The Denver Broncos finally heeded the call for "balance"; a hue and cry that has mercilessly hounded them in recent weeks. And justifiably so, as last week, vs the St. Louis Rams, the Broncos only called 9 running plays, to 54 passes.
But today, vs the Miami Dolphins, the Broncos were the epitome of balance, as they rushed the ball 35 times and passed 35. You can't get any more balanced than that. The ground attack was led by C.J. Anderson, as he carried the ball 27 times, for 167 yards and 1 TD; against the NFL's second-ranked defense.
The Broncos big boys up front did their jobs today, paving the way for Anderson's big day and against a defense who came into today's game with 30 sacks, they protected Peyton Manning, allowing just one sack. The offensive line's collective performance also provided the Broncos with great efficiency, as they converted 9/13 third downs, as well as their only fourth down attempt.
Manning was solid but unspectacular. He missed several sure-fire big plays, overthrowing his target, most of which would have been touchdowns. He went 28/35, for 257 yards and a whopping 4 TDs. In the redzone, he was a killer. And the Dolphins had no answer for him.
Alas, Demaryius Thomas fell 13 yards short of tying Calvin Johnson's all-time record of 8 consecutive 100-yard receiving games. However, he did catch 10 balls and scored 3 TDs, one of which came at the expense of Pro Bowl cornerback, Brent Grimes. Thomas will take the "W" over the record every time.
And oh, how the Broncos needed today's win. After losing 2 of their last 3 games, the team has been in a bit of a tailspin. They needed their home crowd to re-instill their confidence and momentum. They remain undefeated at home this year, which is impressive, when you realize that every team they've beaten has a winning record.
Emmanuel Sanders bounced back from his week 11 concussion, catching 9 balls, for 125 yards. In 11 games this season, he has broken the century mark a whopping seven times. Keep in mind, in his four-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sanders did not have a single 100-yard receiving game. Playing with Manning will do that for a guy.
But Sanders is not "just a guy". He is an integral part of the Broncos aerial attack, as he stretches the opposing defense vertically and opens up routes underneath and down the seams. That's an offensive facet the Broncos had been missing before Sanders came to town. With 1,079 receiving yards and 7 TDs, he has having a career year.
Virgil Green's return to the lineup paid huge dividends for the Broncos, especially in the running game. Green is often seen blocking way down-field, which is an area that Julius Thomas struggles. Green also helped to shut down star pass rusher, Cameron Wake, and certainly contributed to (mostly) keeping Manning's pocket clean. Thomas missed today's game with an ankle injury. The team is hopeful he'll be available next week.
Wes Welker got into the TD action, catching his second of the season and 50th of his career. He might not be a featured weapon in the Broncos 2014 attack, but when his number is called, he gets the job done. Don't underestimate his value to the team.
Kicker, Brandon McManus, went 1/2 on field goal attempts, but continued his inconsistency. On his one miss, it was from 33 yards out, and would have narrowed the Dolphins lead to just one point. It happened at the end of the Broncos first possession of the second half. They had trailed from the 11:22 mark in the first quarter.
The Broncos didn't get their first lead until 5 minutes left in the game. It was an impressive, gutsy effort by a team who needed it. The Dolphins put up a great fight and for a time, Ryan Tannehill and the offense could do no wrong.
Until Broncos safety, T.J. Ward, picked of a pass in the fourth quarter, after Chris Harris, Jr deflected it, popping it up into his harms. On the day, Tannehill went 26/36, for 228 yards and 3 TDs. He also added 15 yards on the ground and 1 TD. His dual threat capabilities were on full display.
As usual, the Broncos defense took the "bend, don't break" approach, allowing the Dolphins to convert 50% on third down and a perfect 5/5 (TDs) in the redzone. There were far too many third-and-long conversions, which takes the wind out any defense's sails.
They struggled to put pressure on the quarterback, rushing just 4. Over the last 4 games, they've only averaged 1 sack per game. With pass rushers of the caliber that Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Malik Jackson are, that is something that needs to change.
However, defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, did dial up the blitz today, something he has failed to do of late. When they did blitz, they created pressure, although it must be said that Tannehill handled it well. The young signal caller is becoming very poised.
About the only thing that Isaiah Burse has done well this season, as the Broncos punt returner, is he's taken care of the ball. Alas, that came to an end today, as he fumbled on a return, giving the Dolphins the ball deep in Broncos territory, which led to a TD. Coach John Fox stuck with him, as he was back returning punts following the snafu.
Overall, today's performance by the Broncos was not perfect, but it was a major improvement over the last few weeks. The offense found the right mentality, pounding the rock with authority. Anderson has cemented his status as the team's featured back. He has a penchant for making the first guy miss and the will and power to fight for the last inch.
With the Chiefs losing to the Oakland Raiders this week, the Broncos now own a one-game lead in the AFC West. They are in the driver's seat to repeat as Division champions for the fourth-straight year. However, next week's game at Arrowhead is of the utmost importance, as the Broncos have to not only keep pace in division, but also in the conference.
The New England Patriots look absolutely unbeatable at home. At 9-2, they have a 1.5-game lead over the Broncos in the AFC. They would have to lose 2 of their next 5 games, in order to relinquish the No. 1 playoff seed to the Broncos. With consecutive away games at Green Bay and San Diego remaining on the schedule and a home game vs the Dolphins, it is conceivable that the Patriots could lose two more.
But for the Broncos to win the No. 1 seed for the third-straight year, after losing on the road to the Patriots, that equation would also require that the Broncos win out. With two tough division road games on the horizon, that'll be a stiff test, but I wouldn't bet against them.