When Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos aren't blowing teams out 48-20, they lose some of their luster in the media. Fans and certain factions of the media, seemingly became so accustomed to offensive dominance and multi-score victories, that when the Broncos did not win in that fashion, out came the magnifying glass, looking for the hole in the boat.
Over the final 6 weeks of the 2014 season, the Broncos continued to win, but the margins were narrowed significantly. Out came the questions postulating that Manning had "hit a wall" and that Father Time had finally caught up to him. John Elway's chickens were coming home to roost, or so the story goes.
It is this humble writer's opinion that those narratives couldn't be further from the truth. Lest you should forget, the Broncos are the reigning AFC Champions. It was the Broncos, not the New England Patriots, who advanced to the Super Bowl to represent the conference a year ago.
And although the Broncos failed epically at MetLife Stadium last February, they've proven over the last 16 games that they learned from that loss and have used it as fuel to improve; just like they did following their playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens the year before.
The Broncos don't need Manning to throw it 50 times a game to win. They've learned how to play complimentary football. They can beat their opponent in more ways than one, whether it's through the air, on the ground, and/or by playing stifling, opportunistic defense.
This is the team that Elway built; a league-high nine players elected to the Pro Bowl in 2014. The Broncos can beat you in all three phases because of the personnel decisions that he's made, since taking the reigns in 2011. Peyton Manning is central to Elway's grand scheme. Manning is not only the leader on the field, but also the team's ensign.
And with Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts set to travel to Sports Authority Field at Mile High this Sunday, in a battle to decide which team will advance to the Conference Championship game, the mettle of Manning and the Broncos will be tested to the brink. The Colts are a formidable opponent, riding high off of their impressive victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last week in the Wild Card.
Every personnel move, every win, every loss, every record, every accolade; it all culminates in this Divisional Round throw-down. Without further adieu, let's get to the keys to a Broncos victory.
Close Eye On The T.Y.
Since he was drafted in 2012, T.Y. Hilton quickly became one of the most explosive players in the NFL. He and Luck have formed a dynamic bond and seem to have a full-blown mind-meld going on. This season, both players were elected to the Pro Bowl.
Hilton finished the season with 82 receptions for 1,345 yards (16.4 YPC) and 7 touchdowns. 62 of his receptions were for a first-down. He had the exact same amount of catches in 2013, but 8 more targets than he received in 2014. Despite being targeted 8 times less, he amassed 262 more yards receiving this year.
And so the pattern emerges. Andrew Luck likes to go deep. And when he does, he looks for Hilton. According to Pro Football Focus, Luck led all quarterbacks in 2014, with 88 attempts of 20 yards or more. He also led the NFL in "deep passing yards" in 2014, with 1,387. He completed 39 of his 88 deep attempts, 12 of which were for TDs.
Luck certainly has the arm to go deep, and the touch. But what really creates these opportunities down-field is his ability to extend the play and throw on the run. Even the best cover artists can only stay on their mark's hip for so long. When Luck buys his receivers that extra second or two, it often provides them just enough separation to gash the opposition.
The Broncos cannot let that happen on Sunday. Rahim Moore will have to, in the words of Chris Harris, Jr., play "extra deep" and absolutely can't let anyone get behind him. Hilton is the key to the Colts passing game.
When he does make a catch, the boys in the secondary have to lay the wood. I'm not advocating the objective of intentionally targeting, or trying to hurt a player. But when Luck connects with the diminutive 5'9, 178lb Hilton, Moore, T.J. Ward and David Bruton have to bring the thunder.
Get into Hilton's head early. Make him think twice about crossing the middle of the field. It will pay dividends. Harris will likely be the cornerback to draw Hilton's assignment. Harris did a good job in Week 2 vs. Percy Harvin; an explosive player similar to Hilton. Bump him at the line, get hands on him early and when he makes a catch, lay the wood.
In Week 1, the Broncos limited Hilton to just 5 catches for 41 yards (on 11 targets). His longest reception of the night went for 9 yards. The Broncos will need to repeat that feat in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Be The More Physical Team
In the game of football, with very few exceptions, the more physical team usually wins. Physicality and intensity are the two words that usually best describe whichever team wins the Super Bowl.
To advance deep into the playoffs, the Broncos know that they must crank their intensity up a notch and take their performance to the next level. Von Miller illuminated that mantra and mindset earlier this week.
“It’s three different speeds in the league," he said. "You’ve got the preseason with our preseason games and training camp, you’ve got the regular season, which is a totally different speed, and you’ve got the postseason. This is for all the marbles, single-elimination. You don’t get any other chances. You have to be on when it comes game time. You’ve got to be on all night for three games straight to win the Super Bowl and that is where our mindset is."
Physicality can also be quantified by whichever team wants it most. Which team is hungrier for the victory and privilege of advancing in the playoffs. This Sunday, the Broncos must be the more physical team.
Their focus and intensity must be extraordinary. In 2013, when the Broncos traveled to Lucas Oil Stadium to face the Colts, it was Indy who was the more physical team. They wanted it more and as a result, they came out on top.
In Week 1 of this season, the Broncos came out hungrier and imposed their will on the Colts, subsequently winning the game. On Sunday, the Broncos front seven must be disruptive and penetrate into the backfield. The linebackers must swarm and wrap up their man. The secondary must be physical at the line of scrimmage and unafraid to lay the wood over the middle.
On offense, the Broncos offensive line have to the aggressors. Push their assignments off the block and get to the second level. C.J. Anderson must continue to do what he's done so well this year and make the first guy miss.
Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas must not allow themselves to get jammed at the line of scrimmage and thrown off their timing. And Peyton Manning must be willing to stand tall in the pocket and take the hit.
Intensity. Hunger. Physicality. The Broncos must personify these attributes on Sunday and be the bullies.
Take The Ball Away
Andrew Luck might be the most naturally gifted QB in the NFL. Some of the plays he makes are absolutely stunning. But the one thing that has held him back from taking that big step, is his penchant for turning the ball over.
In one breath, he'll make a throw that will make your jaw drop. And in the next, toss the most bone-headed interception you've ever seen. He threw 16 picks in 2013. And fumbled the ball 13 times, losing 6 of them.
That means he accounted for 22 turnovers this season. The Broncos have to find a way to get a piece of that action. In Week 1 they certainly did, picking him off twice, both times by Rahim Moore.
T.Y. Hilton fumbled 3 times this year, losing 1. Last week, Daniel Herron fumbled twice, losing 1 of them. The Broncos can take advantage of that propensity, stand him up, and strip the ball. Ball security has been the Colts Achilles heel in 2014. Jack Del Rio and company are well aware of that fact. But it's important that they capitalize on how fast and loose the Colts play on offense.
Conversely, Manning and company must play smart with the football. Do you know how many fumbles Broncos running backs lost in 2014? Only one, by Montee Ball. C.J. Anderson has done a phenomenal job at protecting the ball. He and Ronnie Hillman must continue that trend vs. the Colts.
Manning tossed 15 interceptions in 2014; the most in his Broncos career. He also lost 2 fumbles. Like all quarterbacks in the history of football, when he's under duress, it's only a matter of time before the turnovers come. The big boys up front have to make sure that doesn't happen.