NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
There will be no bouquets or balloons exchanged between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers before the third meeting of the season in the AFC Divisional Playoffs on Sunday.
Denver (13-3) is the top seed in the AFC, but the West division rivals split the regular-season matchups, including the Chargers' 27-20 victory at Mile High.
The Chargers and Broncos are original members of the American Football League from its 1960 startup. This will be the first time the two teams have met in the postseason when they kick off at 4:40 p.m. ET at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium.
"We know them, they know us, personnel-wise," said Chargers safety Eric Weddle. "It's going to be a great game and great battle. We held them to 28 and 20 points in both games. You never know. It could be a shootout, or it could be a low-scoring game. That's the great thing about the playoffs."
The Broncos set an NFL record with 606 points during the regular season and quarterback Peyton Manning passed for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both single-season league records.
During the two-week break, coach John Fox and the Broncos received good news -- wide receiver Wes Welker was cleared after missing the final three games of the regular season with a concussion, including the second San Diego game -- but Denver could be forgiven if it was less than excited about drawing the Chargers again.
It's not just that the Broncos lost at home to them earlier this month; it's that they have lost six of their past eight games to the Chargers in Denver.
Moreover, San Diego is 2-0 against Manning in the playoffs -- both when he was with the Indianapolis Colts. Manning has eight one-and-done postseason appearances. That includes a 38-35 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens at home to end last season.
"The main thing we really learned was as a team, we have to play 60 minutes," All-Pro wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said of the Broncos' approach after the disappointing loss to the Baltimore Ravens last January. "Nobody is going to give up because it's do-or-die. The main with us is playing 60 minutes and making sure we leave everything out on the table."
--The path was far different than last year, but the destination in the Denver Broncos' regular season was exactly the same: a league-best 13-3 record and the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
In 2012, the Broncos roared into the postseason on a 11-game winning streak and with relatively good health; their only issues came from a demanding early-season schedule that exacerbated the transition difficulties in adjusting to a Peyton Manning-led offense.
This time, the Broncos are more battle-hardened. Injuries have robbed them of Pro Bowlers Ryan Clady and Von Miller and starters like safety Rahim Moore, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and, for the last three weeks, wide receiver Wes Welker. Cornerback Champ Bailey missed 12 games because of a nagging foot sprain. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard missed two games because of a neck injury, returned and wasn't quite the same, eventually being relegated to a pass-coverage specialist role.
But their offense was so prolific, scoring more points than any other in league history, that the result was the same, even as the defense buckled and occasionally collapsed under the strain of injuries and the lack of cohesion that resulted from so much shuffling.
Even though teams that are all-offense, no-defense tend to fade in the postseason, the Broncos are leaning upon two attributes. First, their ability to generate pressure without Miller by using blitzes that can expose the unit on the back end, but also potentially confuse opposing quarterbacks. It worked the last two weeks, as the first-team defense held Houston and Oakland to 13 points in a seven-quarter span before reserves allowed two touchdowns late in Sunday's 34-14 win.
The other is the jagged edge that the Broncos have had since losing to Baltimore 38-35 in last year's divisional playoffs.
"I think everybody on our team and in our organization knows if we don't go out and play our football it will be the same thing as last year," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "We don't want that feeling again."
Added tight end Jacob Tamme: "It definitely gives you some edge and the feel of defeat sticks with you a long time."
As was the case with a similar home defeat to Jacksonville in the 1996 divisional round, the Broncos carried the painful memory of that defeat with them throughout the following offseason, and used it as emotional fuel.
The response of the 1997 Broncos to that defeat was a 12-4 finish and a January run to their first world championship. They had learned the consequences of being unprepared for a foe with a lesser record. Sixteen years later, this edition of the Broncos feels it has learned the same lesson.
"We're very aware of what can happen if you go into the first game not ready," said Bailey. "We're going to be ready."
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
--Playing the San Diego Chargers, again, could help the Broncos avoid the trap into which they fell last January, when they faced the Ravens, who they defeated 34-17 less than four weeks earlier, and lost.
"We have a tough matchup, no matter what it is," said tight end Jacob Tamme, even before knowing the Chargers would be visiting.
"We need to play our best ball, we need to improve this week and prepare hard next week, obviously. It sounds cliched but we're going to do everything we can to prepare as hard as we can and put it out there when the game comes around."
Every AFC playoff qualifier but Cincinnati was on the Broncos' regular-season schedule. Denver went 3-3 against AFC playoff teams, splitting with the Chargers, sweeping the Chiefs and losing once each to the Patriots and Colts. The Chargers and Chiefs, as division rivals, present a particularly notable threat, given their experience in preparing for the Broncos' up-tempo attack.
"It's going to be a good one if we have to play one of them, especially because we've already played them twice. They know us, we know them," said safety David Bruton. "Of course, there are going to be little wrinkles here and there to try to give a team a certain advantage."
The Broncos opted for an unusual schedule during their first-round bye. Head coach John Fox gave his players Tuesday and Wednesday off to celebrate the new year before bringing them back for scheduled practices Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The brief respite was enough for the players to briefly relax, but not to get comfortable.
"I'm not sure you shut it down," said tight end Jacob Tamme. "But it's good to have a couple of days to just get a little bit of a mental break."
--In-demand offensive coordinator Adam Gase will not interview for head coaching positions as long as the Denver Broncos are playing in the postseason.
Gase, 35, made the decision upon learning the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings were interested in conducting interviews with him this week.
The appeal, of course, is that Gase -- in concert with quarterback Peyton Manning -- helped the Broncos finish the season with a league-record 606 points and a passing offense that was statistically the most productive in NFL history.
"I'm appreciative of the interest I've received, but I've decided to postpone any potential opportunities until after our season concludes," Gase said Monday.
He told the Denver Post that his decision came after a discussion with head coach John Fox.
"My complete focus is helping our team prepare for our divisional playoff game," Gase said.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars, could draw interest.
Another possibility on the interview circuit could be running backs coach Eric Studesville, who was the Broncos' interim head coach late in 2010 after Josh McDaniels was fired.
Studesville has never been a pro coordinator, but his steady leadership in the wake of the chaos of the McDaniels era brought respectability back to the Broncos and helped him earn the chance to remain on staff after John Fox was hired as head coach.
--Brock Osweiler had to wait until the final game of his second season for an extended opportunity to run the offense.
The 2012 second-round pick was anointed as the Broncos' starter-in-waiting by executive vice president John Elway last year. Elway has reiterated the franchise's long-term commitment to Osweiler.
Osweiler played the entire second half Sunday and went 9-of-13 for 85 yards in his half of work.
But he's also shown the patience and composure to force fewer passes, and is willing to accept checkdowns when they are the only viable option.
"Other than a red (zone) sack, I thought he did a really good job," said head coach John Fox. "He's sharp, he's poised (and) I think he's grown a lot from his rookie year. All in all, I was pleased with his performance."
But Osweiler was critical of himself, and emerged lamenting lost opportunities downfield on passes to Andre Caldwell and Jacob Tamme.
"I know there were a couple of throws I'd like to have back -- maybe not rush as much, because I know I can make some of those deep throws," said Osweiler, citing those two tosses. "But I think that's something that will come with time (and) just comfort level on the field."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's not easy to get back-to-back 13-3 (seasons); it's not easy to get back-to-back No. 1 seeds. Obviously, everybody in our building, our city, probably our region, maybe the country was disappointed with how we finished a year ago. Hopefully that has been a fire in the belly of most everybody in our building since that last January." -- Broncos head coach John Fox
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Quarterback Peyton Manning was the only unanimous selection to the 2013 Associated Press NFL All-Pro team, which was announced Friday.
Manning tied Hall of Famer Otto Graham as the only quarterbacks named to the first team seven times.
Manning was on all 50 ballots from media members who regularly cover the league. He was also was an All-Pro from 2003-05, 2008-09 and 2012.
Manning tied Hall of Famer Otto Graham as the only quarterbacks named to the first team seven times.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis each received 49 votes, and Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman each had 48.
--QB Peyton Manning had his league single-season passing yardage record upheld Tuesday. Manning had broken Drew Brees' previous record of 5,476 yards by a single yard, but seven yards of his total in Oakland on Sunday came via an apparent lateral to Eric Decker that was ruled a completion. The statistics crew at the game ruled it was a forward pass, and the Elias Sports Bureau and the NFL confirmed that the initial ruling would stand. Manning was pulled at halftime of the game after surpassing Brees' 2011 total.
--TE Julius Thomas became the Broncos' first Pro Bowl tight end since Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe when he was named to the all-star game's roster last week. Thomas was third in the league among tight ends with 12 touchdowns, the most ever for a Bronco at his position.
--CB Champ Bailey is expected to continue working as the Broncos' slot cornerback in the postseason. Bailey has handled this role the last two games after missing 11 of the Broncos' first 14 games because of a foot injury. The role allows for a natural reduction in plays for Bailey, who first hurt his foot in a preseason game at Seattle Aug. 17.
--WR Eric Decker's offseason status bears monitoring. Decker completed his second consecutive 1,000-yard season last week, setting career highs in receptions (87) and yards (1,288).
--WR Demaryius Thomas caught two touchdown passes, including a 5-yarder to give Peyton Manning the league's single-season passing-yardage record. Thomas finished with 14 touchdown passes this season, matching Anthony Miller's franchise record, set in 1995.
--LB Nate Irving started in place of Von Miller on Sunday. He played 30 snaps and finished with two tackles for losses and a first-quarter sack of Terrelle Pryor.
--S Michael Huff replaced Omar Bolden when the Broncos went into nickel and dime packages. The Broncos have had issues and instability at safety in recent weeks since Rahim Moore's injury and Duke Ihenacho's reduction in playing time because of issues in coverage. Huff played 25 snaps Sunday.
--DE Robert Ayers played 44 snaps on Sunday, more than anyone else on Denver's defense. Some of that was due to liberal substitution and resting of players after the Broncos built a 31-point halftime lead, but Ayers will also provide part of the pass-rush replacement for Von Miller in the postseason, so the increase in snaps should continue into the playoffs.
--S Duke Ihenacho will go through the league-mandated post-concussion protocol after leaving midway through Sunday's win over the Raiders. Ihenacho has returned to the starting lineup the last two weeks, but is working primarily in the base defense.
--CB Kayvon Webster missed a second consecutive game after having surgery to repair a fractured thumb on Dec. 13. Webster practiced three days last week with a cast on his right hand.
--WR Wes Welker was held out of a third consecutive game, but practiced last week and has been cleared through the league's post-concussion protocol. Welker was held out of Sunday's game as a precaution. He suffered his second concussion in four games against the Titans on Dec. 8.
--DL Derek Wolfe missed a fifth consecutive game after suffering seizure-like symptoms on Nov. 29, two days before the Broncos' second win over the Chiefs this season. Wolfe practiced Wednesday and Friday of last week, but missed a day's work because of the flu. Broncos coach John Fox said Monday that Wolfe is being "eased" back into football condition.
--C Steve Vallos missed Sunday's game because of a concussion incurred when he was hit by Houston's Jared Crick on a first-quarter kickoff return on Dec. 22. He has not received the go-ahead to return through the NFL's post-concussion protocol.