The red-hot Denver Broncos have been anything but in December as of late.
Before this season, the team was a combined 5-14 in the month of December since 2008.
Thankfully it’s been a different tune this season.
Now riding a nine-game win streak and with sights set on the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the NFL playoffs, the Broncos finish the 2012 regular season with back-to-back home games – against teams with losing records.
First up…the 5-9 Cleveland Browns.
With 16 rookies on the active roster, ten of whom have started, the young Browns experienced a lot of growing pains early on in the season. Now finally playing cohesive football, the Browns have won three of their last four games, thanks in part to improved play of quarterback Brandon Weeden and the steady work of running back Trent Richardson.
The playoff-bound Broncos are guaranteed no lower than the AFC’s No. 3 seed. Sitting right now at No. 2 behind the Houston Texans, the Broncos control their own destiny in securing a first-round bye.
Ask the players and coaches and they’ll tell you no one is thinking playoff seeding – only the remaining regular season games. That’s likely true, but think of it this way: If the Broncos win, they’ll be rewarded in playoff seeding.
When Cleveland has the ball: Rookie Trent Richardson is 230-lbs. of hard-to-bring-down running back. Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard describes Richardson as a “workhorse” who looks just as strong on his 30th carry as his first.
Cleveland Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson has scored six touchdowns in the last four games. (courtesy Erik Drost)
Richardson’s 12 touchdowns in 2012 is tied for second-most in the NFL. He’s racked up six of those touchdowns in the Browns’ last four games. Richardson needs 103 yards to reach 1,000 rushing yards on the season, but Sunday could be the young workhorse’s biggest defensive challenge yet. Denver’s run defense is ranked second in the NFL, and has given up only one rushing touchdown since Week 6.
The stellar play of Denver’s front seven means Richardson will have to earn every yard he gets on the ground…or will rely on short-yardage passing situations to rack up yards after the catch. Richardson leads the Browns with 48 catches this season, and we’ve seen the Broncos defense stumble at times against opposing tight ends and running backs in the passing game.
Cleveland’s offensive line is anchored by left tackle Joe Thomas. The five-time Pro Bowler will take on Elvis Dumervil as his primary assignment. Thomas is among the best at his position in the league, as is Dumveril, making this one-on-one matchup perhaps the game’s most intriguing.
If Thomas holds his own, the Broncos’ on-the-edges pass rush might be just on-the-edge with linebacker Von Miller, who didn’t register a sack in last week’s victory against the Baltimore Ravens. Miller has 16 sacks on the season and figures to add to that tally against Brandon Weeden, your classic pocket passer who doesn’t like to roll out or run.
Weeden, like so many other rookie quarterbacks (even the 29-year-old ones), has struggled with turnovers this season, throwing more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (14). He tends to force the football into coverage mismatches, resulting in the aforementioned INTs or batted down passes. Given the Broncos’ opportunistic secondary, it’s a safe bet Weeden will add to his turnover total Sunday.
When Denver has the ball: I hope don’t jinx the team with the following statement:
It seems the Broncos have righted the ship when it comes to turnovers.
Denver’s turnover margin is now 0, which still trails the league’s other elite teams by a lot, but recent trends prove promising. The Broncos have been in the minus side of the turnover margin for most of the season, but didn’t have a single turnover against the Ravens – Denver’s first turnover-free game of the season. It’s now been more than a month since Denver lost a fumble, the last coming Nov. 18 at home against the San Diego Chargers.
Ball security will once again be crucial for the Broncos’ success Sunday, as the Browns are tied for fifth in the NFL with 28 takeaways.
Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, inactive for eight games this season, has gone from being relegated to scout team duties to being Denver’s unlikely newest (old) offensive weapon. In his last two games, Moreno has rushed for 119 and 118 yards respectively, and has no turnovers since replacing Willis McGahee in late-November. Cleveland’s defense allows 120.6 rushing yards per game, good news for Moreno and rookie speedster Ronnie Hillman.
With right guard Chris Kuper (ankle) likely sidelined another week, pass protection could be a liability. Here’s a staggering, tell-all statistic: Peyton Manning has been sacked 21 times this season, 19 of those happened with Kuper out of the lineup. (Kuper has started five games this season.)
Moreno has done a decent job of getting to the free rusher and protecting Manning; even so, Peyton took some big hits in last week’s win against Baltimore. Manning has shown he’s sturdy and quickly bounces back up, but seeing your $90 million quarterback with a surgically repaired neck knocked to the ground is always one of those sights you’d rather not see.
Denver 33, Cleveland 17
It seems I write this every week, but here goes:
If Cleveland hopes to pull out the victory, two things need to happen: 1) Denver turnovers, and 2) Keep the Broncos’ high-scoring offense on the sidelines where Peyton Manning can’t do any damage. Cleveland isn’t equipped to beat Denver in a shootout, and need to keep the Broncos under 20 for any real chance at victory.
The young Browns are trying to close out the season strong, but the Broncos are just too good in too many areas to let this one slip away.
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