AFC West: Denver Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are times this season, such as a 21-point third quarter Monday night in Cincinnati, when the Denver Broncos' offense looks every bit as comfortable in sling-it-around, go-fast mode as it did last season when it set the NFL's single-season scoring record as the league's first 600-point team.

And there are times this season, such as a 45-carry, 214-yard rushing effort on a frigid night in Kansas City, when the Broncos have looked just as comfortable as a that's-going-to-leave-a-mark offense.

But with the regular-season finale approaching Sunday against Oakland Raiders and the playoffs looming, the Broncos would like to smooth out some of the rough spots in between.

"Everybody is trying to find a rhythm and it's just like, 'Who's it going to be? Passing game? Run game? Is it going to be the quarterback, the running back, the wide receiver?"' said offensive coordinator Adam Gase Friday. "The whole group, everybody's trying to find their own personal rhythm. That's where my job has to be, 'How do I get our whole group rolling in the right direction as fast as possible?' I think there have been some games where we've felt that way, where we've felt like, 'Alright we're going pretty good.'"

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsWith the playoffs looming, the Broncos' offense is still trying to find its rhythm.
It isn't as if the dark clouds of touchdown-less doom have swirled around the Broncos. With 435 points after 15 games the current season still marks just the sixth time in franchise history the team has topped 400 points in a season.

Yes, it's certainly a long way from last-season's 606 points, but 600 points was uncharted ground before the Broncos went there in 2014. By comparison, the New England Patriots, who lead the league in scoring at the moment, need 41 points Sunday just to reach 500 points this season.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning leads the league in touchdown passes, with 39, and the Broncos have three players (Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders) with at least nine touchdowns.

"We're certainly capable of moving the ball and scoring points," Manning said.

It's just, there have been times when Manning has looked out of sorts. Monday night was his first four-interception game since 2010. Manning has struggled when the Broncos haven't protected well, haven't controlled the line of scrimmage and when they've let scoring opportunities slip away.

Often the 19- to 22-yard field goals are the glowing red symbols of drives that got away since those are attempts that were made with the line of scrimmage between the 1- and 4-yard lines. This season two Broncos kickers -- Brandon McManus and Connor Barth -- have made six field goals combined between 19 and 22 yards.

Turn those six drives alone into touchdowns and the Broncos are sitting at 459 points, or tied with the Patriots for the league lead.

After failing to come away with a title in either of the last two 13-3 seasons, the players understand one too many field goals, one too many sacks allowed, one too many missed blocks or one too many runs for negative yardage can be the difference in a playoff game.

"I think we just feel like there's more we can do," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "We want to be consistent. We have to be more consistent. When we get those opportunities to make plays, we all have to make them, we can't leave anything out there and sometime we leave plays out there."

Monday night it was exactly those things with Manning's four interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, a missed field goal right before halftime or the four plays for negative yardage (three runs, one pass).

"Got a little feel at the end of the first half (Monday) and then when we came out in the second half, that third quarter really felt good," Gase said. "(The players) kept coming back to the sidelines like, 'OK, I feel like we're getting it rolling pretty good here.' And in the fourth quarter we just kind of got stuck in a couple of situations where we had some game-changing type things happen. We thought we were alright and we either have a penalty, or we have a drop, or a sack or a tackle for loss that kind of changed the momentum of what we were doing in the fourth quarter. … And we've had a couple games where we've had some rough starts and didn't really get going until the middle of the game or in that third quarter. So we've just got to try to find it earlier. The sooner we can find that rhythm in a game, the better it's going to be for our offense."

"I'm not sure if the tempo really is what it's about as much as just the execution," Manning said. "We just have to be more sound. I have to be more on the details, more on the little fundamentals to get us started, to give each play a chance to succeed. Hopefully I can do a better job of that this week."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos continued through their preparations Friday for the regular-season finale, the chances continue to increase that running back Ronnie Hillman will be part of the mix on offense Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

Hillman
Hillman, who has missed the last six games after suffering a left foot injury Nov. 9 against the Raiders, practiced fully again Friday. It meant Hillman was a full participant in all of the team's practices this week.

Before his injury, Hillman had taken a turn as the Broncos' lead back with 100 yards rushing in the win over the New York Jets on Oct. 12 and 109 yards rushing in an Oct. 23 win over the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos will be happy to have his speed back in the lineup. Of the team's eight runs of at least 20 yards this season, Hillman has three -- all three came in a three-game span in October -- and he's had two of the team's three runs of at least 30 yards.

"He's got good burst, good explosion, same things you saw before the injury," said Broncos head coach John Fox following Friday's practice. "He looks to be back in that form and we'll see how that goes, he hasn't played football in six weeks. Get nervous a little bit about that, but he has a good week of practice."

Hillman was formally listed as probable for Sunday's game.

Linebacker Brandon Marshall, who suffered a left foot injury in the Broncos' win in San Diego, did not practice this week and was formally ruled out of Sunday's game. Marshall did work with the strength and conditioning staff this week and continues to progress.

He would certainly benefit from a Broncos win on Sunday, which would give the team a bye in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Safety T.J. Ward, who suffered a neck injury in Monday night's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, was limited Friday and listed as questionable. Given the nature of the injury and the way Ward plays in the defense, the Broncos may be inclined to hold him out Sunday.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (hip) was also limited Friday and listed as questionable, but is expected to play. Reserve tackle Paul Cornick (toe on right foot) was the only other player limited in Friday's practice.

Again the Broncos had lengthy list of other players with injuries on the report who took part fully in Friday's practice, including Peyton Manning (right thigh), left tackle Ryan Clady (right thigh), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (right ankle), tight end Julius Thomas (left ankle) and running back C.J. Anderson (left ankle). All are listed as probable and expected to play.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whether a team is headed for the playoffs, like the Denver Broncos (11-4), or in the opening moves of yet another rebuilding project, like the Oakland Raiders (3-12), at least one thing they have in common is the need for rookies to contribute to the cause.

For the Broncos, a team coming off back-to-back 13-3 seasons that dove into free agency with a wide-open checkbook, the opportunities are limited, but some rookies need to be the homegrown players working to be future starters.

And if one such as first-round pick Bradley Roby breaks into the lineup, that’s all the better as the best defenses against potential salary-cap purges are good drafts and youth on the roster.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsBradley Roby, a 2013 first-rounder, has played 75 percent of the defensive snaps this season.
“[Roby] works at it, he cares," said Broncos head coach John Fox. “A lot of people come into this league have talent, you don’t get a seat in that room without having talent, but to be successful takes a lot more than just talent."

The Broncos' rookie class has had a far bigger impact on defense where Roby, having played 75 percent of the snaps this season, has put himself at least in the discussion for the league’s defensive rookie of the year award. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has not hesitated to match Roby against front-line receivers in man coverage at times.

And while Roby has been targeted by some opposing quarterbacks for a smattering of plays, he’s held up well enough.

“I’ve said all along I just want to make plays that help us win games," Roby said. “Compete hard and make plays ... they’re going to complete some balls on you, but you have to keep playing."

Broncos linebackers Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson have been used at times on defense and may get some snaps Sunday against the Raiders because of injuries. The two have played a steady diet of special teams. Rookie linebacker Todd Davis, a waiver claim by the Broncos last month, has played plenty of special teams to go with a start against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Offensively, the 2014 season has been a learning experience for the Broncos rookies for the most part as tackle Michael Schofield has been a game-ay inactive for all 15 games, Matt Paradis is on the practice squad and wide receiver Cody Latimer has played just 25 snaps on offense.

The Raiders will bring 11 rookies on their 53-man roster to Denver, including two of the league’s most high-profile first-year players in quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack. The Raiders haven’t made the playoffs since 2002 and are in the middle of another rebuilding effort, having already fired head coach in Dennis Allen in September after an 0-4 start.

“We’re trying to change the culture here ... just the culture of what it used to be around here, just losing all the time," Carr said. "Things haven’t gone well here for a long time. This team wants to be the start of something new. This team is definitely different … definitely started to head in the right direction."

Mack, with 82 tackles and four sacks, will be one of the leading candidates for the defensive rookie of the year. “He’ll be one of the top players in this league, no doubt in my mind," Carr said this week. "That guy is the absolute beast, an absolute monster. He’s a guy who will win MVP awards."

The Raiders faced a decision with Carr. They could let him watch and learn or simply toss him into the mix and let him work through things. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has always said the most difficult thing for a rookie quarterback to do in his first NFL starting job is to deal with the week-to-week confidence issues that come with the job.

Carr has held up and progressed as he has thrown just two interceptions in his last six starts -- both Nov. 30 against St. Louis.

“Glad since Day 1, they’ve trusted me to start," Carr said. "There’s nothing like playing in games ... and learning that way. To play right away was the best situation for me. If bad times happen, I don’t go in the tank, feel crushed, lose confidence or anything like that ... so coaches decided the best way for me to learn was to play right away.

“But just the speed of the game in the NFL is unlike anything else you see in college, it’s not even close to college, light years ahead of anything in college."
video When: 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver TV: CBS

As the regular season wraps up, the Oakland Raiders (3-12) are poised for another coaching search as they have missed the postseason for the 11th consecutive season -- they last made it in 2002, when they closed out that season with a loss in Super Bowl XXXVII.

The Denver Broncos are looking to regain some momentum after Monday night’s loss in Cincinnati and need a win to earn a much-needed bye for the first round of the playoffs.

ESPN NFL Nation Raiders reporter Bill Williamson and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold look at Sunday's matchup:

Legwold: The Raiders have shown a little grit under interim coach Tony Sparano. What is the latest on their coaching search and who do you think gets the job?

Williamson: All the speculation is on Jim Harbaugh at this point. There has been talk that it could come down to Michigan or the Raiders once Harbaugh leaves the San Francisco 49ers next week. Securing Harbaugh would be a huge shot in the arm for Oakland. If Oakland owner Mark Davis can’t land Harbaugh, top names on the list might include Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and Rex Ryan, if he is fired by the Jets as expected. Sparano could also be in the mix if some pursuits don’t develop.

Jeff, do you think Del Rio could be a fit for the Raiders?

Legwold: Del Rio certainly wants to be a head coach again. He’s in his third season with the Broncos since a nine-year run as Jacksonville Jaguars coach. In a league where the numbers on offense are climbing with each flip of a calendar page, it can be more difficult for coaches with defensive backgrounds to separate themselves from their peers to become the hot candidates. Del Rio has the head-coaching experience some owners want, but many defensive coaches around the league see a landscape where team owners are far more willing to take a chance on a coordinator with an offensive pedigree. A quality postseason run could push Del Rio more into the mix -- the Broncos are still No. 3 in total defense and No. 2 in run defense after their semi-meltdown in Cincinnati on Monday night -- but the unit needs a signature game, something like a postseason win against New England, to really push Del Rio to the forefront. He fared well as the Denver interim coach last season when John Fox missed four games after open heart surgery, and Del Rio has retained high-powered Bob LaMonte as his agent. In the end, like a lot of coaches searching for a second chance, Del Rio would have to be up front about what he would fix and how he would fix it from his last experience.

In terms of the future for the Raiders, quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack look to be the kind of building-block players a franchise needs for a rebound. How would you rate their progress, and what is Carr’s standing among his teammates?

Williamson: Mack has been simply outstanding. His statistics don’t jump out, but he’s a coach’s dream. He is always around the play, no matter the situation. I expect him to get more explosive as his career develops. Carr is revered by the entire franchise. He still has a ways to go in his development, but the game is not too big and he’s delivered in some pressure situations. If he continues to learn his progressions and improve against the blitz, he should be an above-average player.

Jeff, have any young players in Denver jumped out to you on the veteran-laden roster?

Legwold: Cornerback Bradley Roby was the Broncos’ first-round pick this past May, and when he arrived, Del Rio simply told him the Broncos had a lot of experienced cornerbacks so he shouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t play much. Instead of wilting at that assessment, Roby went about the business of earning his playing time. He plays in the nickel and dime packages -- he’s played in 75 percent of the defensive snaps this season -- and deserves a long look for the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Roby has been competitive in coverage and physical along the line of scrimmage. Though he has been picked on a little at times, most opposing quarterbacks have not found much success doing it. Also, second-year running back C.J. Anderson went from shaky status in minicamp last spring to the team’s leading rusher. And linebacker Brandon Marshall, who spent most of last season on the team’s practice squad, has played at a Pro Bowl level as an every-down linebacker and is the Broncos’ leading tackler with 110.

Looking at the Raiders' defense, including Mack, how do you think they will come after Peyton Manning this time around? Teams have made it more difficult for Manning to do what he likes to do in the passing game in recent weeks. Do you think the Raiders will use the same defensive game plan they used against Denver last month?

Williamson: Manning has absolutely shredded Oakland in his five games against them as a Bronco. So until proven otherwise, we have to assume that he will have success again Sunday. Denver had a tough time in pass protection at Cincinnati. I’m sure Oakland will try to start its attack by trying to get some pressure with Mack, Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith. Oakland, which has struggled rushing the passer most of this season, had a solid performance against Buffalo. So I’m sure it will try to make Manning as uncomfortable as possible.

I know there is some panic over Manning among the fan base in recent weeks. Are the Broncos concerned?

Legwold: Coach John Fox said this week that Manning is "fine" physically, and when Manning was asked after the loss in Cincinnati if he had any physical issues impacting his play, said he did not. On one hand there is plenty of hand-wringing about Manning with the Broncos’ faithful, about the team’s play in road games this season and in bad weather. He had his first four-interception game since 2010 this past Monday night, and has looked unsettled at times as defenses have tried to force him to throw the ball outside the numbers as much as possible. He had 11 interceptions in the Broncos’ road games this season, and his 15 interceptions overall are his most since he had 17 in 2010 (following 16 picks in 2009). The Broncos are concerned, but they know from a football perspective they have to find an answer for what defenses have done largely since the team’s loss in New England in early November. The teams with the personnel to do it have succeeded in limiting the crossing routes, the catch-and-run plays that are the foundation of the Broncos’ offense. The Broncos don’t see Manning much differently than last season, when he set a record with 55 touchdown passes. The Broncos are also fairly quick to point out that, despite all of the debate on Manning’s health and play, he still leads the league in touchdown passes with 39, and the Broncos are one win away from the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With one more regular-season game to play before whatever becomes of the Denver Broncos' playoff fortunes, quarterback Peyton Manning said Wednesday it's time to tie up loose ends, limit the mistakes and find some efficiency and momentum to take into January and, they hope, February.

Manning
And the first player on the list in Manning's opinion to get that started was, well, Manning.

"We got to play better offensively than we did last week," Manning said. "We showed flashes, you know, three consecutive scoring drives in the third quarter, good drive at the end of the first half … certainly capable of moving the ball and scoring points … i.e. protecting the ball and that starts with me. You cannot turn it over four times and beat a good football team."

Manning did finish with 311 yards passing on a rain-soaked night in Cincinnati, but his four interceptions in the 37-28 loss to the Bengals were his highest total in a game since a four-interception game in 2010. The loss also meant the Broncos are now 3-4 in games this season when Manning throws for at least 300 yards.

They are 8-0 when he throws for fewer than 300 yards, even if he throws an interception or not in those games. Manning has always said "my signature" is on every interception. After reviewing the four he threw against the Bengals earlier in the week, Manning was candid Wednesday about where he goes from here.

"When you throw an interception, every one of them has a story and as I've said before nobody wants to hear it," Manning said. "The ones the other night were a combination of bad throws and bad decisions. Some inaccurate throws and a couple times good coverage on their part and the ball shouldn't have gone there. ... Just can't do it, go to throw it away or put the ball out front. ... I take a lot of pride in being an accurate quarterback, try to be disciplined in my decision-making, so I didn't play up to my standards the other night, and certainly on those particular plays I have to do a better job of that."

In the Broncos' 41-17 win over the Raiders Nov. 9, Manning shook off two early interceptions to finish 31-of-44 for 340 yards with five touchdown passes. The Broncos have won six consecutive games against the Raiders, including all five of Manning's starts against the Raiders since he signed in Denver in 2012.

Over his career, Manning has thrown 28 touchdown passes in 10 starts against the Raiders. Even after 17 seasons and 255 career regular-season starts, Manning said games like this past Monday night's still bother him. He's not one to simply let it go without looking at everything that happened in it.

"You put a lot into it, we put a lot into last week and prepared hard, felt really good going into the game, it just didn't turn out the way we wanted it to," Manning said. "(I) didn't play as well as I wanted to. As soon as you stop taking it hard I'm not sure you ought to be doing it as much. It's got to mean something to you, got to matter to you, I'm envious sometimes of guys can't really tell if they won or lost … I don't have that in me."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tucked within a long injury report as the Denver Broncos prepare for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders was running back Ronnie Hillman taking part in his first full practice since he suffered a left foot injury Nov. 9 in the Broncos' first meeting of the season with the Raiders.

Hillman
It was also Hillman's first full practice since Nov. 7. Hillman has practiced at least some during the last two weeks, but has missed the six games since his injury.

And as defenses continue to pack the middle of the field to take away the Broncos' favorite routes in the passing game and crowd the line of scrimmage in the run game, Hillman's speed to the edge could be a welcome addition back into the offensive huddle.

"We've had a chance to watch him all week, participate and he's obviously further ahead than he was this time a week ago," said Broncos head coach John Fox following Wednesday's practice. "And the fact we're on grass, not on Astroturf, lot of variables, but I like what I see."

The Broncos have had a wave of illness go through the locker room in recent weeks with defensive end Derek Wolfe and quarterback Peyton Manning among those who have felt the effects.

Wednesday linebacker Lamin Barrow, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein and guard Manny Ramirez were all held out of practice because of illness. Linebacker Brandon Marshall (left foot) was also held out of practice.

Safety T.J. Ward (neck), who was injured in the fourth quarter of Monday's loss, took part in practice on a limited basis. Ward underwent X-rays at the stadium Monday night to go with some additional tests, including an MRI, on Tuesday after the team had returned to Denver.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (hip) and tackle Paul Cornick (toe on right foot) were also limited in practice.

The Broncos also listed 13 other players with injuries on the report who took part fully in Thursday's practice, including Manning (right thigh). Tight end Jacob Tamme, who has dealt with a rib injury in recent weeks, was listed with a foot injury and took part fully Wednesday.

Left tackle Ryan Clady (right thigh), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (right ankle), tight end Julius Thomas (left ankle) and running back C.J. Anderson (left ankle) were also among the players who took part fully in Wednesday's practice.
video » Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

SELECTIONS

Peyton Manning, QB, 14th Pro Bowl selection: People have asked him about wobbly passes or if he’s hurt, and he had his first four-interception game since 2010. But at 38, Manning has led his team to 11 wins, he leads the league in touchdown passes with 39, and he is fourth in both passing yards (4,454) and passer rating (102.9). With a win Sunday, Manning and the Broncos will have the AFC’s No. 2 seed.

Whom he beat out: The Chargers' Philip Rivers, with former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy as his head coach, did not make the Pro Bowl cut, despite 31 touchdowns.

Demaryius Thomas, WR, Third Pro Bowl selection: Thomas is second in the league in receptions (103), third in receiving yards (1,504) and tied for seventh in touchdown receptions (11). He also became just the third receiver in league history with three consecutive seasons with at least 1,400 yards and at least 10 touchdown receptions.

Whom he beat out: There is no scenario that doesn't include Demaryius Thomas on the Pro Bowl roster, but Thomas' selection likely kept, for the most part, the Broncos' Emmanuel Sanders off the roster.

Julius Thomas, TE, Second Pro Bowl selection: Folks obviously gave Julius Thomas credit for his fast start. He had 12 touchdown receptions in the first nine games and led the league at that point. Since he injured his left ankle Nov. 16 against the St. Louis Rams, however, Thomas has not played in three games, and he had three catches combined in his past two games.

Whom he beat out: Thomas' back-to-back 12-touchdown seasons were part of the reason Antonio Gates didn't make it. Gates also has 12 touchdowns to go with 65 catches this season.

Ryan Clady, T, Fourth Pro Bowl selection: Clady has played through some lower-body injuries (groin and right thigh) this season, but he has often been the guy the Broncos have left singled-up in pass protection. Although this season’s injuries have affected him at times, especially as he continues to come back from last season’s foot surgery, Clady hasn’t had the consistency of previous years. But in a jumbled offensive line, Clady has been the guy the Broncos have consistently given the toughest jobs.

Whom he beat out: The Bengals' Andrew Whitworth will certainly make many snubbed lists, especially as the Bengals have pounded the ball in the run game in the season's second half.

DeMarcus Ware, DE, Eighth Pro Bowl selection: When Ware signed with the Broncos, John Elway said he liked to “sign Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders." Ware has 10 sacks through 15 games, and if he gets at least one more in the regular-season finale Sunday, he will, at age 30, have had his eighth career season with at least 11 sacks.

Whom he beat out: Three of the Buffalo Bills' defensive linemen made the Pro Bowl, but the one guy who didn't was Jerry Hughes, who has 9.5 sacks this season.

Von Miller, LB, Third Pro Bowl selection: Miller underwent ACL surgery last January and still rebounded with what might have been his best all-around season in terms of learning all facets of his job. He has 13 sacks (seventh in the league), leads the team in hits on the quarterback (27) and is second on the team in tackles for loss (14).

Whom he beat out: It's hard to remove Miller from the mix, but a player such as Oakland Raiders rookie Khalil Mack didn't have the sack numbers to get on the radar, though he has certainly played with down-to-down impact each week.

Aqib Talib, CB, Second Pro Bowl selection: Talib is tied for the team lead in interceptions with four and has been the physical presence at the position the Broncos wanted. He’s fourth on the team in tackles (59) and has consistently been active along the line of scrimmage, as well as being a reliable defender when matched up down the field.

Whom he beat out: The position didn't have the kind of snubs as some others, but there are guys with interceptions, such as Perrish Cox (five) and Leodis McKelvin (four).

Chris Harris Jr., CB, First Pro Bowl selection: After not finishing in the top 10 in fan voting at the position, Harris must have won the vote from players and coaches in a landslide. Harris has lined up all over the defensive formation this season -- he has taken snaps at both outside spots and in the slot on both sides of the formation -- which makes him one of the most versatile players at the position.

Whom he beat out: See above.

T.J. Ward, S, Second Pro Bowl selection: The Broncos signed three defensive players in free agency -- Talib, Ware and Ward -- and Ward’s selection to the Pro Bowl means all three players were selected for the all-star game. Ward has lined up at a traditional safety spot this season, has essentially played weakside linebacker in the specialty packages and played in coverage with the Broncos more than he was asked to do with the Cleveland Browns. He’s second on the Broncos in tackles (74), and the Broncos have spent much of the year as the league’s No. 2 run defense.

Whom he beat out: San Francisco 49ers safety Antoine Bethea played at a Pro Bowl level for a team that did not make the postseason.

SNUBS

Emmanuel Sanders, WR: Although it was Sanders who said when he signed with the Broncos last March that he was coming to “wide receiver heaven," the Broncos are thanking just as many lucky stars. Sanders is fifth in the league in receptions (95) and sixth in receiving yards (1,331) -- both career highs. He has also displayed remarkable toughness, as he has made impact plays lined up both on the outside in the formation and in the slot.

Whom he should have beaten out: It’s hard to bump anybody at receiver in these pass-happy times, and it's a little quirky to say a team that got nine Pro Bowl slots missed out on a couple, but Sanders’ ability all over the formation was worthy of a spot. Although it's difficult to say Calvin Johnson shouldn't be among the group, his injury-marred year wasn't to his usual standards.

Terrance Knighton, DT: Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall was a snub on performance, given what he’s done as an every-down player to lead the Broncos in tackles, but Knighton makes what the Broncos do on early downs go and constantly surrenders his own opportunities at some statistics because his job is to clear the way for others.

Whom he should have beaten out: The Kansas City Chiefs are 28th in run defense and allow 128.3 yards per game, so Knighton's body of work is, according to several personnel executives, at a higher level than Dontari Poe's.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos head coach John Fox said Tuesday that safety T.J. Ward has a neck strain and didn’t suffer significant damage during Monday night's game.

Ward
Ward was injured on a fourth-quarter tackle in the Broncos’ 37-28 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. X-rays taken at the stadium were negative, Ward said following the game.

Ward underwent some additional tests, including an MRI, Tuesday morning after the team returned from Cincinnati.

"MRI proved and things proved negative as far as anything serious," Fox said. "He has a neck strain."

Ward suffered the injury with just under eight minutes remaining. He tackled Bengals running back Giovani Bernard and got pinned at the bottom of the pile. Broncos players immediately took off their helmets and each went to one knee as the team's medical staff evaluated Ward on the field.

Fox walked onto the field as well, and said Tuesday that he thought Ward's injury was collarbone related. A fractured collarbone would have ended Ward’s season.

Ward is expected to miss some practice time in the coming days, but Fox said, as he usually does when it comes to injured players, that Ward was day to day.

Ward is the team’s second-leading tackler with 74.

Following the game, Ward said: "I hit, it was actually to the side of [Bernard] and then Von [Miller] landed on top of him, landed on top of me, and it went all the way back. Just the weight of all the people falling on me … I don’t want to discuss it until I figure it out. … I’ve had enough stingers to know what they feel like, this was a little different."

QB snapshot: Peyton Manning

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
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A quick observation of quarterback Peyton Manning and how he played in the Broncos' 37-28 loss in Week 16:

If you covered up the name, the quarterback with 39 touchdown passes, the same guy who is leading the league in that category, would likely to be said to be having a good year.

Manning
But the guy is Peyton Manning and folks keep holding him to the 2013 standard when he threw a league-record 55 touchdown passes. And there is a rumbling in the league that defenses have cracked the code a bit on Manning and the Broncos' offense, and Monday night Manning had his first four-interception game since Dec. 5, 2010.

The Bengals did what a growing list of teams have done since the Broncos’ early November loss in New England. They are packing the short and intermediate areas in the middle of the field, making it far more difficult for the Broncos to hit their favored crossing routes.

The defenses are gambling that the Broncos and Manning can't consistently hurt them in the deep middle of the field or up the sidelines. Manning did drop a well-guided pass or three on the Bengals in the game -- a 33-yarder up the sideline to Emmanuel Sanders, a 26-yarder down the left hashmarks to Julius Thomas, and a 46-yard catch-and-run by Demaryius Thomas.

But the Bengals also won that battle of percentages. Manning threw two passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air in the fourth quarter Monday night, and both were intercepted.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the past three games Manning has now thrown one touchdown pass and four interceptions among his attempted passes that travel at least 15 yards down the field.

Until the Broncos can consistently make defenses pay for the strategy with their run game, or Manning can find an answer, defenses aren't going to be inclined to change that approach.

CINCINNATI -- When the Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning in 2012, Champ Bailey was asked what it meant to have a quarterback like Manning in a team’s offense.

“Those guys, the greatest quarterbacks, give you the one thing other people can’t give you," Bailey said then. “They give you the belief you’re going to win -- that if there’s time on the clock and he has the ball, you’re going to win. There's no feeling like that if you're on a team."

And Monday night was just that kind of situation for Manning and the Broncos. The one where things are supposed to work out and another game gets added to the already long list of come-from-behind victories Manning has authored in his career.

[+] EnlargeManning
AP Photo/Michael ConroyPeyton Manning couldn't pull out the win in the fourth quarter this time, throwing a pick-six to Dre Kirkpatrick instead.
The Broncos, down 30-28, had timeouts in hand, the ball on their own 20-yard line, 4:04 on the clock and Manning behind center. It was so, well, scripted, all laid out for another neat and tidy escape in a game the Broncos had already done so much to create their own problems in the first place.

“We felt like we had time and could make some plays to get it done," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “We always have confidence."

On first down, Manning found Thomas for a 7-yard gain. On second down, Manning dumped it off to running back C.J. Anderson for a 2-yard gain. On third down, third-and-1 to be exact, the Broncos stuck to what had fueled their first comeback in the game.

Down 20-7 at halftime, they had shelved their recent run-first leanings and opened the 2013 playbook once again. They busted out the three-wide receiver sets, even went with an empty backfield on a smattering of snaps, and scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the third quarter.

So, on that third-and-1, they were again using three wideouts, with Manning in the shotgun. Manning tried to jam the ball in for Thomas to get the first down. Except the receiver cut one way, the ball went the other, and Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick made a routine catch and ran it back 30 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly, a potential comeback was instead a two-score game, 37-28, and the Broncos were out of time to cover that kind of ground.

“I could have done a better job of taking care of him throwing the ball to me," Thomas said. “I could have done a better job breaking it up. ... I could have ran a better route, could have broken it up."

“That was a bad throw," Manning said. "The guy had good coverage. ... Think probably had Emmanuel [Sanders] open over the middle, even had Julius [Thomas], think his guy might have fallen down. Definitely picked the wrong guy to throw to."

Manning finished with his first four-interception game as the Broncos' quarterback. It was his first four-interception game since Dec. 5, 2010, with the Colts in an eerily familiar loss -- 38-35 to the Dallas Cowboys just months before he had spinal fusion surgery.

“[I] wasn’t good. Four interceptions, you’re not going to beat very many good football teams," Manning said.

Defenses have clogged the middle of the field in recent weeks, taking away the Broncos' favored crossing routes and roaming for big hits. Those same defenses have been willing to take their chances on forcing Manning to throw deep down the field, especially down the sidelines.

Asked following Monday’s game if he’s OK physically Manning said, “Um, yeah." Asked if the right thigh injury he suffered last week in San Diego affected him Monday night, Manning simply added, “No."

Manning has authored some big plays against defenses who have provided far more resistance than last season, and he leads the NFL in touchdown passes with 39, one more than Andrew Luck and three more than Aaron Rodgers. But the Broncos have been two very different teams this season, and the one that plays away from Denver isn’t the one they want to be or will need to be now if a Super Bowl run is still on the agenda.

The Broncos are 4-4 on the road, where Manning has thrown 11 of his 15 interceptions this season. The Broncos have played three games with weather as a factor -- at New England, at Kansas City and in the rain Monday in Cincinnati. The Broncos are 1-2 in those games, with Manning throwing six touchdowns and six interceptions.

But perhaps more concerning is the fact that the Broncos haven't shown the ability to pull Manning through a rough night on the road to get a win. Their special teams cratered Monday -- the Bengals had 206 return yards -- the defense allowed 207 yards rushing, including an 85-yard touchdown run, and the Broncos' injuries at linebacker appeared to have caught up to them.

Said defensive end DeMarcus Ware: “There are no excuses. ... No excuses. We didn’t get it done."
CINCINNATI -- The Denver Broncos made plenty of mistakes Monday night to earn every bit of a 37-28 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium.

Thomas
Thomas
But Demaryius Thomas isn't sure one he was flagged for should be on that list. A poor route or two, yes, a dropped ball, yes. But the facemask penalty in the fourth quarter?

Not so much.

In a game the Broncos trailed 30-28 at the time, it appeared Peyton Manning had hit Thomas for a 27-yard gain to convert a third-and-6 to move the ball to the Bengals' 49-yard line with just under seven minutes to play in the game.

Instead Thomas was flagged for a facemask penalty, a 15-yarder that negated the play and moved the ball back to the Broncos' 12-yard line. Manning was sacked on the next play and the Broncos then punted.

"I didn't grab it, I actually kind of touched it," Thomas said of the penalty. "I never saw a man call it, that was a big change of the game, that was a first down we were moving the ball. It was tough, they called it, you have to live with it."

The Broncos did have some additional penalties in the game that were just as painful. Marvin Austin Jr. was flagged in the fourth quarter for roughing the passer, a 15-yarder that gave the Bengals a first down. Derek Wolfe was flagged for unnecessary roughness, for blasting a Bengals offensive lineman after the play was over in the third quarter. The Bengals drove to the Broncos' 7-yard line after that penalty before Von Miller ripped the ball away from Bengals' running back Jeremy Hill to keep the Bengals from scoring.
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Denver Broncos' 37-28 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium.
  • Ward
    T.J. Ward will have his neck evaluated further Tuesday after the team has returned from Cincinnati. Ward left the game with a neck injury with just under eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Ward had tackled Bengals running back Giovani Bernard on a 2-yard gain on third-and-5 that had begun at the Broncos' 7-yard line. Ward got pinned at the bottom of the pile. "X-rays were negative that I took [Monday], but I still got to go get it checked," Ward said. "I hit him, it was actually to the side of him, and then Von [Miller] landed on top of him, landed on top of me, and it went all the way back. Just the weight of all the people falling on me." Asked if he had lost feeling in any of his limbs briefly following the hit, Ward added; "I don't want to discuss it until I figure it out. … I've had enough stingers to know what they feel like; this was a little different."
  • The Broncos lost their last chance at home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs but still can clinch a first-round bye if they can win their regular-season finale Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. "All this loss did was make next week's game a must win," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. And in a locker room full of players in no real mood to search for good things from the game, Miller said; "We can't play that type of football."
  • Running back C.J. Anderson took a page from fellow California alum Marshawn Lynch's postgame interview playbook following Monday's loss. Anderson was asked three questions and answered; "Played terrible; just got to get better. Look at the tape and get ready for next week." He then followed with "Just played terrible tonight; all we can do is try to get better next week." Anderson then followed with his next answer; "Just played terrible; got to get ready for next week."
  • The numbers were staggering, but the Broncos' special-teams units consistently surrendered field position the Broncos desperately needed for themselves. The Bengals had 72 punt return yards, including a 49-yarder from Brandon Tate, to go with 134 kickoff return yards from Adam Jones, including an 80-yarder. "The kicking game, as far as coverage, kind of broke down," said Broncos head coach John Fox. I think we gave up 200 return yards, which didn't help our cause."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
11:55
PM ET

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts from the Denver Broncos' 37-28 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

What it means: The Broncos have spent much of the season with their Super-Bowl-or-bust mentality out front. But once again, they showed that might be a pipe dream if they can't smooth out their exceedingly rough edges on the road. Denver's stingy run defense was creased repeatedly, and the Broncos snuffed out their own rallies on special teams, thereby allowing the Bengals to secure quality field position, which they turned into key points. Toss in a few dropped passes and four interceptions by Peyton Manning, and now not only are the Broncos out of the running for home-field advantage in the AFC, but they're also going to have to fight just to earn a first-round bye.

Stock watch: If you already crossed 1,000 yards receiving two games before the end of the season, it’s difficult to raise your game. But Emmanuel Sanders continues to do just that. His diving, one-handed catch for a 32-yard gain in the third quarter was just another right-time, right-place play in a season that has already featured plenty. Demaryius Thomas, with his ninth 100-yard game of the season Monday, is the unquestioned Alpha receiver in the offense, but Sanders has been everything the Broncos had hoped for (and a little more) when they targeted him in free agency.

Target acquired: The Bengals showed they did their homework when it comes to attacking the Broncos' defense. With linebacker Brandon Marshall out with a foot injury and Danny Trevathan on injured reserve, the Broncos have been forced to dive deep into the depth chart in some of their specialty packages. Todd Davis -- an undrafted rookie the Broncos claimed last month off waivers from the New Orleans Saints -- and Steven Johnson both took their turns as the inside linebacker in the Broncos’ six-defensive back look. Both were targeted by Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Jackson used a variety of formations to get the two chasing in coverage. The Broncos are hopeful they can get Marshall back in the postseason, and Monday showed just how big a part of their defensive success he has been this season.

Game ball: Omar Bolden deserves a look for his kickoff return to open the second half and start a Broncos rally, as does Demaryius Thomas for doing what he so often does in creating problems for most defensive plans. But in the end, Sanders' catch was just the kind of play the Broncos needed at a point when they most needed it.

What’s next: The Broncos close out the regular season against the Oakland Raiders (3-12) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 41-17 on Nov. 9 in Oakland. The Raiders forced two early interceptions in that game, but the Broncos powered through to the win with a rally started by C.J. Anderson’s catch-and-run touchdown.
CINCINNATI -- With running backs C.J. Anderson (left ankle) and Juwan Thompson (knee, hip) having missed some practice time this past week, the Denver Broncos had some initial concerns about their depth at the position.

But with an extra day of rest leading up to Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Anderson and Thompson were both ready to play in Paul Brown Stadium.

And with Jeremy Stewart serving as the No. 3 back in the game, the Broncos made Ronnie Hillman (left foot) a gameday inactive and did not move Kapri Bibbs up from the practice squad, a move they likely would have made if Thompson had not been ready to play. Hillman has practiced the last two weeks, but he is still not all the way back from his injury and has now missed the last six games.

Also among the Broncos gameday inactives for the first time this season was defensive end Quanterus Smith. Smith, who is still looking for his first career sack, had played in the previous 14 games.

Mitch Unrein was kept active for Monday’s game with the Bengals expected to try and muscle up on offense and run the ball plenty at the Broncos' defense. The Broncos had four defensive tackles in uniform Monday -- Unrein, Terrance Knighton, Marvin Austin Jr and Sylvester Williams -- when they often go into a game with three.

Also among the gameday inactives for the Broncos were: cornerback Tony Carter, linebacker Brandon Marshall (left foot), tackle Paul Cornick, tackle Michael Schofield and tight end Dominique Jones.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As DeMarcus Ware essentially dragged himself, willed himself really, through the 2013 season, his elbow hurt, his thigh hurt and sometimes his pride hurt.

"I just didn’t feel like myself," Ware said. "I tried to play, had some good moments, but the season didn’t go like I like seasons to go. I knew I had better in me."

So when the Dallas Cowboys released Ware last March, the profile was declining player coming off injury-filled season. But that is not what the Denver Broncos saw.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Jack DempseyDenver has limited pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware's workload this year, and he has responded with one of the best seasons of his career.
The Broncos looked down the road, projected a healed, managed, Ware into their defense, where the quality of the snap count would trump quantity. As executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has put it; "We thought once he got healthy, and if we could put him in the situations where he could be his best, he had a lot of football left in him, a lot of football."

As the Broncos head down the stretch toward the postseason with Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the team has monitored how much football Ware plays and gotten his best because of it.

Fourteen games into the season, with what the Broncos hope are the biggest games still to be played, Ware has played 669 snaps on defense or 70.3 percent of the defensive plays. There are times on early downs, sometimes even on pass-rush downs, when Ware is on the sideline.

Quanterus Smith, who has played 279 snaps, or 29.3 percent of the defense’s plays thus far, is usually the one working in Ware’s defensive end spot as the Broncos pick their spots for their member of the 100-sack club.

The result has been that Ware, at 32 and in his 10th season, feels, and has played, as good as ever.

"I feel like this right here is probably at this time in my career the best I’ve ever felt," Ware said. "I don’t feel like there are any dings on my body where it’s prohibiting me from doing certain things. Every player gets out here and they’re sore or they’re tired -- that comes with football. But once you rehabilitate yourself and recoup during the week and feel 100 percent before each game, I’ve felt that way this year and it feels great."

The result has been 10 sacks to go with just the third interception of his career. The Broncos also hope it allows Ware to power his way down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Last season he had one sack over the Cowboys' last six games, and in 2012, when he finished with 11.5 sacks, he had 1.5 sacks over the last six games. Ware has one sack in the Broncos’ current four-game win streak -- it was against the Kansas City Chiefs.

"We use a lot of people," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "We want people to be in the best situations for us for what we need to get done ... We’re always going to have (Ware) in the best situations."

For Ware it’s all about playing in his first postseason game since the 2009 season, and all about trying to reach the title game for the first time in his career. Following the game in Cincinnati, the Broncos will close out the regular season in Denver against the Oakland Raiders, with Denver still clinging to a chance at home-field advantage in the AFC if the Broncos win both remaining regular-season games and the New England Patriots lose one of their last two games.

"Every game I feel like is a must-win game," Ware said. "You’ve got to think about it that way, because you want to go into the postseason on a high and motivated. You can look at a lot of teams around the league -- some of them are trying to get in, some of them are trying to get a berth or wild card or whatever it is. Every game you’ve got to play like it’s your last one."

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