How good has Peyton Manning been since he arrived in Denver? This year, Manning’s third with Broncos, has been the worst for the team, yet the Broncos went 12-4 and earned the number two seed in the AFC Playoffs.
Each of the last two years, the Broncos went 13-3 and earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Of course, all that regular season success hasn’t translated into rings. Last season, Manning and company reached the Super Bowl but got demolished by the Seahawks. Two years ago, the Broncos failed to make it out of the Divisional Playoffs, losing to Baltimore in the dying minutes.
This year, Denver will host either Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, or Indianapolis in the Divisional Round. All three would be looking to repeat Baltimore’s stunning performance from 2012. But how does one beat the Broncos in Mile High, where they are 8-0 on the year?
Looking at Denver’s four losses, the defense surrendered 32 points per game, on average, and the offense abandoned the run and became one-dimensional. The problems on defense started on the ground; Denver was lights-out against the run most of the season, but gave up 129 yards or more in three of its four losses, including over 200 to the Bengals in week 16. Once the Broncos got behind in games, they tended to go all-pass-all-the-time.
With that in mind, who is Denver hoping to face in the Divisional Playoffs?
The Steelers were second in the NFL this season in time of possession and they stop the run well. The Steelers are not great at defending the pass, but, if they can jump out to an early lead, would be able to focus their attention on stopping the air attack. The big problem for the Steelers, currently, is the health of Le’Veon Bell. Without Bell, who was injured during week 17, Pittsburgh would have difficulty controlling the tempo of the game on offense.
In week 1, Indianapolis trailed 24-0 at Denver before falling 31-24. The Colts do not have a great running offense nor are they proficient at stopping the ground game. Indy is the top passing team in the league, but Denver is a bad matchup. With so much of the Indy offense reliant on Andrew Luck’s arm, sack-machines Von Miller and Demarcus Ware would be able to pin their ears back and make life miserable for the third-year pivot.
While the game was in Cincinnati, the Bengals beat Denver, 37-28, in week 16. Jeremy Hill rushed for 147 yards in the win, including a monster 85 yard TD run. After falling behind early, the Broncos all but ignored the run game. The pass-heavy attack almost worked for Denver, as they clawed back and led 28-27 late, but Manning threw two (of his four) interceptions in the fourth, one of which was returned for a TD, sealing the win for Cincy. The Bengals are not a great road team, but have a winning game plan if they can execute it.
Verdict: After losing to Cincy so recently, the Broncos would probably like to avoid a rematch with the dangerous Bengals. If Bell is healthy, Pittsburgh could also pose matchup problems for Denver. John Fox is likely hoping that Andrew Luck and the Colts roll into town for the Divisional Playoffs.
(Photo credit: Jeffrey Beal (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode].)