runner as a backup plan if Mathews once again cannot stay on the field. They did add Danny Woodhead, though, who is an excellent all-around player and the type of back the Chargers have not had since Darren Sproles. Expect him to be used as a receiver on many quick-hitting pass plays, which is much easier from a protection standpoint on the Chargers’ suspect offensive line. Mathews is a very good receiver, but questionable in protection, while Woodhead is an excellent receiver but lacks the size to play a ton of snaps. Ronnie Brown was San Diego’s third-down back last year and is highly reliable, although not flashy, particularly in the passing game. Brown, like Mathews, has had a tough time staying healthy.

Wrap-up: Broncos 38, Chiefs 3

December, 30, 2012
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A look at the Denver Broncos' 38-3 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in a meaningful AFC West finale:

What it means: It was a monumental day for both franchises, for very different reasons. After the Indianapolis Colts beat the Houston Texans earlier Sunday, the Broncos did their job by dismantling the Chiefs. Thus, Denver is the No. 1 seed throughout the AFC playoffs. Denver finished the regular season 13-3 and has won 11 straight games. It is the seventh time since the merger a team has ended the season with an 11-game win streak. All 11 wins came by seven points or more. Kansas City, meanwhile, ended its miserable season at 2-14. It earned the No. 1 overall pick in the April draft. Denver ended 6-0 in the AFC West. Kansas City was 0-12 against the AFC.

Firings in Kansas City? The end is probably near for first-year Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel. There are conflicting reports on general manager Scott Pioli's status. I think both will be gone.

Manning sets mark: Denver quarterback Peyton Manning made his final push for the NFL MVP award with a brilliant regular-season finale. Manning threw for 304 yards and three touchdown passes. He threw 37 touchdowns passes this season. He set the NFL mark for quarterbacks 36 years or older for the most touchdown passes in a season.

Miller joins rare company: Denver linebacker Von Miller had a sack and finished with 185 sacks. He has 30 sacks in two NFL seasons. He became the fourth player in NFL history to register 30 sacks in his first two seasons.

Group effort on the ground: Denver running backs Lance Ball, Jacob Hester and Knowshon Moreno combined for 165 yards rushing. While Moreno had just 44 yards, the Broncos will take the group effort headed into the postseason.

Charles doesn’t do much: Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles had just 53 yards on 14 carries. But he did set a career high with 1,509 yards for the season. It was a brilliant campaign for a player coming back from a torn ACL.

What’s next: The Chiefs prepare for big changes and the top pick in the draft, while Denver takes a week off.

Chris Kuper out for Denver

December, 16, 2012
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BALTIMORE -- The Denver Broncos will be without standout guard Chris Kuper again Sunday against the Ravens.

He missed the Oakland game with an ankle injury and he was questionable to play in this pivotal AFC game after being limited in practice all week. Manny Ramirez will play for Kuper. The Denver offensive line struggled at Oakland without Kuper.

Denver did get some good injury news Sunday. Linebacker and leading tackler Wesley Woodyard is active and he is expected to start. He missed the Oakland game with an ankle injury and he was questionable to face the Ravens.

In an interesting move, running back Jacob Hester is active for the first time since signing with Denver last month, and running back Lance Ball is inactive for the first time this season.

What Willis McGahee injury means

November, 19, 2012
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The Denver Broncos suffered a potential obstacle in their quest for long-term relevance in the playoff chase.

McGahee
McGahee
Starting running back Willis McGahee tore the MCL in his knee and he is expected to be out six to eight weeks. McGahee was injured in Denver’s home win over San Diego on Sunday. The Broncos have a three-game lead (with the tiebreaker that essentially gives them a four-game lead with six games to go) in the AFC West and are clearly set for the postseason.

McGahee likely won't be back until the first week of the playoffs at the earliest. Thus, Denver must focus on trying to win without their veteran, tough running back. John Fox always does a good job of getting his team ready with his “next man up” mantra.

But there is no doubt, the emphasis will be even more on quarterback Peyton Manning and the passing game. Manning’s offense will always try to win through the air, but McGahee’s tough running was a definite part of the plan. McGahee, 31, has 731 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry this season.

Denver’s offense, however, has been dominating lately without McGahee having huge games. Denver has scored at least 30 points in the past five games, which is a team record. McGahee had more than 66 yards in just one of those games.

Still, Denver will need to get some tough yardage at times. The spotlight now goes on third-round draft pick Ronnie Hillman. He has been playing more lately and he shows great promise and explosion. But it's clear that the smallish Hillman is much more of an outside threat than in the inside.

Denver will have to rely on Lance Ball and it will have to dust off former No. 1 pick Knowshon Moreno. Denver clearly doesn’t trust Moreno. He hasn’t played since Week 2 and he has just eight carries this season. But he will likely get a chance now.

Overall, Denver should be able to be productive on offense with McGahee out, but there will be times when its running backs will have to step up and help Manning. Those may be times when McGahee is dearly missed.
A look at Denver's 30-10 home loss against Seattle on Saturday night:

For Peyton Manning, statistics really don’t matter this summer.

It’s all about getting ready for the regular season and shaking off the rust.

Sure, the quarterback threw two interceptions Saturday against the Seahawks. He has three interceptions in about three quarters this summer.

I’m sure Manning will take throwing three interceptions in a game that doesn't matter after enduring multiple neck surgeries last year.

As a whole, Manning looked sharp and showed good arm strength as he played the entire first half and completed 16 of 23 passes for 177 yards. He even took his first hit since his injury. He quickly got up.

Manning will likely play well into the third quarter next week against San Francisco in what should be his final preseason tune-up. Again, Manning is making great progress as he continues to pass tests on his way back from his devastating injury.

Through the first half Saturday, the Broncos defense had held opponents to 2 of 19 on third-down conversations. That’s a trend you want to see.

Defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, a second-round draft pick, had another strong performance.

Running back Lance Ball continued to make a push for a roster spot.

Rookie Brock Osweiler replaced Manning. His first two series were three-and-outs, but it is a sign that Denver could be looking to Osweiler over Caleb Hanie as Manning's backup.

Safety David Bruton was a beast on special teams, which will help make a roster claim.
Tim TebowAP Photo/Barry GutierrezTim Tebow and the Broncos are still in sole possession of first place in the AFC West.
DENVER -- The Denver Broncos ended up getting their obligatory late-game miracle after all.

While Denver was in the waning moments of its first loss since October -- the Broncos fumbled away a 41-23 home loss to the opportunistic New England Patriots -- the usually dynamic fourth-quarter Broncos had no idea they were being blessed from afar.

The second-place Oakland Raiders, who were on the verge of tying up the AFC West race heading into the final two weeks of the season, let a 13-point lead slip away in the final five minutes, losing at home to Detroit 28-27.

So, despite a home loss and the slight derailment of TebowMania, Denver's road to the playoffs remained on schedule. The Broncos (8-6) play at Buffalo (the Bills have lost seven straight games) and Oakland plays at Kansas City on Saturday. While there are many possibilities in the playoff scenarios (check out our Playoff Machine for the details), Denver will beat out Oakland if it wins at home against Kansas City in Week 17 regardless of anything else that happens.

Because of Oakland’s late collapse, Denver’s coaching staff can use Sunday’s loss as a valuable teaching tool without the heartache of losing tied for first place.

After winning six straight games (including the past four games after trailing in the fourth quarter), Denver saw its chances essentially disappear Sunday when the Patriots scored 27 unanswered points in the second and third quarters.

It taught this young, impressionable squad that it simply can't wait for Tim Tebow's fourth-quarter magic to appear.

The biggest problem for the Broncos -- who were great in the first quarter and took a 16-7 lead early in the second quarter -- was their three fumbles in their territory in the second quarter. New England is 101-4 since 2001 when it wins the turnover battle. The Broncos killed themselves as running back Lance Ball, Tebow and returner Quan Cosby all gave the Patriots holiday gifts. The Patriots turned those miscues into 13 points.

“The reality is, we’re not at the stage where we can overcome minus-three turnovers,” Broncos coach John Fox said.

Denver also sagged on defense at critical times and the unit also committed several dumb penalties.

The upstart Broncos left the stadium knowing they can’t play that sloppy against the better teams in the conference and get away with it.

I got the sense from Fox and several of his players that the Broncos actually were encouraged by Sunday’s game. They knew they could have been in the game had they not been so mistake-prone.

“This was a setback, no doubt about that, but sometimes setbacks are setups for bigger things to come,” Fox said. “I think we’re a good team, but tonight they were better than us.”

Added Tebow: “We were right there with them and there’s a lot of great things we can take out of this game and try to improve … We’re going to be excited about going to Buffalo, and we’re going to be extremely motivated.”

It will be interesting to see if the national obsession with TebowMania falls off this week after Tebow and the Broncos were unable to deliver another fourth-quarter comeback.

The truth is, the Broncos are encouraged by Tebow’s performance Sunday. Never at one point during the game did Tebow hold back his team. During the six-game winning streak, Tebow had stretches of poor play. Yes, he lost a fumble. But this was a team loss, not a Tebow loss.

If Tebow can continue to get better, the Broncos know they are going to be in good shape for the rest of this season and beyond. Tebow (who still rifles off the occasional wounded duck) threw several on-the-money bullets Sunday. He finished 11-of-22 for 194 yards and was not intercepted. He ran for a game-high 93 yards on 12 carries. He had several I-can’t-believe-he got-out-of-that-mess plays as well.

In short, despite the loss, Tebow continued his growth as an NFL quarterback Sunday.

“Six or seven weeks ago, people said he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” Fox said. “But I think he does that. I think can he do that. I don’t think that’s why we lose the game.”

They lost the game because they gave it away. The Broncos will be kicking themselves when they watch the film Monday morning and realize they lost a game in which they ran for 167 yards and kept the ball for 10 minutes, 45 seconds of the first quarter. They’ll wonder what if they had fumbled only once instead of three times. They’ll wonder why they uncharacteristically lacked defensive intelligence.

They will digest it, and then they’ll wonder how good they can be if they clean up those issues. And then they'll thank the Lions for stunning the Raiders and keeping Denver in control of the division going into the holiday weekend.

Five things to watch: Broncos-Jets

November, 17, 2011
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The Denver Broncos have a key game against the visiting New York Jets on Thursday night. Denver has won three out of the past four games under new quarterback Tim Tebow. The Broncos have gone from a serious contender to win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes to a 4-5 team that is one game off the pace in the AFC West. Let’s look at what Denver must do against the 5-4 Jets, who are 1-4 in the past five road games in the regular season:

Keep your options open: Perhaps the Broncos are bringing the 1950s back, but as long as they continue to win with the option offense, it will continue to be used. Denver has been using the option (it even broke out the triple option Sunday at Kansas City) well under Tebow. It will be challenged Thursday night because New York coach Rex Ryan is known as a creative defensive coach. Still, Denver will give Ryan plenty of chances to stop it. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Broncos gained 95 yards on 16 rushes at Kansas City. Tebow kept the ball four times for 31 yards while using the option. Tebow ran the ball nine times and passed it just eight times at Kansas City. According to Elias, Tebow became the first quarterback with more rushes than passes in a game in which the quarterback threw every pass for his team since 1974 when Buffalo’s Joe Ferguson threw twice and ran 10 times in a game that was affected by high winds. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Tebow dropped back to pass on 14.3 percent of the Broncos’ plays at Kansas City. It’s the lowest percentage of drop backs by a team in a game since the start of 2008. Don’t expect Denver to suddenly change course on a short week and have Tebow unleash 40 passes. The option offense should continue.

Keep on running: Tebow’s presence has made Denver a great running offense. It his averaging more than 200 yards on the ground in the past five games and has led the NFL in rushing in that time span. For the season, Denver is second in the NFL in rushing, averaging 158.2 yards per game. The presence of Tebow has enhanced the Broncos’ running backs. Willis McGahee, who is enjoying a career resurgence at the age of 30 and in his first season in Denver, had 640 yards this season. He suffered a hamstring injury at Kansas City. But the Broncos hope he can be a factor. With Knowshon Moreno out for the year with a torn ACL, new backup Lance Ball will be given a chance to continue to impress. He had 96 yards on 30 carries against the Chiefs. Expect the Broncos to try to ram the ball down the Jets’ throats. The Jets are giving up 116 yards on the ground per game, which is 15th in the NFL.

Doing it Fox’s way: This game will give the Broncos a chance to show a national audience they are improved under first year John Fox. He deserves a lot of credit for this turnaround. The Broncos are starting to play just the way Fox likes -- by running the ball and by stopping the run on defense. Denver’s ownership has to be thrilled with the work Fox is doing with this young roster that is still very much rebuilding.

Hit Mark Sanchez: The Broncos have become a strong pass-rushing team in recent games with Elvis Dumervil finally becoming healthy. Dumervil and rookie Von Miller are a nasty pass-rushing duo. Denver had four sacks and constantly harassed Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel (who suffered a serious hand injury in the game) Sunday. Watch for the Broncos to try to unleash Dumervil and Miller -- who has eight sacks and who is a legitimate defensive rookie of the year candidate -- on Sanchez.

Secret weapon: Denver punter Britton Colquitt has become a strong weapon for the Broncos in his second full season with the team. He has become particularly solid in pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line. He pinned the Chiefs between their own 7- and 15-yard line four times in Week 10. Putting New York in poor field position will be critical in this game.

AFC West Stock Watch

November, 15, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

[+] EnlargeNorv Turner
Harry How/Getty ImagesNorv Turner's Chargers have now dropped four games in a row after a hot start.
1. The future in San Diego: The Chargers have lost four straight games and are now 4-5. This team looks incapable of doing what it takes to win right now. If the Chargers continue to flounder and don’t make the playoffs for the second straight year, there will be calls for general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner to be fired. The Chargers have long been a sexy Super Bowl pick. But they look far from a Super Bowl team right now.

2. The Chiefs’ playoff chances: The Chiefs’ chances of winning the AFC West took a hit the past two weeks when they lost back-to-back games at home to Miami and Denver to fall to 4-5. Now, the Chiefs enter a tough five-game stretch in which they play five games against 2010 playoff teams. It starts at New England next Monday.

3. Denver’s need to throw: Denver quarterback Tim Tebow threw just eight times in 17-10 win at Kansas City. Denver won for the first time with two or fewer completions. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the only other team in the past 25 years to win a game with two or fewer pass completions and have only one quarterback attempt a pass was the Browns in Week 5 2009 at the Bills.

RISING

1. Kamerion Wimbley, linebacker, Raiders: Wimbley can get sacks in bunches and he had a bunch Thursday night at San Diego. Wimbley had four of the Raiders' six sacks. He set the tone for a ferocious defensive effort. Wimbley can be streaky, but when he is on, he can be unblockable.

2. Denver’s running game: Denver had 244 rushing yards at Kansas City. They have led the NFL in rushing in the past five weeks. Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno are injured, but Lance Ball took the lead with 96 yards against the Chiefs. Tebow’s presence had clearly helped the run game as the Broncos have dominated on the ground by using the option.

3. Carson Palmer's arm strength: There are no worries, folks. Palmer may not be the 2006 version of himself, but he can still fling the ball. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he was 4-for-4 for 146 yards on passes of 21-plus yards in the Raiders’ win at San Diego. He threw the ball long at ease. Expect him to continue to shine in that area as the season progresses.

Wrap-up: Broncos 17, Chiefs 10

November, 13, 2011
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A look a game with major AFC West implications:

What it means: The Oakland Raiders control the AFC West. Oakland, which beat San Diego on Thursday, is 5-4. The other three teams in the AFC West are 4-5. With the victory, Denver stayed in the division race.

Tomorrow’s talker: It’s all about Tim Tebow. The Broncos won despite Tebow completing just two passes. He was 2 of 8 for 69 yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the first time in Denver history that they won a game completing two or fewer passes. The only other team in the last 25 years to win a game with two or fewer pass completions and have only one quarterback attempt a pass was the Browns in Week 5 of 2009 at the Bills. The quarterback was Derek Anderson, who went 2-for-17. Denver is 3-1 with Tebow as their quarterback this season.

Broncos’ running backs are banged up: Denver lost both Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno to injuries. Yet, Denver ran for 244 yards. Lance Ball had 96 yards on 30 carries. Tebow added 43 yards on nine rushes. Denver has led the NFL in rushing the past five weeks.

Chiefs are inept: After winning four straight games to go 4-3, the Chiefs have reverted to the poor play of the early season. The Chiefs were particularly out of sorts on offense. If Kansas City doesn’t quickly regroup, it could fall out of the division race again.

Back-to-back bliss: The Broncos have won two straight games for the first time in 29 games. It breaks the NFL’s current longest streak with back-to-back wins.

Cassel sinking: Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel has not been good the past four games. He has completed 67 of 129 pass attempts for 768 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions. He threw for just 93 yards Sunday. He left the game late with an apparent injury to his non-throwing arm.

What’s next: Denver has a quick turnaround as it hosts the New York Jets on Thursday. The Chiefs begin a brutal five-week stretch at New England on "Monday Night Football" on Nov. 21.

Tebow not connecting, but winning

November, 13, 2011
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Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow did nothing in the first half to help prove he can be an effective NFL passer.

Yet, Tebow is doing what he does -- leading the Broncos to a victory.

Tebow was 0-for-4 passing in the first half at Kansas City on Sunday. Yet, Denver was leading 10-0 at halftime.

Tebow is 2-1 as Denver’s starting quarterback this season. The Broncos continue to audition him. They want to see him become an effective passer. It is not happening. But as long as the Broncos win, they will have patience with Tebow.

Tebow has 24 yards rushing on three carries. Denver’s running game has come alive since Tebow took over. It had 169 yards on the ground in the first half.

Denver running back Willis McGahee, who is having a nice season, left with an apparent knee injury early in the game and Knowshon Moreno left as well. Lance Ball is Denver’s lead back for the rest of the game.

Broncos could miss top players

September, 16, 2011
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The Denver Broncos are in danger of playing Sunday against visiting Cincinnati without four of their key players.

Cornerback Champ Bailey (hamstring), defensive end Elvis Dumervil (shoulder), receiver Brandon Lloyd (groin) and running back Knowshon Moreno (hamstring) are all listed as questionable. Lloyd worked on a limited basis Friday. However, Bailey, Dumervil and Moreno didn’t practice all week. When players miss an entire week of practice, it often means they will not play in the game.

Playing without both Bailey and Dumervil (arguably their best two defenders) would be crippling for a defense that is still very much a work in progress. Add in the fact that three fellow starters, linebacker D.J. Williams (elbow) and defensive tackles Ty Warren (triceps) and Marcus Thomas (shoulder), are still out and Denver is in danger of dropping to 0-2 in two home games to start the season.

If Moreno can’t play, Willis McGahee would start and Lance Ball would get some carries. Denver ran the ball just 13 times in a loss to Oakland on Monday night. Losing Moreno wouldn’t help Denver increase that total against the Bengals.

Times are tough in Denver and they might get even tougher Sunday.

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