The Denver Broncos are in the middle of a bye week; time off earned by securing the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Broncos have secured a first-round bye in three consecutive seasons.
As the No. 2 seed, the Broncos will host the highest-seeded team to emerge from the Wildcard Round. It could be the Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, or Cincinnati Bengals. The only team mathematically eliminated from the possibility of facing the Broncos on January 11th, are the Baltimore Ravens; the No. 6 seed.
Like most playoff teams, the biggest common denominator among the three rosters in the running to travel to Denver next week, is the quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger had a phenomenal season, passing for 32 touchdowns, to just 9 interceptions.
Andy Dalton and the Bengals defeated the Broncos in week 16, in large measure due to a dominant running game and stifling defense. Andrew Luck is 1-1 vs. the Broncos in his three-year career, with his most recent run-in resulting in a 31-24 week 1 loss.
No matter which team/QB the Broncos face next weekend, the secondary will face a stiff task, as each of the three possible opponents boast a Pro Bowl wide receiver; A.J. Green, T.Y. Hilton and Antonio Brown.
The Broncos fielded the No. 9 pass defense in 2014, boasting three Pro Bowlers themselves from the secondary; Chris Harris, Jr., Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. Allowing an average of 225.4 passing yards per game, some would argue that although those numbers might be in the top-10, they're inflated by the fact that the Broncos were often protecting a multiple-score lead in 2014, forcing their opponents to throw.
Regardless of how one views the average, there's no denying the talent the Broncos have on the outside at cornerback. Harris finished the season as the top-rated CB via ProFootballFocus and did not relinquish a single TD in coverage all year long, an impressive accomplishment. Jack Del Rio marvels at the feat.
“At that position, pretty rare," Del Rio said via the team. "You have to have a short memory. Things happen and then you move on. That is pretty rare stuff.”
Indeed, it is rare. Harris had a remarkable season, but his partner on the other side had a highly productive campaign, in his own right. Talib tied for the team lead in interceptions (4), returning 2 of them for a TD.
When asked about having two Pro Bowlers on the outside, Del Rio talked about how much of an asset their versatility is.
“We can switch [matchups] during the game," Del Rio said, "and don’t forget about [CB] Bradley [Roby], who’s really had an outstanding rookie season. When you look at it in his totality, name me a young DB that has played better. He’s had a real nice start to his career. Those guys, the way they work, the way they are interchangeable, it’s been real good for us.”
Indeed, teams who forget about Bradley Roby and overlook his talent, rue their error. Although he has experienced the ups and downs of the traditional rookie learning curve, he has weathered the storm with aplomb.
Versatility. That is the word that most comes to mind when trying to describe the trio of cornerbacks the Broncos field. That's what makes them so formidable on Sundays.
“I think teams will try and do whatever they can to get to the matchup where they feel like they have a chance," Del Rio opined. "If they are not having success outside, they move in and that is just part of it. We feel good about the guys, the way they are working at it."
Although Harris usually starts each game on the outside, he is just as comfortable on the inside, playing the slot. In fact, that's where he got his start for the Broncos and he quickly became the best nickel CB in the league.
“He’s played really not only left, right and in the slot as a nickel but he’s also played some safety," Del Rio said. "He’s done a little bit of everything. Guys that are tough and smart with the way he approaches and studies the game and the way he performs it just allows you a lot of flexibility. It is a great asset for our defense.”
Defense wins championships. If that's true, the Broncos have a great chance in the playoffs with the physical, talented group they have in the secondary. This weekend, they'll be watching the AFC Wildcard from home, but no matter which team they draw for their Divisional Round home game, this group will be prepared to defend their "No Fly Zone".