Nothing has stopped the speeding locomotive that has been the Broncos in the past 2½ months. The rest of the AFC has to hope a bye week gets Denver out of rhythm, because right now, the Broncos are the odds-on-favorite to go to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.
The Broncos have come a long way from a 2-3 start to the season, though those three losses came against the Falcons, Texans and Patriots, a trio with a combined regular-season record of 37-11. Denver’s 11-game win streak to end the season included seven double-digit victories and nine wins scoring 30 points or more.
Entering the postseason with home-field advantage, an MVP candidate and future Hall of Famer at quarterback, the fourth-ranked offense and second-ranked defense, the Broncos’ weaknesses are difficult to identify. Of their final 11 wins, only two came against teams with winning records — but those were both road victories over the Bengals and Ravens, showing how formidable John Fox’s club has become.
Broncos TE Joel Dreessen had a few specific answers, believe it or not, to the question of what the Broncos need to improve upon during their bye, instead of the cliché “we can always get better at everything.”
“We want to get better in the red zone and on third down. We spent a lot of time focusing on that,” he said.
OK! We have found a weakness! Except, the Broncos finished the season ranked seventh in the league in the red zone, scoring 39 touchdowns on 66 possessions. On third down, the Broncos are third in the league, converting 45.1 percent into first downs.
There might be one reason the Broncos would focus on those two areas — the team that leads the league in both third-down efficiency and red-zone scoring is their likely opponent in the AFC title game, the Patriots.
Dreessen had one more area of improvement for Denver that carries a bit more weight.
“We had some turnovers that were kind of an issue, so (we’re) working on ball security and fundamental stuff,” he added.
Peyton Manning is not a huge concern in this category — he threw only 11 interceptions this season. But Denver’s 14 lost fumbles were the seventh-most in the league, and the most by any team in the playoffs. Demaryius Thomas has put together an exceptional season, but he also has three lost fumbles. The Broncos figure to be favored in their AFC playoff games, and turning the ball over is a key ingredient in the recipe for an upset.
While splitting hairs in order to find holes in the Broncos, two things come to mind that a team like the Patriots could exploit. Denver has gotten off to slow starts all season long — the Broncos have actually been outscored 70-66 in the first quarter this season. It helps that in the second half, Denver has outscored its opponents 299-138 to make up for any uninspiring first quarters. Against impressive offenses, the Broncos might not be able to afford a slow start.
One of the biggest surprises for this Broncos team, aside from Manning’s amazing season after four neck surgeries, has been the performance of Jack Del Rio’s defense. Led up front by Von Miller and in the back end by Champ Bailey, Denver’s “D” has been very stout against the run, and thanks to big leads from the offense, harassed opposing quarterbacks in the second half to avoid any comeback.
If there’s one area on “D” that an opponent will look to exploit, it’s the middle of the field. The Broncos have struggled to cover tight ends this season, allowing a league-high 11 receiving touchdowns to that position. Three tight ends had 100-yard receiving games vs. Denver in 2012, including Ravens TE Dennis Pitta, whom they will face in the divisional round. In fact, Pitta had the top receiving game against Denver this season, catching seven passes for 125 yards and two TDs in Baltimore’s Week 15 loss. The Broncos actually held Rob Gronkowski in check in Week Five, limiting him to 4-35-0 receiving.
LBs Wesley Woodyard and D.J. Williams and safeties Rahim Moore and Mike Adams will be key in the playoffs, as teams will try to go up the seam for big strikes to big pass-catching tight ends. Having Dreessen and Jacob Tamme to go against in practice should help.
“We work on that a lot, one-on-one routes working against a linebacker and a safety,” Dreessen said. “(Opposing tight ends) are going to see a fast, physical group.”
That matchup will be especially key if the AFC title game is what many expect, and some certainly hope for, in Broncos vs. Patriots, Manning vs. Tom Brady. New England’s TE tandem of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are both healthy and combined for 14 catches for 200 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s playoff win against Denver.
The Broncos have plenty more going for them than against them, and getting to play at home is a big one with that Manning fellow at the helm, but their opponents, starting with Baltimore, will try to hone in on a weakness — any weakness — to gain an edge, and Denver will need to be ready.