Good Morning, Broncos fans! It's a tired phrase, as most Chris Berman-isms are, but...this is why they play the games.
After the Patriots (10-4) had reeled off seven straight wins, topping 40 points on four occasions along the way, it appeared they would swat away the visiting 49ers (10-3-1) last night, thus retaining their advantage over Denver (by virtue of their head-to-head tiebreaker) in the race for a first-round bye.
San Francisco's inability to capitalize on early mistakes by New England seemed to be just the sort of thing that would keep the Niners and their young quarterback from knocking off the apparent AFC favorites.
But the ball kept bouncing the way of the Niners - and, indirectly, the Broncos - and San Francisco eventually converted enough Patriots errors into touchdowns, to hang on for dear life in a wild 41-34 stunner that helps put Denver in prime position for the AFC's number-two seed, and a week off to start the playoffs.
The Broncos are now in control of that destiny - and can ensure themselves of a bye - if they can simply manage to beat the Browns and Chiefs at SAF@MH over the upcoming two Sundays.
Indeed, those tasks would appear as simple as they come in the NFL, given what Denver achieved yesterday in Baltimore.
The Ravens were fielding a depleted defense, and as we'd noted throughout the week, almost everything favored the Broncos. But winning on the road in the NFL is always a commendable feat, and at M&T Bank Stadium, that's especially the case.
Denver (11-3) didn't just win, though; they dominated the host Ravens (9-5), in a stadium where they'd never fared better than an 11-point defeat. 34-17 (Gamebook, ANS box score) was the final margin, yet like many of the Broncos' nine consecutive wins, it wasn't nearly that close.
That's nine times now that Denver has hit the 30-point mark this season, and the seventh time they've held an opponent under 20 points.
Baltimore and new OC/play-caller Jim Caldwell were supposedly going to punish the Broncos defense with a heavy dose of Ray Rice, but the human bowling ball only managed 41 yards on 16 touches. Even Rice's longest play, an 11-yarder near halftime - and his only rushing first down of the day - was rendered meaningless just moments later when the remarkable Chris Harris came up with the longest pick-six in Denver history.
(Randy Gradishar's 93-yarder against Cleveland in 1980 was the previous record-holder; Champ Bailey's legendary return against Tom Brady in the 2005 divisional round was longer, at 100 yards, but was of course not a scoring play, thanks to the incomparable effort of one Benjamin Watson.)
Harris's play was by far the biggest from a defense that stifled the Ravens in an exceptional effort, holding them to just 12 total first downs, 56 rushing yards, one third-down conversion in twelve tries, and a miniscule 21 minutes and 26 seconds in time of possession.
Along with the defense, Denver dominated that latter figure thanks to a hurdling, Herculean effort from Knowshon Moreno, who was good for 126 yards on 24 touches - a slighter, yet more efficient performance than his previous one at Oakland.
Ronnie Hillman, the NFL's baby (its youngest player), stepped in for a slightly injured Knowshon in the fourth quarter, maturely providing three workmanlike first downs to keep alive a drive which would consume a staggering 9 minutes, 59 seconds of game time.
In all, the Broncos ran for 163 yards on 45(!) carries, while Peyton Manning had just 187 net passing yards, by far his fewest of the season.
Playing stellar defense and a game of keepaway should put an end to the I-need-to-write-something thoughts that lead to the stupid "Can the Broncos run the ball come January?" columns, even if it's not yet January. The answer, of course, is that yes, they can, and while it's nice to see they're able, the only reason to think they couldn't was because they hadn't necessarily tried that hard to do so in earlier games.
Let us be clear - the Broncos had nothing to prove yesterday, not a one. The narrative spinners in the MSM will likely say just the opposite all week long, and perhaps even the Bill Simmonses of the world will finally admit that Denver have, indeed, beat someone. Again, these Ravens were a shell of their former selves, but being that Baltimore had taken down Simmons's sacred Patriots earlier in the season, we're unlikely to see that qualifier from Bill.
These Broncos are who we'd already thought they were prior to the game, to close with another worn-out Berman-ism (which started out as a Dennis Green tirade).
And this Denver team, it's good enough to be number-two seeds, and to sit home and rest come the first week of the 2012 NFL Playoffs.
The Broncos emerged with no major injuries to speak of.
Tracy Porter's frustrations as expressed on Twitter read even more poorly when considering the 2012 season of Knowshon Moreno.
Mike Silver makes the scary (for everyone else) point that Manning & Co. still have not peaked as far as offensive synchronization goes.
Lindsay Jones and Mike Klis recap the game; Mark Kiszla says the two teams swapped their traditional roles yesterday; Jeff Legwold praises Harris's coverage of Anquan Boldin and the linebackers' bottling of Rice.
Even as Peyton's performance stands behind Harris and Moreno's yesterday, Gwen Knapp says Manning has already locked up the MVP and has the SB in sight.
As honors go, Woody Paige presents Harris's case for a trip to Hawaii, although if Denver heads to the Big Easy for SB 47, he'll have to skip the Pro Bowl.
Don Banks learned more about Baltimore's fading prospects yesterday then he did Denver's still rising ones.
A gold star if you caught this live - the bumbling Dan Dierdorf called Greg Gumbel - his partner of six years - by the name "Bill" at one point during the game.
Adjusted for strength of schedule by Chase Stuart, the Broncos are the league's best at sacking the QB, and among the best at protecting their own.
Houston (12-2) finally clinched the AFCS with a 29-17 victory against the visiting upstart Colts (9-5)
Despite the loss, Baltimore clinched a playoff spot later in the day when Pittsburgh (7-7) lost to the Cowboys (8-6) in a 27-24 OT thriller that featured Phil Simms imploring the teams to kick on seemingly every down. For some reason, Jason Garrett listened, and because he won, those blind to the process and focused solely on the result will say he was right. But he was not; he was wrong, and got away with it.
The Steelers are now outside the AFC playoff picture and looking in, while Dallas and Washington pulled into a three-way tie atop the NFCE with the Giants, who lost at Atlanta.
Miami (6-8) staved off elimination by dispatching Jacksonville (2-12) and their old quarterback Chad Henne by a score of 24-3.
As for the AFCW, Denver is now assured of being the only team to finish at .500 or better, as the Chargers (5-9) got stomped 31-7 by the resurgent Panthers (5-9), who have reached the 30-point plateau in each of three wins out of their last four games. Cam Newton threw for two scores, while Mike Tolbert ran for two more in his return to San Diego.
Oakland (4-10) shut out the Chiefs (2-12), outscoring them 15-0, outgaining them 385 yards to 119, and winning the TOP battle by a staggering margin of 40:06 to 19:54. Even still, they were unable to get into the end zone, instead relying upon five Sebastian Janikowski field goals for the entirety of their points.
We'll humbly reconsider our suggestion that the Falcons (12-2) weren't as good as their record indicated, what with their stunning 34-0 whitewashing of the visiting Giants (8-6). Matt Ryan three for three touchdowns, while the Atlanta defense picked off Eli Manning twice and held the G-Men to just 10 first downs.
Kirk Cousins led Shanny's squad to a 38-21 thumping of the Browns (5-9), who had previously won three straight and head to Denver next Sunday. Cleveland was held to 13 first downs, and QB Brandon Weeden was picked off twice in the loss; although Trent Richardson scored two touchdowns, he managed just 28 yards on 11 carries.
Atlanta maintained its stranglehold of the NFC's top seeding, as they're two games ahead of the Packers (10-6); Green Bay clinched the NFCN with a 21-13 win over the host Bears (8-6) by restricting Jay Cutler & Co. to 190 yards of offense.
Seattle (9-5) is still in position for the NFC's top wild card after their 50-17 demolition of the Bills (5-9), who were officially eliminated from playoff contention with the loss. Russell Wilson threw one touchdown pass and ran for three more, and the Seahawks became just the third NFL team to hit the 50-point mark in consecutive weeks.
Minnesota's (8-6) playoff hopes remain alive and well following their 36-22 thrashing of the Rams (6-7-1), which was powered by another 212 rushing yards by Adrian Peterson.
Drew Brees threw four touchdown passes, the Saints defense picked off Josh Freeman four times, and New Orleans (6-8) whitewashed the Bucs (6-8) in a lopsided 41-0 result.
Arizona (5-9) broke its nine-game losing streak in convincing fashion, with a 38-10 embarrassment of the visiting Lions (4-10) that included three interceptions by Matthew Stafford.
Andy Benoit, Mike Tanier, Will Brinson, Bill Barnwell, the Football Outsiders crew, Sam Farmer, Clark Judge, Don Banks, Peter King (no more pagination!), Jason Cole, John Clayton, and Alex Marvez recap the day; Judge calls Denver the team to beat in the AFC; Barnwell isn't convinced that Jim Caldwell > Cam Cameron to run Baltimore's offense, and he rightly knocks John Harbaugh for not going for two with the score 34-16 yesterday, which we'd ourselves missed entirely.
Brian Burke has complemented his legendary fourth down calculator (which the math-challenged Jason Cole unsurprisingly needs to be introduced to) with a tool to help show just how soon a defense can manage to get the ball back to its offense.
Additions: Peter King, 10:06am ET; Bill Barnwell, 10:27am ET; Football Outsiders, 11:24am ET