NFL Nation: Peyton Manning
“I always believed I could be a starter, I could be a go-to guy for a quarterback, be a guy they trusted," Caldwell said then. “That if I was healthy and had some opportunities I could be that guy."
Welker is still tied for second on the team with 73 receptions and has been targeted by Peyton Manning 111 times, which is good for third on the team in that category. His 10 touchdown catches are also third on the team.
In short, Welker has been exactly the player the Broncos hoped he would be when they signed him to a two-year, $12 million deal in March.
He is slated to miss Sunday’s game against the Texans -- expected to be formally ruled out after Friday’s practice -- and will likely be held out of the regular-season finale as he goes through medical evaluations. Welker has not been cleared to practice, but Thursday he spent some time working with the Broncos’ strength and conditioning staff in the team’s weight room. Broncos coach John Fox said Welker had done some limited on-field work outside as well.
Welker has not practiced since leaving the Broncos’ Dec. 8 victory over the Tennessee Titans just before halftime. He was taken from the field after being hit by Titans safety George Wilson, suffering a concussion and a neck injury on the play.
Losing Welker is no small matter for a quarterback in Manning and a playcaller in Adam Gase who prefer the Broncos work out of a three-wide receiver set most of the time. In 14 games this season, the Broncos have lined up in a three-wide formation on 77.5 percent of their offensive snaps, including penalty plays.
Most of the rest of the time, they have been in a two-tight end look, but never for more than 24 snaps in any game before Welker’s most recent concussion. After Welker left the game against the Titans, however, the Broncos used a two-tight end look on 36 snaps, all in the second half.
“I don’t think it’s a big difference offense-wise," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “I think it’s a little different for preparation by the defenses because now we don’t have Wes. But we still have weapons. I think we’re still capable of doing what we want to do with the guys that we’ve got, so I don’t see a big difference.”
While the 20 points the Broncos scored against the Chargers was a season low, the game did reveal that Manning was still willing to move the ball around the formation without Welker in the lineup and that he trusted Caldwell in almost any situation. Caldwell led the team with 10 targets against the Chargers and finished with six catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns. Caldwell has 11 catches on the season, three for touchdowns.
“All the hard work is paying off," Caldwell said. “I’ve been around here for two years and finally got a chance to make something happen. … I’ll just go out there and do what I’ve been doing -- working hard every day. If the ball comes my way, I'll do my best to make a play. I just want to win the ballgame, so I’m going to do whatever they want me to.”
When the Broncos put Caldwell in the lineup in a three-wide set, he'll likely go to one of the outside spots while Eric Decker or Demaryius Thomas would work out of the slot more to go with either Julius Thomas or Tamme in the opposite slot. Former Broncos coach and current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels always believed Decker could be a highly productive receiver in the slot.
If the Broncos go with a passing-friendly combination of Julius Thomas and Tamme in a two-tight end set, Tamme would work out of the slot much of the time, just like he did for most of last season.
Overall, the immediate issue will be on third down and in the red zone. Even though Welker has missed the past six quarters, he still leads the Broncos in third-down catches with 18. The Broncos were just 2-for-9 on third down against the Chargers, including 0-for-6 in the first half.
But the Chargers game came on a short week. The Broncos have had time to adjust since and had an extra practice Monday, so they'll likely see at least some of the fruits of that work over the next two games. Manning has been ruthlessly efficient in where the passes have gone this season, and that can be seen in how often he targeted Caldwell last week.
“[That’s] the way that [Manning] operates. He’s going to go to the guy that the coverage kind of dictates to him," Gase said. “He’s not worried about who is where. Like I’ve said before, it’s amazing how the balls have been spread out because usually it’s dictated by what the defense has done. And he’ll find the open guy. [Caldwell] did a great job of getting open when he had his one-on-one matchup.”
Added Caldwell: “I don’t think it changes much. I think we had a great group of receivers. They put Decker inside, they put Tamme in there, and they moved me to the outside. I think we’re still explosive, still can put up big points and big numbers every week.”
But there is the matter of history as well. Over these next two weeks, the Broncos offense and quarterback Peyton Manning are nudging toward a pile of records that could be broken if the Broncos have to play it honest all the way through the regular-season finale in Oakland.
So, after some numbers crunching and tip of the holiday hat to the fine folks at ESPN Stats and Information, here are some numbers of note as the Broncos prepare for a trip to Houston:
- Should the Broncos win the AFC West title -- they would if they win their final two games or any combination of one more win to go with a Chiefs loss -- it will be the first time in the franchise’s history the team has won three consecutive division titles. If that happens San Diego will have finished second in two of those years -- 2011 and 2012 -- while the Chiefs would be second this year.
- The Broncos need 55 points to break the league’s single-season scoring record. With 535 points currently in hand, they are already the highest scoring team in league history after 14 games. They are also already the highest scoring team in the franchise’s history. If they didn’t score another point their total would be the eighth highest single-season total in NFL history. If they score 26 points over their final two games they would rise to the No. 2 spot. The 2007 New England Patriots set the record with 589 points. With 65 points over their final two games, the Broncos would also become the league’s first 600-point team.
- The Broncos aren’t considered one of the league pound-it-out teams on offense, but they are still tied with Cincinnati for sixth in rushing attempts this season 414. Their 16 rushing touchdowns also tie them for second in the league, with San Francisco.
- After 14 games the Broncos are one of seven teams that have been penalized at least 117 times this season, including penalties that were declined. Five of those seven teams also reside west of the Mississippi, one albeit by just a few miles. But the leaders in the yellow flag parade so far this season are Seattle (125), Oakland (125), Tampa Bay (125), Houston (120), St. Louis (117), Denver (117) and Buffalo (117). For the Broncos they have been flagged the most for offensive holding -- 20 times, five by right tackle Orlando Franklin, four by left tackle Chris Clark -- and 13 times for defensive holding.
- With 47 touchdown passes in 14 games Manning needs three more to tie the single-season record of 50, set by Tom Brady in 2007. After 14 games in 2007, Brady had 45 touchdown passes and threw three against Miami in Week 16 and two more against the New York Giants in the regular-season finale. The Patriots threw the ball 75 times in those two games combined.
- In his career against the Texans, Manning is 16-3 with 44 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
- The Broncos, coming off a loss last Thursday night to the Chargers haven’t lost two games in a row since Weeks 2 and 3 last season, losses to Atlanta and Houston. Since that Sept. 23, 2012, loss to Houston, the Texans are 12-15 with a current 12-game losing streak. The Broncos are 23-4 in regular-season games since that loss to the Texans last season and have won their four games following those losses by an average of 18.3 points.
Quarterbacks tend to pull for each other. They know what it's like to shoulder so much of a team's fate, they understand the pressure better than outsiders could.
"I do think it’s a unique fraternity," Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Matt’s an excellent quarterback. I think he’ll be fine."
This weekend Manning and his Broncos will visit the Houston Texans for a rematch of a game played last year under very different circumstances.
Fittingly, after a season of quarterback turmoil, the Texans are returning to the man they started with at the position. Because of an injury to Case Keenum, Matt Schaub will start Sunday at Reliant Stadium. The last time Schaub started, he entered the game to boos so hearty that the Texans had to go to a silent count on some of their plays.
On the opposite sideline will be one of the best to ever play the position. Manning has played against the Texans 19 times and lost only three times. ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss.
Ganguli: Manning is very familiar with the Texans. Has his (soon-to-be) record-setting season been as impressive to watch up close as the stats suggest?
Legwold: No question the numbers have been staggering, even by Manning’s standards. But the intersection of Manning as a 37-year-old quarterback who was willing to sort of remake himself with a team ready to offer him the place to do that has lifted his play even more. The Broncos have constructed a playbook that is a mix of what they had on hand and what Manning has always done. They've added a warp-speed no-huddle portion and given him targets all over the formation, and Manning has played with the discipline of a veteran quarterback who understands what needs to be done. His coaches have said he forced just one pass in the team’s first eight games and his accuracy has been elite for much of the season. He isn't a power thrower now, and a windy day in the postseason could derail some of what the Broncos like to do, but he is an accomplished pitcher who knows his opponents and can hit all the spots.
Gary Kubiak is still well-liked around the Broncos’ complex, with many people who worked with him still in the building. What has been the reaction of players to his dismissal?
Ganguli: Kubiak was well-liked in the Texans' building, too, especially with, but not limited to, the players. After his dismissal, you heard a lot about how well he treated people, regardless of their role on the team. He’s always been known as a players’ coach, and that’s part of what has made Houston an attractive destination for free agents. Several players exchanged text messages with him after it happened. Some took public responsibility for it. They didn't like seeing him lose his job, but the firing wasn't a tremendous surprise given how the season had gone. The players’ reaction to Kubiak's health scare after suffering a "mini-stroke" on Nov. 3 said a lot about what he meant to them.
You covered another head coach's health scare this season. How did the Broncos weather John Fox’s absence?
Legwold: There have been seasons over the past decade or so when neither the locker room nor the coaching staff would have been as equipped as this year's group was to deal with something like Fox’s four-week absence following open-heart surgery. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio stepped in as interim coach, and players often spoke of his composure and leadership during that time. Manning, Wesley Woodyard, Champ Bailey and others helped keep everyone in the locker room pointed in the right direction, while Adam Gase and rest of the offensive staff kept things humming on that side of the ball. The team went 3-1 in that stretch, with two wins over Kansas City and one against San Diego. The loss was an overtime defeat at New England, when the Broncos let a 24-point halftime lead get away. Through it all, the Broncos showed themselves to be a stable organization, able to overcome the most serious of issues.
An awful lot of folks believed when the season began that the Texans would be in the hunt for the Super Bowl title. What are some of the major issues that have prevented that from happening?
Ganguli: How much time do you have? It starts with the quarterback. The Texans don’t have the luxury the Broncos have of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Their situation at the position has been tenuous all season. Schaub’s costly turnovers early on put the Texans in a precarious position. He didn't play as poorly as some indicate until Week 5 against San Francisco. He just looked uncomfortable and out of sorts from start to finish, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six on the first pass of the game. Schaub’s foot and ankle injuries the following week opened the door for Kubiak to make a switch to Keenum, who spent last season on the Texans’ practice squad. Keenum did well before opponents deciphered him, and since then he has struggled. I’m not ready to say he’ll never be a passable quarterback in the NFL, but his play over the past eight games has been a big factor in the losses. To be clear, quarterback is not the only factor in the Texans’ 12-game losing streak, but it’s been a big one. Further, the handling of the quarterback situation played a part in Kubiak’s firing. He benched Keenum for Schaub against Oakland and Jacksonville. That kind of uncertainty didn’t help matters.
That’s one question I get asked a lot. Another is this: Who will the Texans’ next head coach be? I covered Del Rio for his final season and a half as the Jaguars' coach. From what you've seen in Denver, do you think he gets another shot at being a head coach?
Legwold: I spoke with executives from around the league in recent weeks, and it seems Del Rio helped his cause with the way he conducted himself and led the Broncos during Fox’s absence. If the Broncos can snap out of their current defensive funk and go deep in the playoffs, it would help his cause even more. (He interviewed with USC during the bye week, the day before Fox suffered the dizziness and light-headedness on a golf course that led to his open-heart surgery.) Del Rio would need an owner/team president to look past the offense-first mentality everyone seems to be looking for these days, and he would have to present a clear, concise picture of what he would do on offense. But if the Broncos make the Super Bowl, or even win it, and the defense makes some plays along the way, Del Rio should be on some short lists.
How has Wade Phillips handled the interim job? He’s seen Manning plenty over the years, how do you think he’ll have the Texans go at the Broncos’ offense?
Ganguli: It wasn't a particularly good situation to come into, as tends to happen with interim jobs. The results have been similar to Kubiak's tenure, though Phillips has been more proactive in trying to curb the Texans' penalties. He's had Big 12 officials at practice several times, and puts players in timeouts if they commit a penalty. Not a lot has changed for the better, and the injury situation has gotten worse. The Texans now have their first- and second-string running backs on injured reserve, as well as their starting tight end, starting middle linebacker and starting strong safety. Phillips' defenses have always been very aggressive -- they blitz a lot. The play calling is being done by defensive-backs coach Vance Joseph now, but that doesn't change a lot. Manning's statistics against the Texans are better against a four-man rush than against blitzes.
“And that’s all I’ve got right now, that's all I came to Denver with,’’ said defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who has landed on his feet over the past four days just about as well as any player who has passed through the waiver wire this season.
Mincey, after being late for team meetings multiple times this season, was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10) Friday and signed by the Broncos on Tuesday. So, he went from a team that opened the season 0-8 to finding himself in a locker room filled with Super Bowl aspirations. Mincey said his other suitors this week were the Dallas Cowboys (7-7) and the New Orleans Saints (10-4).
Mincey played for Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio in five seasons during Del Rio’s tenure as Jaguars head coach. Del Rio was a resource for the Broncos as the team tried to decide whether or not to sign Mincey after the bumpy ride the sixth-year veteran had in Jacksonville this season.
In addition to the tardiness that got him released, Mincey had also been left off a road trip – to Houston – last month when he was late for a previous team meeting. Mincey had also been a game day inactive against the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 1. The Broncos talked to Jaguars general manager David Caldwell before coming to terms with Mincey.
“He’s a guy we thought could help our football team,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said. “We’ve got people that know him, know about his production. … The guy’s got a clean slate coming in here.’’
“Things happen, but I’m here with the Denver Broncos now. I’m all in with the Denver Broncos now,’’ Mincey said. “I get to play with Hall of Famers Champ Bailey and Peyton Manning … it’s an honor and a pleasure to be with the Denver Broncos.’’
Asked what happened as he went from a player who signed a $20 million contract with the Jaguars in March of 2012 to the waiver wire last week with questions about his work ethic in tow, Mincey cited a lack of postseason opportunities in his time with the Jaguars -- they made the playoffs in one season in his time there. He also called himself a “self-motivated’’ player.
“Inspiration, when you’re inspired about something, it’s hard to let yourself down,’’ Mincey said. “ … I was lacking a lot of inspiration there, I was on a treadmill there. I’m glad the off switch came and I fell off on to a better treadmill.’’
Mincey, who also missed three games earlier this season with a concussion, arrives at a time when the Broncos are searching for answers on defense. With some injuries, to go with linebacker Von Miller’s six-game suspension to open the season, the Broncos have been out of sorts for much of the year on that side of the ball. The Broncos will not play the 11 starters they expected to have on defense during this season and they have tried a variety of combinations in a variety of situations, even dialing back the playing time of a team captain in linebacker Wesley Woodyard to try to get things right.
Yet they are 24th in the league in points allowed this season (26.6 per game), 23rd in yards allowed (371.5 per game) and 28th in pass defense (266.2 yards allowed per game). And while their run defense had been one thing they had hung their hat amid all of the other troubles, the San Diego Chargers then rushed for 177 yards last Thursday night, repeatedly getting the edge against the Broncos defense.
Mincey, given his history with Del Rio, is expected to enter the rotation quickly. He said he could “most definitely’’ play against the Texans Sunday if the Broncos wanted him to. He’s played in just eight games this season, totaling 16 tackles and two sacks.
Both are by far his lowest output since he became a starter in Jacksonville in 2010. He had five sacks in 2010 to go with eight, and 57 tackles overall, in 2011.
“Football is football and I’m not the dumbest guy in the room,’’ Mincey said. “I got a clean slate. … I’m ready to be a Denver Bronco, the past is past.’’
"I think we've done a good job of treating all our opponents the same," Manning said following practice Wednesday. "... It's all about Houston, I think we've done a good job taking things week to week. I think we've prepared well each week. We haven't always played as well as would have liked. You like to transfer good practices to the playing field ... it's really all the focus is."
So Manning will discuss the Texans defensive personnel, especially their tandem at defensive end in Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt. He'll talk about the differences in having Wade Phillips in place as an interim coach than if Gary Kubiak were still on the job and how it essentially gives the Texans a "new defensive coordinator" with Houston secondary coach Vance Johnson now calling plays on defense.
Manning will talk about the Texans' pass defense, the role of the Broncos' running game in the offense and what wide receiver Andre Caldwell can do in the Broncos' offense with Wes Welker sidelined with a concussion.
But MVP award, records and the like? Not so much.
"It does not get heated up for me," Manning said of the award conversation. "When you're in the middle of the season ... That is plenty on my plate to focus on. I know that's probably not the answer you're looking for, but that is all my focus is on and that's the way it has to be -- getting myself ready to play and helping our offense get ready to play to go on the road to beat a team that's really played well on defense, I think."
With 47 touchdown passes in 14 games, a total that includes a staggering seven games with at least four touchdown passes, Manning is two away from tying his single-season career best of 49 (2004) and just three away from the NFL season record of 50 set by Tom Brady in 2007. Manning's 4,811 yards passing are the most ever after 14 games in a season and he's within shouting distance of Drew Brees' record of 5,476 yards, set in 2011.
But asked Wednesday about the potential to carve out a little more space for himself in the league's record book, Manning stuck to the Texans.
"We're trying to get a win," Manning said. "We were disappointed about last week's game -- didn't play our best game, got beat, got whipped in a lot of areas.
"I would hope we would respond to that loss with a better performance this week. It doesn't guarantee anything. There are a lot of teams that get mad when they lose and say 'we're going to play better next week.' And it doesn't happen. So it's about preparing and practice well and hoping we can transfer that to the playing field, and that's what I'm focused on."
Broncos head coach John Fox did weigh in at least some on those topics. Asked what his case would be for Manning to win a fifth MVP award -- Manning is the only four-time winner of the trophy in league history -- the Broncos head coach was more than willing to stand by his guy.
"I think it's fairly well documented a year ago -- no disrespect to anybody -- but I think he had that type of season a year ago," Fox said. "I don't think there's any question the kind of season he's having this year, and not just individual records, I think his win-loss record and team success speaks for itself. I don't think it's close, personally."
Two games to go, and the race for the 2013 NFL MVP award is as exciting as a brown-shoe convention in suburban Boise. The top spot has literally been locked up for months, and the only remaining questions are about the distance by which Peyton Manning will break some of the league's more significant passing records -- and then how far he can go in the playoffs, of course.
But this exercise is a fun and useful one because it identifies some of the performances around the league that could conceivably be MVP worthy in a year in which there actually was a race. The all-around brilliance of Seattle's young quarterback deftly piloting the league's best all-around team. Workhorse running backs in Kansas City and Philadelphia. Perennial stars in New Orleans and New England, and a resurgent one in San Diego. Players like Andrew Luck and Calvin Johnson have spent time on the list and dropped off for one reason or another, but new names are always lurking.
This week, the list includes a kicker.
(Wait. What did he say?)
Ahem. The list, people. Focus. The list.
Denver's offense looked weak enough this past Thursday to make you wonder if Wes Welker deserved this spot. Without Welker, who was out with a concussion, Manning couldn't convert a third down and found himself throwing to Andre Caldwell when he got near the end zone. Zzzzzzz. This one's not going on the Broncos' 2013 season highlight video, nor was it a game whose 21:11 worth of Broncos offensive possession did much to bolster Manning's case for MVP. But Manning's case doesn't need bolstering, because he's having far and away the best year of any quarterback in the league, his team is 11-3 and -- come on. He can even find ways to make Caldwell useful. "Hurry back, Wes," Manning is surely thinking, but the mile-high sky in Denver remains firmly affixed.
Say what you want about Eli Manning and the Giants, but don't call them poor hosts. If last weekend was a dry run for Wilson and the Seahawks for their likely return to Northern New Jersey for Super Bowl XLVIII in a few weeks, the Giants did everything they could to make their guests feel comfortable. There was snow falling when the Seahawks arrived, but by game time it was clear and cold and not even all that windy. So Wilson didn't get the full-on, worst-case MetLife Stadium experience, but Manning & Co. helped him have a good time. They gave the ball back to him five times without him even asking, and they didn't score so much as a single point. Wilson can only hope that Eli's brother is as gracious seven weeks from now in the same spot.
The possible explanations for Charles' eight-catch, 195-yard, five-touchdown performance Sunday include:
A) He disguised himself as coach Dennis Allen and gave a pregame speech in which he explained to the Raiders a new league rule making it illegal to cover or tackle a running back any time the quarterback drops back to throw.
B) He coated himself with a special margarine that turned him invisible whenever he ran a pass route.
C) Every member of the Raiders' defense had Charles on his fantasy team.
The most plausible answer seems like A until you realize that no one knows what Dennis Allen looks like, so then it must be C. Though B would be awesome.
Maybe, when you live in New Orleans, the night life there just doesn't impress you. Those who visit get swept up in it all -- Bourbon Street, the live music, the incredible restaurants. The place is a full-spectrum theme park for the soul. But Brees and his teammates live there, and likely aren't as impressed, so you figure maybe when they go on the road to less exciting places they just go out and tear it up? Paint St. Louis red? Close down Foxborough at 12:30 a.m.? Scout the sweet after-parties in East Rutherford? Hey, it's as good an explanation as any for why this looks like the best team in the league when it plays in the Superdome but can't beat teams like the Rams and the Jets on the road. Brees and the boys whipped Carolina two weeks ago at home, and now they have to play them again on the road in a game that could help decide the NFC South. Stay away from the EpiCentre if you're in downtown Charlotte, Drew. They got one of those joints there with a mechanical bull and it just looks like trouble.
Rivers is having as good a season as any quarterback who's not named Manning (and a far better one than at least one who is!). The only thing that's kept him from being on this list every week is the MVP Watch rule that makes players on teams with losing records ineligible. Beating both Mannings in a five-day stretch got Rivers and the Chargers back to .500, and if they can beat the Raiders on Sunday, that will ensure Rivers' spot through season's end. And since the Watch really wants Rivers, his 28:9 touchdown to interception ratio and his 69.9 completion percentage on the list, here's a hot tip: Psst! Phil! Throw it to the running backs! The Raiders can't see them! The Watch is here to help.
Fourth-and-5 at the Miami 14-yard line. Patriots down four with six seconds left on the clock. Brady drops back to pass. Looking for Rob Gronkowski in the end zone and he ... Oh. Right. Gronkowski's on IR. He is not the guy in the white jersey with the aqua No. 31 on it. That would be Dolphins defensive back Michael Thomas. Which makes that throw an interception. And a division loss. And the latest reminder that Brady is going to have to play the rest of this season, however long it lasts, without the only guy on the team to whom he really feels comfortable throwing the ball in the most important spots. It's enough to make a guy want to take a 40-minute shower and miss the second half of the game. But even that's no good, because Welker's in that commercial and Brady misses him so much he just wants to throw this gorgeous shearling-lined Australian boot through a wall.
The Superman act has coach Ron Rivera buying in completely. Why else would he ask Newton to go for it on fourth-and-3 in easy field goal range up 10 points in the fourth quarter against the Jets? You get the sense that, if Rivera needed help with a stubborn tree stump in his backyard or had a really tough math problem, he'd just call up Newton and tell him to take care of it. Sunday's game against the Saints is the big test. If Newton can pull this off, just two weeks after getting humbled in New Orleans, there's nothing Rivera won't ask him to do. Rivera will be enfeebled in a nursing home years from now and he'll be expecting Newton to cut his food for him with just his mind.
The NFL's leading rusher poked his head into his coach's office Monday morning and said he didn't want to be disrespectful or anything but he was wondering why, after setting a team record for rush yards in a game the week before, he got only eight carries in Sunday's loss to the Vikings. As this was the 94th time he'd been asked this question in about 15 hours, normally upbeat Eagles coach Chip Kelly exploded in rage. "Who's the offensive genius here?" he bellowed. "Is it you? Is it? I didn't THINK so! You don't question me! Besides, why do I need to hand you the ball when I have a quarterback like Nick Foles????" McCoy used some of his stored-up speed and energy to escape from the office while Kelly's finger still hovered over the secret button that operates the trap door. Seconds later, Foles poked his head in and asked if Kelly had called for him. Kelly said, "No, sorry about that," and Foles said, "Hey, by the way, Coach. While I'm here, I was just wondering. Why did LeSean only get eight carries yesterday?"
No touchdown this week, but the Watch still loves him as the weekly defensive representative. Was online trying to figure out why he spells his first name with a K, but couldn't find anything on that. Feel free to write in if you know. The search did uncover the fact that Dansby was an all-state basketball player in high school in Alabama and that Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville actually discovered him at a basketball game and not a football game. Helps explain those 17 passes defensed. Dansby has hops. He also has 105 tackles, which wouldn't be quite as valuable an asset if he'd stuck with the hoops.
Yeah, that's right. If you score all 18 points in a road game your team absolutely has to win in order to keep its Super Bowl title defense alive, and the final three of those points come on a 61-yard field goal in the final minute after your Super Bowl MVP quarterback has clearly told your coach he'd rather see you kick it from 61 than try to pick up the first down himself, then it doesn't matter that there's no chance a kicker could ever win this award. You deserve the No. 10 spot for that week. Tucker's an assassin right now. He's kicked 33 straight field goals without missing one, including the 248 yards' worth he delivered Monday night in Detroit. He's hit six field goals this year of 50 yards or longer. Ray Rice is stuck in neutral and Joe Flacco doesn't wake up until the calendar hits January, but it's OK. Tucker's got this. And the Ravens are still in the hunt.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis is part of the 34th-largest metropolitan area in the country. It's a small-market city in the Midwest that is considered rather vanilla. It lacks the bright lights of New York. It doesn't have the sandy beaches of Miami or Los Angeles. It's a big deal in Indianapolis when Justin Timberlake is sitting courtside at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But located in the heart of downtown, and just a long Andrew Luck pass apart, are two venues where two of the best young players in their respective sports play. They're two players who have caused eyes from around the country to focus on Indianapolis' two professional sports teams in a way that hasn't happened since Reggie Miller was launching 3-pointers for the Indiana Pacers and Peyton Manning was picking apart defenses for the Indianapolis Colts.
“It's cool that this city has two up-and-comers that are restoring what used to be here with Reggie and Peyton,” George said. “There are not many cities that can say that. The Colts have been good for a while outside of that one year, which helped them get Andrew, and we've worked way up to where we believe we're starting to get respect finally.”
USA Today ran a story Dec. 9 ranking the winningest sports cities in North America.
The city sitting on top?
Not New York or Miami.
The Pacers, a win away from reaching the NBA Finals last season, have been on a mission to knock the Miami Heat off their throne as NBA champions. They won their first nine games of the season and have the best record in the Eastern Conference at 20-4 heading into Wednesday's showdown against the Heat. Luck has led the Colts to their first AFC South title in three years.
“To have young studs at the top of their field in the NBA and NFL, it's a tribute to Indy being a true sports town,” Colts linebacker Robert Mathis said. “It started out as a basketball state, we were able to nudge them a little bit and get football on the Hoosiers' mind, and now the Pacers are back.”
“The Pacers have been looking for a franchise player since Miller gave a final wave to his 18-year Hall of Fame career more than eight years ago.
A lot of people in the country will be looking at Indianapolis for a long time because we have two people in key positions in our sports franchises that the nation will be talking about.” -- Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard on Andrew Luck and Paul George
The 23-year-old George has stepped up to fill that void by becoming one of the NBA's premier all-around players and an MVP candidate. George, an All-Star last season, is averaging 23.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals while defending the opposing teams' best perimeter player each game.
Luck's task was even tougher. The 24-year-old was selected to replace Manning, the person responsible for leading the Colts to two Super Bowls and having Lucas Oil Stadium built, less than two months after the team released Manning. All Luck has done is lead the Colts to the playoffs in his first two seasons.
“They both represent Indianapolis very, very well,” Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said. “You can't just win in Indianapolis and in Indiana, you have to win the right way otherwise it's not accepted. I'm not sure they would be as well received in the city or the state without strong character traits. A lot of people in the country will be looking at Indianapolis for a long time because we have two people in key positions in our sports franchises that the nation will be talking about.”
Don't ask George or Luck to talk about themselves, though. They'd rather praise their teammates because they wouldn't have their success without them, according to Luck.
George declined to do a one-on-one with ESPN earlier this season. He would agree to the interview only if the entire starting five took part. Luck has been beat up like a punching bag by defenses because of poor blocking by the offensive line. But he refuses to point the finger at that group. His reasoning for it is that he needs to get rid of the ball quicker or take a step up in the pocket to avoid the rush.
The path the two took to get where they are couldn't be any more different.
Luck was the can't-miss No. 1 overall pick, the best quarterback coming out of the draft since Manning in 1998. The thought that there was even a debate over whom to take between Luck and Robert Griffin III is laughable today.
George was a relatively unknown player out of Fresno State who was projected to be selected late in the first round or early in the second when he first put his name in the 2010 draft. Pacers fans had hoped that Gordon Hayward, an Indianapolis product, would be available when the team picked at No. 10. Team president Larry Bird avoided having the state upset at him when the Utah Jazz selected Hayward at No. 9, making it an easy decision to select George over North Carolina's Ed Davis.
Both teams made the right choice and both teams, along with the rest of the country, know they have a bright future.
“Paul George is emerging as a superstar, an MVP candidate, and Andrew Luck, anybody with a brain knows he'll be an MVP in the future,” Colts punter Pat McAfee said. “Winning now is awesome, but to have that certainty of winning in the future is good for both franchises and for the city. I think it'll attract people to our city.”
A yellow flag hits the ground as the Broncos defensive back nearest the laundry turns, arms extended, palms up, incredulous look on face, to ask the official what happened and why.
Many defensive players as well as defensive coaches around the league have wondered all season if at least some of the astronomical passing numbers already on the board this season, led by Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, weren’t due to an additional crackdown on the already-in-place crackdown on contact with wide receivers. After the five-yard chuck zone, life has simply gotten more difficult for defensive backs in this pass-happy world. So much so that this past week was still the highest scoring week in NFL history (763 combined points in the games) even as the New York Giants were shut out.
But it comes to light as a battered Broncos’ defense, which has not had its planned-for 11 starters in any game this season and won’t the rest of the way with defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (hip) now on injured reserve, continues to search for answers across the board in pursuit of a title.
The Broncos expect Bailey to be back in the lineup Sunday in Houston -- he has played in just three games because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason -- but rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster will not be after surgery Friday to repair a fractured right thumb. They have moved people around in the lineup for weeks with Webster having replaced Tony Carter in the rotation at cornerback, with Omar Bolden now in at safety to help in coverage and linebacker Wesley Woodyard having his playing time adjusted as well.
And the Broncos have still arrived to their 15th game of the season 28th in the league in pass defense (266.1 yards allowed per game), 24th in scoring defense (26.6 points allowed per game) with one of the most penalized secondaries in the league.
“We have some things to clean up, no doubt,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox, a former defensive backs coach for Hall of Famer Chuck Noll. “We’re like everybody trying to get better each week. We don’t have things the way we we’d like them all around, we continue to emphasize it, work on it and we want it to be better. We’re not satisfied.’’
Nor should they be. The Broncos currently lead the league with 13 defensive holding penalties, including those that have been declined, eight of those assessed to the team's defensive backs. They have added nine pass interference penalties -- all nine from defensive backs -- to the pile and three illegal contact penalties.
Many of those have simply been lapses in technique, a stumble here, a blown assignment there, but some have been a part of the bigger picture, a picture the Broncos are going to have to find a way to deal with as they move toward the postseason. And an analysis by ESPN’s Stats and Information Group shows that more illegal contact, defensive pass interference and defensive holding penalties combined are being called than at any point since 2001.
There have been 1.75 of those penalties per game thus far this season, up from the 1.71 of last season and rather a significant jump from 1.5 in 2011 and 1.4 in 2009.
“You just try to play it how they’re calling it,’’ said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “It’s tough sometimes and you get frustrated, especially if you feel like it was a contested ball or you had the position to make a play.’’
It has become increasingly difficult for the defensive backs working in the high-traffic areas from the slot or down in the scoring zone. Offenses like the Broncos have made a point-scoring living with rub plays or outright pick plays (that’s where many defensive coaches are leaning in their descriptions) to get receivers free against the defensive backs across from them.
And while most in the league feel fewer penalties get called in the postseason on contested plays, just look at the San Francisco 49ers' last series in the Super Bowl last February for proof of that, the quarterbacks a defense faces are a far bigger issue for a wobbly secondary. Those passers are better, more prepared, more accurate with more impact targets in the pattern.
“That’s why it all has to work together, the rush and what we do on the back end,’’ Bailey said. “They need us to hold it so they can get to the quarterback and we need them to get those guys uncomfortable back there. Because now if you let the quarterbacks in this league, especially in the playoffs, stand back there and pick away at you, you can’t stop that. They’re too accurate and a lot of times the real experience ones will throw a ball not because a guy is open, but because they think they’re going to get a flag and a first down with it.’’
Preseason: 3 | Last week: 2 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002
The Broncos stumbled in their final home game of the regular season in a 27-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers on Thursday. But when a couple more of the AFC’s front-runners -- the New England Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals -- lost as well this past weekend, the Broncos held on to the No. 2 spot in ESPN.com’s Power Rankings.
And after this past week’s games, the Broncos also kept their spot at the front of the line for home-field advantage in the playoffs. With wins over the 2-12 Houston Texans and the 4-10 Oakland Raiders in the last two weeks of the regular season, the Broncos will have the conference's top seed for the second consecutive season.
Still, the Broncos had a couple of red flags go up in their loss to the Chargers, most notably 177 yards rushing for San Diego, including 127 for Ryan Mathews, making him the first back to top 100 yards against the Broncos this season.
That performance on run defense -- the Broncos allowed the Chargers to keep the ball for 38 minutes, 49 seconds and keep Peyton Manning on the sideline -- was a big reason the Broncos agreed to terms with veteran defensive end Jeremy Mincey on Tuesday morning.
The Broncos know offenses and, hoping to duplicate the approach, will try to pound away at their defense, especially when the postseason opens. But overall, the Broncos say the next two weeks are all about handling their own business and keeping their eyes on the prize.
“For us, fortunately, we’re still No. 1 in our conference and we’ve got two weeks left to make sure that we keep it that way,’’ said wide receiver Eric Decker. “We’ve got to come out stronger this week against Houston, play better -- play better all-around to make sure that we control our own destiny.’’
That’s quite a distinction, considering the Eagles have faced Peyton Manning (allowing 52 points), Philip Rivers (33 points), Jamaal Charles (26 points), Larry Fitzgerald (21 points) and Calvin Johnson (20 snow-covered points).
But Davis was taking in all the factors: A game with enormous playoff implications for the Bears and possibly the Eagles; quarterback Jay Cutler and his array of weapons, including Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte, and a secondary thrown into disarray by injuries and poor performance.
“Chicago might be one of the most talented offenses we face,” Davis said. “They’re obviously in the top five in scoring. They’ve got the big, physical Pro Bowl receivers – two of them. They’ve got a tight end who’s a big, athletic pass receiving tight end. The running back is as rounded as any running back we’ve faced.”
That would sound daunting coming off the nine consecutive games in which the Eagles' defense held the opposing team to 21 points or fewer. Coming off Sunday’s debacle in Minnesota, and dealing with the smoking ruins of his secondary, you can see why Davis is concerned.
Nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin, who leads the team with four interceptions, has a concussion. His availability will be determined by the NFL concussion protocol. He would be replaced by safety Patrick Chung or cornerback Roc Carmichael, or a combination of both.
Davis may get rookie safety Earl Wolff back after a five-week absence due a knee injury. But Davis said Wolff will have to “crawl” back into the lineup before he’s completely back to where he was in early November.
Wolff’s replacement, the veteran Chung, was benched in favor of Kurt Coleman. Davis revealed Tuesday that decision was made before the game.
“Pat and Kurt knew we were rotating every two series,” Davis said. “Now we were rotating because Patrick is in a little bit of a slump. We were prepared in practice, we were 50/50 with the reps. That wasn’t something that was a knee-jerk reaction.”
Coleman injured his hamstring and spent the second half in the locker room getting treatment. Colt Anderson, who plays mostly special teams, injured his knee while pressed into service on defense.
Davis said Wolff and Coleman are “day to day,” while Anderson is “more week to week.”
And those are just the injured players. Davis also has to regroup with starting cornerbacks, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, who are coming off their worst performance since the Denver game. Safety Nate Allen earned the distinction of being the least-bad defensive back of the day for the Eagles.
“It is a well-rounded offense that’s coming at us,” Davis said. “We had a bad day in Minnesota. They’re in the right mindset. Nobody’s pouting about last week. We accepted it, we owned up to it, we talked about the mistakes. Now we’re going forward and we’re going to attack Chicago with everything we have.”
The Chargers’ win had potentially erased a one-game lead over the New England Patriots and knocked the Broncos from the front of the line for home-field advantage in the AFC during the playoffs because of a 34-31 loss to the New England Patriots last month.
“And it does give us juice," said Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
“Of course it feels better to control your own destiny," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. “But we don’t want any scares like that, we want teams to come through Denver ... and we’ve got to handle our business."
The Broncos have two games remaining, both on the road -- Sunday against the 2-14 Houston Texans and Dec. 29 against the 4-10 Raiders. They are tied at 11-3 with the Kansas City Chiefs, but already swept the season series with the Chiefs, so will get both the division title and the AFC’s top seed if the Broncos win out.
Monday represented a “bonus" day in the preparation week and the Broncos used it accordingly, using a practice to work starters against starters at times in team drills. And Broncos head coach John Fox also took the opportunity to point out to the team that the three teams that entered this past week as the AFC’s top three seeds -- Denver, New England and Cincinnati -- all lost.
“You just better have you’re ‘A’ game," Fox said. “This is a great example of that ... if we learned a lesson, it wasn’t maybe individual games, it’s just what happened to us and what we need to do moving forward."
The Broncos did not have quarterback Peyton Manning throw in the full practice, but Manning did go through the team’s walk-through earlier in the day. Wide receiver Wes Welker (concussion) did not participate in the practice, and Friday Fox said that Welker had not been cleared to return to the field.
Cornerback Kayvon Webster, who had surgery to repair a fractured right thumb on Friday, is not expected to practice this week or play Sunday in Houston. Webster is expected to be able to play with a cast on his hand in the regular-season finale in Oakland.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe also did not practice, but he has begun doing some work with the team’s strength and conditioning staff as he returns from what the team called “seizure-like symptoms" Nov. 29.
Manning, Stone said, was chosen as the 60th winner of the award because of his performance on the field over the past year, his comeback from four neck surgeries and the "emotional connection he’s established with each of the fanbases" at the University of Tennessee, Indianapolis and now Denver.
Stone said Mariano Rivera, who retired earlier this year from the New York Yankees and World Series hero David Ortiz were also among those strongly considered for the award.
"There couldn’t be a more deserving guy," said Broncos head coach John Fox.
It could also be the start of quite the award season for Manning, who has 47 touchdown passes to go with 4,811 passing yards with two games remaining in the regular season. Manning is in line for what could be an NFL record fifth MVP award, a 13th Pro Bowl selection and a shot at his third Super Bowl appearance.
"I feel good that we have a chance to beat the Redskins, and if we do that, we'll get a chance to play Philadelphia with an opportunity to get in the playoffs," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "I know when I see us lose a game after having a lead like we had at halftime, anything can happen one way or the other."
Pathetic work: On a day in which the offense gained 466 yards and 27 first downs, you would think everything worked well. It didn't. The third-down offense continued its season-long struggles as the Cowboys converting on just 2 of 9 chances. It was the third time this season the Cowboys converted on less than 30 percent of their third-down tries in a game. They are 56-of-159 on the season. Tony Romo said he has to be better on third downs, the receivers have to win in man-to-man situations and the blocking has to be better.
"We haven't done that well," Romo said of the third-down woes. "We have to do a better job."
No chance on D: At one point, the Cowboys fielded a defense that had three players who were not with the team when training camp started (George Selvie, Everette Brown, Corvey Irvin), two undrafted free agents (Jeff Heath, Cameron Lawrence), a sixth-round pick (DeVonte Holloman) and a cornerback (Sterling Moore) who was out of football until Nov. 25. Matt Flynn became the fifth quarterback to throw four touchdown passes against Monte Kiffin's defense, joining Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Josh McCown. Flynn and McCown are backup quarterbacks, and the Cowboys will see another backup next week at Washington with Kirk Cousins quarterbacking the Redskins.
Still producing: Jason Witten caught 110 passes last year, an NFL record for tight ends in a season, but he had only three touchdowns. He has 59 catches this year and eight touchdowns. Witten needs one TD in the final two games to equal his career high. His eight from Romo this season are the most the duo has combined for in a season together. With 59 catches for 703 yards, Witten is averaging 11.9 yards per reception, which equals his career best so far. He might not have the starry numbers of the past, but at 31, Witten is not slowing down yet, either.
A thank you note might be in order as the Miami Dolphins did the Broncos a favor Sunday with a 24-20 win against the New England Patriots that again puts the Broncos ahead of the pack in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC despite the Broncos' loss Thursday night to the San Diego Chargers. Friday, Broncos head coach John Fox, with the players set for a weekend off, attempted to at least stem some of the angst about Thursday night’s defeat with; “I think we lost our third game, not our 13th. We don’t think the sky is falling."
And it’s not, not at 11-3, with two wins already in hand against the Chiefs. The Broncos still have the AFC’s best record and the second-best record in the league behind the Seahawks’ 12-2. But there is still a bit of a cleanup to be had on Aisle Broncos if they are going to play in the Trophy Game.
Their offense, with quarterback Peyton Manning fueling the performance, is poised to break a pile of single-season records. But in the end, a look-pretty-and-lose season would leave an empty feeling, something many of the league’s highest scoring offenses (including the current single-season record holder, the 2007 Patriots), have had to live with.
And the ’07 Patriots had performed far better on defense -- they finished No. 4 in scoring defense in the regular season at 17.1 points allowed per game -- than these Broncos have. The Broncos are surrendering 26.6 points per game, 25th in league. It would also be time to recall the Broncos have surrendered 83 points, 694 passing yards, nine touchdown passes and had just one sack in their past two playoff losses combined -- the double overtime loss to the Ravens last January and the 45-10 implosion against New England to close out the 2011 season that effectively ended Tim Tebow's tenure in Denver.
Significant help isn’t on the way beyond Champ Bailey's potential return to the defense, so whatever the Broncos do, they have to do it with the people on hand.
“It’s something that we’re working on," Fox said. “It’s something that we have to get better at. I don’t think it’s acceptable for anybody, including those guys in that room. I think they understand that, and we have to get better to get where we want to go."
Wave bye to flags: The Broncos have spent a lot of time discussing the character and talent in their locker room, and deservedly so.
But there are times when the Broncos lack the kind of down-to-down discipline that is essential in postseason football, and part of the rather enormous difference between cruising through an October blowout and winning a tight game in January.
You don’t have to look beyond a third-quarter drive Thursday night when the Broncos, in need of as many possessions as possible in a game they trailed 24-10 at the time, had a neutral-zone infraction on a punt that gave the Chargers first down. Denver had a 12-men on the field penalty later in the drive that turned what would have been a second-and-14 into a first-and-5.
After 14 games, before Thursday night’s affair and this weekend’s games, the Broncos were one of just five teams with at least 110 total penalties, including those that were declined.
Seattle, Oakland, St. Louis and Tampa Bay were the others. The Broncos have also had four games this season with at least 10 total penalties, including those that were declined, and after 13 games no team had more defensive holding penalties (13) than the Broncos.
It kept him out of Thursday’s game, and Fox said Friday that Welker had not yet been cleared medically to return to activity. It makes Welker’s availability uncertain, and even with Andre Caldwell's performance Thursday night, the Broncos lack a consistent presence in the slot when they go three-wide without Welker in the lineup.
That’s an issue, especially with an 0-for-6 performance on third down in the first half Thursday night, and the Chargers' ability to keep the ball away from Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in the second half -- just three catches combined after halftime. For the season, including penalty snaps, the Broncos have worked out of the three wide on 77.5 percent of their offensive snaps.
Against the Titans, the Broncos worked out of the three-wide set on 57.6 percent of the snaps, and still scored 51 points as they used a two-tight-end set that included Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas, the best receiving combination at the position, much of the time when they weren't in three-wide. They worked out a two-tight-end set on 68.5 percent of the snaps Thursday night, including penalty plays, and finished with a season-low 20 points.
Tamme played just nine snaps in the game as the Broncos went with a more physical look in the two-tight-end set with Virgil Green and Thomas together against the Chargers’ 3-4 look. When the Broncos couldn’t run the ball effectively, that bigger set lost its benefit. And if they’re without Welker, it likely leaves them trying to decide between a little more protection for Manning in the formation or a little more pop with Tamme and Julius Thomas in with Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
At their best, the Broncos' special teams units have been lock-it-down solid over the past two seasons. But as injuries, particularly on defense, have jumbled the depth chart there, the special teams units have looked unsettled as well.
Holliday has not looked confident fielding the ball of late, especially Thursday, when he returned after missing a game with a shoulder injury. He’s muffed five catches in the past eight games, losing two of them. The Chiefs’ Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown, and a punt hit Tony Carter in the leg in the loss against New England in Foxborough, Mass.
Any one of those plays are just the kind that turn playoff games.
But the meltdown in Minneapolis? Against a Vikings team with a journeyman quarterback and without Adrian Peterson? Nobody saw that coming, and when the 48-30 beating was over, nobody seemed able to explain how a defense that held nine consecutive opponents to 21 or fewer points got dismantled so thoroughly.
“I wish I had better answers for you,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said.
Matt Cassel completed his first eight passes, finishing 26-of-35 for 382 yards and two touchdowns. Greg Jennings caught 11 of those passes for 163 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown. Matt Asiata, who hadn’t touched the ball in a game all season, ran for three touchdowns.
It added up to the most points surrendered by an Eagles defense since Oct. 30, 2005, when the Broncos scored 49 points. Denver scored two special-teams touchdowns in their 52-20 win in September.
“I do not know if we were overlooking them or did not take it seriously,” Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. “I don’t know what happened, but whatever we did was not good enough going into this game.”
The Eagles have made it a priority to avoid giving up big plays. Cassel found Jennings streaking behind Allen and Patrick Chung in the first quarter for that 57-yard score. The Eagles gave up four passes of 20 yards or more, the most they allowed since a game against Carolina last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Chung, who lost his starting job to rookie Earl Wolff earlier in the season, was benched in favor of Kurt Coleman.
“Kurt has done a good job in practice,” coach Chip Kelly said. “Just trying to find out where we are since Earl has been down (with a knee injury). I think Kurt deserves some time and we’re just trying to figure out who can play.”
No one on the defense made much of a case for themselves in this game.
“We just weren’t playing tight enough coverage,” Davis said. “That’s attached to the rush, too. It’s all attached together. It’s not just the coverage giving up plays, it’s the rush that has to get there. Collectively, as a defense, we came up really short today.”
The Eagles had gotten some breaks this season. They faced Green Bay in its first game without Aaron Rodgers. That snowstorm last week helped neutralize Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. Facing a Vikings team without the injured Peterson and backup Toby Gerhart seemed like good fortune smiling on the Eagles again.
But without Peterson to lean on, Cassel was free to throw to Jennings, Jarius Wright, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson and Chase Ford. It begged the question of how Chicago, with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, will attack this defense.
“I don’t see it as a blueprint,” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “It was mainly us. We are going to have to go back and watch the film to see what we can correct.”
They should see plenty.
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