Good Morning, Broncos fans! The 2011 Broncos needed 16 games, three tiebreakers, smoke, and mirrors, to win the AFCW, and did so while topping the 30-point mark just two times, and being outscored by 81 points.
Peyton Manning's Broncos (9-3) require no gimmicks or common opponent calculations, and have already clinched the division outright after just 12 games, thanks to their 31-23 victory (Gamebook, ANS box score) over the visiting Bucs (6-6). Through the regular season's first three quarters, Denver has already scored 30 or more points eight times, and have outscored their opponents by 105 in total.
It took Manning only 12 games to set a new Broncos single-season standard for touchdown passes, with one to Mitch Unrein (ZOMG) and two to Demaryius Thomas (what else is new?) giving him 29 on the season. The old Denver record had been 27, shared by John Elway (1997) and Jake Plummer (2004).
Yesterday's was a game kept close early and late, with the Broncos all but making victory an inevitable outcome by scoring three third-quarter touchdowns in a span of five minutes and 25 seconds.
Tampa Bay was able to draw within a single score late, thanks in part to Matt Prater's continued poor kicking. The Four Million Dollar Man has now missed at least one field goal in each of four consecutive games, and he came thisclose to missing the first of his pair of heavily pushed attempts yesterday.
We've been told over and again how clutch Prater is, but reality is that he's been a 77.3% kicker this year, and has only been good 78.3% of the time throughout his NFL career. With his miss from 47 yesterday, Prater is now a brutal 23 of 41 (56.1%) from 40-49 yards out, which renders moot his impressive numbers from 50 and longer (13/17, 76.5%).
Fortunately for the Broncos, they've not gotten into any close games where FG kicking has been the difference, as all of their wins have been by seven points or more. Should they face a closer margin later in the year, or in the playoffs, we'll have to all hope that Prater will have regained his early-season form, plus not be asked to kick from forty-something out.
The game might also have been closer but for Greg Schiano bringing FG attempts to a touchdown fight with Peyton Manning, and inexplicably opting to kick deep with his team down 15 with 3:23 remaining (Thanks, Greg).
Wiser, gutsier calls in those instances might have helped his team win the game, but Schiano instead decided to prove he's a tough guy and a hardnosed coach by having his defenders dive at Denver's offensive line with the Broncos in victory formation.
Schiano is like the asshole who likes to drive fast in the right lane, aggressively keeping you from moving over as you try to exit the highway. He's the kid who got left behind two years in a row, and then bullies his third set of fellow fourth graders.
Look, buddy. Your meek, lame, conventional wisdom-fueled decisions from the first 59 minutes of games - which stand to make the victory formation antics hypocritical ones at best - are why you are so often losing in the final minute, when you suddenly decide that your team never gives up.
There was no false bravado from the Broncos defense, however - you know, the group that was supposed to have problems against the run, and was going to get trampled by the Muscle Hamster Who Got Away? Instead, the Bucs managed just 71 rushing yards on 21 attempts, and Doug Martin was held to fifty-something yards rushing for the second straight week. The rookie was a factor early on, but only 24 of his 98 yards from scrimmage came in the second half.
A bigger impact was made by Von Miller, who ended his one-week hiatus from supremacy by turning in one of the stat-sheet stuffing performances that have typified his remarkable season. Von made six tackles, with one sack, one forced fumble, a pass defensed, a quarterback hit, and the first interception of his career, which he brought back 26 yards for a score.
Denver's win clinched not only the AFCW for themselves, but also the NFCS for the Falcons. The Patriots (9-3) were the other team to clinch yesterday, by virtue of their 23-16 win over the Dolphins (5-7).
At nine victories, Denver and New England have now pulled into a three-way tie with Baltimore for the second-best record in the AFC, thanks to a tremendous performance from veteran Charlie Batch, who led Pittsburgh (7-5) to a 23-20 comeback win over their primary rivals.
Among the 9-3 trio of Denver, New England, and Baltimore, the Pats hold the head-to-head edge over the Broncos, the Ravens have the same advantage over the Pats, and it's looking more and more like Denver's Week 15 trip to Baltimore will figure heavily in the AFC playoff seeding. In the interim, the Ravens will make the short trip southwest to face Washington, who tonight host the G-Men.
Unfortunately, Houston (11-1) remains far above that nine-win fray after their 24-10 playoff-clinching win over the Titans (4-8). But the Texans travel to face the Patriots next Monday, and almost any outcome in that game will be good for Denver's chances at gaining a first-round bye.
Wesley Woodyard is considered day-to-day with a right ankle injury, but that's a status that's worse this week than it normally is, what with Denver having to turn around and play Thursday night at Oakland. Woodyard was apparently limping visibly after the game, and was replaced in the nickel package by Keith Brooking, and in
dyme dime by, appropriately, D.J. Williams.
Unrein's touchdown was the first offensive score in Broncos history by a defensive lineman, and his first since he was a freshman in high school.
With Brandon Stokley out, Manning just turned his attention to fellow familiar face Jacob Tamme, who was good for nine receptions and 89 yards. But the Broncos would prefer to have Stokley active to help maintain their offensive rhythm.
Now that the Broncos have officially clinched a home playoff game, perhaps Manning should film a brief message reminding fans to STFU when he's on the field. Granted, it's hard to blame these fans who dole out big bucks to see games in person, and are still giddy about getting to see Peyton do his thing. The QB seemed to have the Indy fans very well trained in that regard, but maybe they were so used to seeing the greatness that the excitement had worn off over the years. Either way, if you're among those lucky enough to attend games at SAF@MH in person, make sure your neighbors are doing their part to help the Broncos win.
To that end, Mark Kiszla has some new Peyton-specific rules to offer for SAF@MH attendees.
Sealver Siliga dressed for the first time, and Manning passed Dan Marino for second place on the all-time list for completions.
The rest of the AFC playoff race is a clear one between Indy, Pittsburgh, and Cincy.
The Colts (8-4) maintained a one-game lead over the other two thanks to another comeback win led by Andrew Luck, this time a 35-33 stunner over the host Lions (4-8). Luck threw two touchdown passes inside the final three minutes of the game, including a scramble/toss to Donnie Avery to claim victory at the gun on fourth-and-goal from the 14. All of Indy's wins have come by seven points or less, and half of them have been by a field goal or less.
Cincinnati (7-5) has now won four straight after edging the Chargers (4-8) by scoring ten points and turning Philip Rivers over twice in the 20-13 game's last five minutes.
Buffalo (5-7) is a longshot for the playoffs, but their 34-18 win over the Jaguars (2-10) maintained their slim hopes.
The LOLJets (5-7) also staved off elimination by edging the Cardinals (4-8) in a 7-6 snoozefest that saw the Sanchize benched after he threw three first-half picks. Buttfumble was replaced by the winner of the 2009 SEC title game; the loser of that showdown was inactive.
Kansas City (2-10) won their first home game of the year, an emotional 27-21 victory over the visiting Panthers (3-9). All three of their touchdowns came from exiled Broncos, as Peyton Hillis punched in the first one, and Brady Quinn threw for two scores to notch his first win in almost three years. That previous win had come with Cleveland and at Kansas City's expense, even if it was more despite Quinn's efforts (66 yards, two picks) than it was in any way thanks to him.
This time, Brady was nearly flawless (19/23, 201 yards, two TDs) during the game, while his post-game comments on the Perkins/Belcher tragedy were perfection. Of course, Quinn's teammates and coaches also had plenty to say after their remarkable performance.
Quinn's first team also won in the face of tragedy this weekend, as Cleveland (4-8) sent the Raiders (3-9) to their fifth straight loss by a score of 20-17. Like Belcher with the Chiefs, a member of Cleveland's grounds crew had committed suicide at the team's facility, where he was found Saturday morning. After the game, Dennis Allen left the Raiders to be with his ailing father.
Over in the NFC, Green Bay (8-4) withstood 220 yards of offense from Adrian Peterson in a 23-14 win over visiting Minnesota (6-6).
That win pulled the Packers into a tie atop the NFCN with Chicago (8-4), who fell 23-17 to the Seahawks (7-5) on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Sidney Rice in overtime.
St. Louis (5-6-1) and San Francisco (8-3-1) barely avoided their second tie game in three weeks, as the Rams got a 54-yard field goal from Greg Zuerlein with 26 seconds remaining in overtime for a 16-13 win.
Dallas (6-6) defeated Philly (3-9) in a 38-33 SNF shootout, and they are now tied with Tampa Bay and Minnesota on the outside of the NFC wild card race. Andy Reid has one fewer scapegoat in his stable, as he fired defensive line coach Jim Washburn this morning; Washburn had reportedly been upset with the team's waiving of Jason Babin earlier in the week.
Andy Benoit, Mike Tanier, Will Brinson, Bill Barnwell, Mike Silver, Peter King, Sam Farmer, Don Banks, Clark Judge, John Clayton, Jason Cole, and Alex Marvez recap the day's action, Doug Farrar names MVPs for the day (Peyton Manning, Brady Quinn), and Matt Bowen goes over a few key plays.
A new study from Boston University includes 28 more cases of CTE in the brains of deceased football players and provides yet more evidence that repeated mild head traumas have dire, long-term effects.
Updates: 10:09am ET - Barnwell link added; 10:15am ET - Farrar, Buttfumble links added