But this week, they're playing one of the AFC's division leaders; the (9-4-1) Cincinnati Bengals. And the Bengals are in a "must win" situation. With the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens just a half game behind them, Andy Dalton and company have to find a way to pull out the victory.
Alas for them, it won't be easy, going against the Broncos, who happen to be the only NFL team to rank in the top-10 in total offense (4th) and defense (4th). The Broncos have their sights set on their own playoff placement.
As the current No. 2 seed in the AFC, the Broncos will have earned a Wildcard bye, should they take care of business and win out. The New England Patriots currently sit as No. 1, but one more loss and the two teams would swap seeding.
For now, the Broncos are focused on the Bengals; a team who knows how to win. Say what you will about Marvin Lewis, head coach of the Bengals, but he knows how to scheme.
What will it take to win on the road in Paul Brown Stadium? Let's get to it.
Throw the NFL A Curveball and Sling The Rock
I'm not suggesting that the Broncos should abandon balance and revert back to throwing it 50 times a game, but I am saying that they should unleash Manning and strive harder to get him into a rhythm.
The NFL has settled in to the expectation that the Broncos are going to play smash-mouth offensive football, and attempt to impose their will by pounding the rock, all while throwing it 20 times a game. But could the Broncos benefit from throwing it with more frequency?
Let's get Adam Gase's opinion on it, as the offensive coordinator.
“It’s basically just trying to see where we’re at on third down," Gase said Thursday. "I think that’s the hardest part. When you get too many third-and-10s, that’s where it gets difficult. San Diego did a good job of really putting us in some tough situations. All these guys did a great job making plays in some key situations. As far as calling the game, I feel like the way we’re doing it right now has been effective. We’ll just keep looking for that effective balance.”
Effective balance. The Broncos are going to the playoffs. Why not give those playoff-bound defensive coordinators something else to worry about by putting on film an effective aerial attack? In week 12, the Broncos struck the perfect balance, rushing it 35 times and throwing it 35 times.
Manning finished that day with 4 touchdown passes and the Broncos rushed for 201 yards, pulling out the win. The Miami Dolphins defense didn't know which way was up. Whether the Broncos rushed the ball, or threw it, they were efficient.
But most importantly, it allowed Manning to get into a rhythm with his receivers. As important as it is to run the ball effectively down the stretch and into the playoffs, it is equally important to be precise and surgical through the air.
I'm not convinced that only throwing it 20 times is the way to effectuate that. Every QB in the NFL will have a hard time getting into a rhythm, only throwing it 20 times. Manning is a creature of habit. Let him throw the ball and watch the offense come alive.
The fear of exposing Manning to unnecessary hits, this late in the season, is a valid one, but against the impotent Bengals pass rush, the Broncos should have no problems keeping his jersey clean.
The Bengals secondary is solid, but against explosive receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, to say nothing of Julius Thomas, they simply don't match up well. Terence Newman and Leon Hall are both getting long in the tooth and struggle against quick-twitch athletes.
The Broncos can exploit those matchups through the air, provided Gase is willing to throw them a curveball and sling the rock with just a little more frequency.
And when the Broncos get to the redzone, they must convert touchdowns. Gase recently talked about how being in the redzone makes it more challenging to convert at times.
“What happens is, you’ve got more guys in the box. You start to try and run it, and all of a sudden you’ve got fewer guys to block than they’ve got available to make a tackle. Then you start to throw it, and you’ve got very little room to throw it. You’ve got to be on it. That’s where it gets difficult. You get inside the five, and it gets real tight. Defensive coaches will tell you, ‘Hey, I’d rather be inside the five than on the 10’ because the more room you’ve got, the more things you can do on offense. The tighter it gets the harder it gets. If you look around the league, it’s tough to score. You get third-and-goal from the five or inside of that, and it’s tough to get in there.”
Gase speaketh the truth, but as the architect of 606 points last year, he knows how to get it done. The Broncos can't let their long, sustained drives only net them 3 points. Connor Barth has been an excellent addition, but tomorrow night, the Broncos must find pay-dirt in the redzone.
Force Dalton Into Bad Decisions
Andy Dalton is a better QB than many give him credit for. But where his limitations really show themselves are when the pressure's on. Under duress, he often throws that untimely interception, or holds onto the ball too long and gets stripped.
“They are both good players," Del Rio said Thursday via the team. "That is where it starts. They are both Jayhawks. They are both good players, that is really where it starts. I think having guys like [CB Bradley] Roby and [CB] Kayvon [Webster] and T.C. (CB Tony Carter), those guys in reserve, that helps. We’ve got a deep group, but those two guys in particular, we can match them how it should work best for us. They have the ability to do a lot. They can each play inside or out, left or right. And so that versatility frees up us defensively to do a lot.”
Del Rio has taken some heat for being reticent to dial up the pressure and blitz. Over the last month, however, he's turned that ship around and it's produced results.
Over the last four weeks, the Broncos have taken the ball away nine times. They must find a way to continue that streak vs the Bengals. Shutting down the run has been their calling card in 2014.
That renders the opposition one-dimensional. A one-dimensional Dalton is a defensive coordinator's dream. Stop the run, turn up the pressure and take the ball away. It's time for Miller and Ware to step their play up to the next level.
Win The Turnover Battle
I know. This is a key preached by coaches every week the world over. But on the road, in a playoff-like atmosphere, it rises to the top of the priority list. Del Rio spoke to that earlier this week.
“It’s beginning to have a little bit of a playoff feel the last few weeks because it’s that time of year," Del Rio said Thursday. "You’re jockeying for position and you’re essentially playing teams that are going to be in the playoffs, that are fighting for that spot. So it has that kind of feel down to the last few weeks and it’ll continue Monday night.”
Last week on the road vs the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos did not turn the ball over once. And it allowed the Broncos to control the game from the start and emerge victorious.
Before last week, Manning had thrown at least two interceptions in four of the previous six games. Against the Chargers, he battled the flu and a thigh injury, but threw the ball beautifully.
The Bengals defense is not the same unit as their 2013 counterparts. They can't get after the QB, which has made it difficult for them to take the ball away. By running the ball efficiently and keeping the Bengals on their heels with savvy play-calling, the Broncos should be able to protect the ball.
However, playing on the road and in cold December weather tends to level the playing field. But for the Broncos to get to 12-3, they'll have to figure out a way to win the turnover battle on the road, for the second-straight week.