After every game this season, cover32.com’s Shawn Drotar takes a look at what went right and what went wrong for the Broncos, in each phase of the game. Welcome to the Broncos Breakdown!
It took them a while to get going, but the Broncos’ offense finally burst out of their slump in the fourth quarter — or what passes for a slump on the most potent offense in NFL history, at least — and buried the pesky Texans under a 21-point avalanche to finish the game. The win gave the Broncos the opportunity to clinch the AFC’s top playoff seed for the second week in a row win a win in Oakland on Sunday, but a significant loss on the Broncos’ defense puts their Super Bowl dreams in doubt.
What went right: Peyton Manning set a new NFL record with his 51st touchdown pass of the season when tight end Julius Thomas caught Manning’s fourth TD strike of the day. Manning threw for 400 yards, wasn’t intercepted, and most importantly, wasn’t sacked — a major achievement given the presence of J.J. Watt of the Texans and Manning’s still sore ankles. Two receivers had 100-yard outings: Demaryius Thomas (8-123, 1 TD) and Eric Decker (10-131-2 TD), whose second touchdown was his 10th of the season. Decker, who had 13 touchdown receptions last season, became Denver’s fifth player with 10 or more scores, joining Knowshon Moreno (12), Julius Thomas (12), Demaryius Thomas (12) and Wes Welker (10). Prior to the Broncos’ 2013 campaign, the NFL record number of teammates with double-digit touchdowns was only three; a testament to the overpowering, Hydra-like offense that Manning has engineered.
What went wrong: Like in any game, there were a few drops, and Manning’s completion percentage of 62.7 percent was a smidgen lower than season average of 67.4, but when you throw for 400 yards and four scores, including a mix of short, mid-range and deep passes, that’s nitpicking. Of greater concern is the health of Welker, who isn’t expected to play until the postseason after suffering a concussion weeks ago.
What went right: The Broncos’ 6.3 yards-per-carry average was outstanding, and would have been even better if Ronnie Hillman would have averaged more than 2.0 yards per carry in his return to active duty after a series of fumbles that relegated him to the inactive list. Moreno carried 11 times for 76 yards (6.9 YPC), and Montee Ball continued to look explosive in spot duty, gaining 32 yards on only four carries (8.0 YPC).
What went wrong: As effective as the Broncos were on the ground, they weren’t used as much as they could have been thanks to a game that stayed tight into the third quarter. The Broncos didn’t score on the ground, and their running backs weren’t a large part of the passing game, either – Moreno had a pair of catches for 26 yards. The Broncos will probably need a more consistent ground game to help ensure postseason success.
What went right: The Broncos sacked Matt Schaub twice and nabbed a pair of interceptions; rubbing salt into the gaping wound that Schaub’s disappointing season has become for the Texans. One of those sacks was from rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, his second in two games with significant playing time. Williams now has 10 tackles over the last two weeks despite playing from inside; a promising (if somewhat delayed) debut from the North Carolina product. The Broncos desperately need an impact player at defensive tackle; even more so now, after the loss of Kevin Vickerson to injury and Derek Wolfe to illness. Williams has given them many reasons to be optimistic.
What went wrong: Von Miller left the game with a left knee injury that was later determined to be a torn ACL after a Monday morning MRI. Miller, the Broncos’ most important and impactful defender, will miss the rest of the season and playoffs. It’s a devastating loss for a team that’s already seen many of its best players knocked out with injuries and illness. The Broncos already had a difficult time generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks in its base defense, and now it’ll be nearly impossible. The Broncos simply don’t have the horses after losing Elvis Dumervil in the offseason and losing Kevin Vickerson and Miller to injury. Derek Wolfe’s health status after a seizure is completely up in the air, to the point where playing again would be a surprise, so they can’t expect much help there. The Broncos will likely have to choose to risk the big play by blitzing, or hoping to somehow stop the NFL’s best quarterbacks in the postseason, despite giving them all the time they need to operate. Miller’s injury is as close to a worst-case scenario as the Broncos can imagine.
What went right: The Broncos held the Texans to only 87 yards on 26 carries and didn’t allow a touchdown. Only speedy Deji Karim had a carry longer than 10 yards. The Broncos’ weren’t expected to have much of a problem with the Texans’ decimated running game — both Arian Foster and Ben Tate have been injured — and they didn’t. Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson had solid performances on the defensive line, while linebacker Danny Trevathan flew all over the field and safety Mike Adams provided sound tackling support.
What went wrong: Nothing went wrong for the Broncos here, but given the pathetic state of the Texans in general and their running game in particular, the performance wasn’t exactly praiseworthy, either. The Broncos did only what they needed to do.
What went right: Matt Prater hit all three of his field goals, and his 23-for-24 success rate on the season is too often overlooked. With an NFL record, 64-yard field goal and an 95.8 conversion rate, Prater’s been one of the Broncos’ most important players — and an unheralded star. Punter Britton Colquitt’s 48.7 yards average on six punts impressed.
What went wrong: Trindon Holliday fumbled again, his 10th in 22 games as a Bronco. Fortunately, Denver recovered the punted ball, but given his propensity for fumbles, poor decision-making as a returner and limited effectiveness this season — his 8.7 yards per punt return ranks 15th in the league — there’s no reason whatsoever for Holliday to remain the returner. He’s a risk that Broncos coach John Fox can’t afford to keep taking.
On Sunday night, all the talk was rightly surrounding Manning; his shiny, new NFL record deserved it. But on Monday, the jubilation around Manning’s performance and the Broncos’ convincing win faded into trepidation after Miller’s torn ACL was revealed. The Broncos’ defense was already one of the league’s worst, but there’s still room to fall. With their first playoff game less than three weeks away, they can’t afford the kinds of stumbles that led to their ouster at the hands of the Ravens last season — despite the fact this year’s defense is noticeably less capable than last season’s.
In other words, it’s entirely Peyton Manning’s show — the Broncos may need to average 40 points per game in the playoffs to ensure a Super Bowl victory. For any other quarterback, any other offense, that would sound ridiculous; an impossible feat.
But Manning and the Broncos aren’t just any offense — they’re the best in history. That proof is in the numbers, but the validation comes only with a ring.
Shawn Drotar is in his 20th year as a national sportswriter and editor, and his work has appeared on ESPN, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, Yahoo! Sports and in the USA Today, among others. He’s appeared on television on ESPNEWS and the Altitude Sports Network, and can currently be heard on Denver’s KKFN-FM/104.3 The Fan as a sports-talk radio host.
Follow Shawn on Twitter: @sdrotar
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