With the frost now settled after Denver’s tenth consecutive win, this one at the expense of the Cleveland Browns, here are a few additional thoughts with one game remaining in the regular season.
Bad News First – Let’s just get it out of the way: the Denver Broncos’ punt returners are a problem. It was apparent the Broncos lost enough trust in Trindon Holliday that the team opted to send Jim Leonhard back deep to receive punts at the start of the game. The personnel move showed the Broncos obviously felt one of the main ways Cleveland could have any chance in this game was by forcing a big error, potentially on special teams. So the Broncos trotted out the sure-handed-if-not-flashy Leonhard, who then proceeded to muff a fair catch. Oy. When the playoffs arrive, could there be situations where the Broncos don’t even attempt to field punts? If the offense keeps moving as it has been having Leonhard or Holliday back there seems almost like an unneeded risk.
Just Catch It – Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker didn’t create tons of separation once again, especially downfield. The positive is that it didn’t really matter. Peyton Manning placed perfect throws to each, and despite good coverage, both came up with big catches, and touchdowns. It’s important both keep a strong mentality of fighting for the ball, and using their strength to make plays. Earlier this season, both succumbed to the temptation of looking for a flag rather than going all in to make a play. Kudos to the duo for making big time catches in tight coverage.
Playing the Schedule – A consistent refrain on sports radio last week was whether Denver’s seemingly simple stretch run put the team at a big disadvantage heading into the playoffs. It’s been interesting to see that while the Broncos continue to say all the right “next game is the most important” things, the team is basically using its final games as pre-playoff tune-ups. Head coach John Fox stated the offense frequently operated from a two tight-end set, not hugely common to that point, in Baltimore because they wanted to work on that formation. Manning utilized a glove yesterday not because he needed it, but because he might in January. The Broncos sent a message to cornerback Tony Carter by deactivating him, starting Tracy Porter in his place, and relying on rookie Omar Bolden as the final line of nickel defense when Porter was injured.
In short, the Denver Broncos are in a playoff push with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs at stake, and feel they are good enough to tinker. The scary thing is they’re right. The scarier thing is while other teams have been fighting tooth and nail to hold their position, or gain entrance to the tournament, the Broncos are winning while managing to boost other facets of their game. So, for the record, no…I don’t think an easier stretch schedule will negatively affect the Broncos.
What’s the Reality? – While the Broncos were systematically blowing out Cleveland in non-splashy fashion, the Baltimore Ravens absolutely dismantled the New York Giants. Similar to several weeks ago, an AFC North team (back then it was the Cincinnati Bengals) ripped through the Giants a week after getting gouged by Denver. So, is it that Denver is that good, or the Giants are that bad? I guess it really depends on the level of quality you associate with the AFC North’s top two teams. In this instance I’d say it’s more a case of the Giants being bad as Cincinnati and Baltimore have been very unimpressive in recent defeats, and hardly authoritarian in recent victories. At the same time, the Ravens and Bengals are probably on the dividing line between contenders and everyone else. Those Denver victories aren’t signature wins like victories against the Atlanta Falcons or New England Patriots would have been, but they prove the Broncos are legitimately well above the playoff threshold.
Hate to Say I Told You So – Remember a week ago? Remember how after the Patriots dropped that Sunday night thriller the talk was about the Broncos getting the two seed? Remember how Denver Horse Force brushed off that talk, and posited the Broncos still had a legitimate shot for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs? Well…if you don’t…it happened. Now here we are. One week left. If the Broncos can meet expectations and get the Kansas City Chiefs that number one draft pick, and the Houston Texans stumble at Indianapolis against the Chuck Pagano-led Colts, the prophecy is fulfilled.
For those who may think the odds are long, let me point out I didn’t just say, “Hey, Denver could still get the one-seed.” I told you how it would happen. Broncos win out, Texans lose their final two. How it was a big surprise that the Minnesota Vikings, a team with a sneaky-good defense and downright dangerous running threat, proved to be a matchup nightmare for Houston is beyond me. The Texans’ loss should be even less surprising as the Vikings are playing for their season. Unlike Houston, Minnesota entered that game with ZERO guarantee of playing after next weekend.
So, what happens now that Houston does have a lot riding on a game, and their opponent is locked into the AFC’s fifth seed regardless of the outcome? I’m sticking with my story: Houston still loses to Indianapolis. Statistically they shouldn’t. Motivation-wise, the Texans’ are the team with more to play for: win and get home field advantage throughout, lose and they likely drop into Wild Card weekend and get a single home game as the three-seed. The Colts’ are playing a road game the following weekend regardless, likely at Baltimore or possibly at New England. In most every situation this game is meaningless for Indianapolis.
Except…and this a HUGE except…enter Chuck Pagano, who returns as head coach just in time for his playoff-bound team’s regular season finale. In all likelihood, it will be the final time this season the Colts play at home – in front of a crowd that has embraced the courageous, tremendous, and improbable ‘Chuckstrong’ storyline that’s unfolded this season. The Colts say they’ve fought and won to allow Pagano to return so he could coach the team in the playoffs. Does anything about this sound like this is a game Indianapolis will phone in? Does anything about this sound like a situation that favors the Houston Texans? There’s no way the Colts are losing that one. No way. No how.
The Denver Broncos will gain the AFC’s top seed.