"I think we have made some strides defensively," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "I think we have played some good games, and we've played some games that we are not as proud of as well. This time of year, you are hoping to play your best football, and hopefully we can put one together."
The Broncos' offseason plan was set with their playoff failure against the Colts in mind.
Denver made a blockbuster trade to land cornerback Champ Bailey, then signed John Lynch and drafted linebacker D.J. Williams in the first round. Those players have arguably been the three best on the Broncos' defense this year. The additions of Lynch and Bailey were a direct result of the lack of depth Denver had in the secondary, something that cost the Broncos dearly against Indianapolis' spread attack.
Statistically Denver isn't much different than last season, but against Indianapolis it will match up better, especially with Bailey going against Harrison. Harrison scored a pair of touchdowns and had 133 yards in Indianapolis' playoff win over Denver last season.
The matchup between Indianapolis' starting offense and Denver's defense shouldn't be trivialized, because the Colts are explosive enough on offense to open up a big lead even if they only play a few series. That's one reason the Broncos refuse to speculate on how long Manning and the rest of the starters might play, because they need to be prepared to shut down Manning for however long he is in the game.
"They're going to play their football team and we got to get ready to go against the best offense in this league," defensive coordinator Larry Coyer said. "There's them, and there's Kansas City."
The Broncos have to figure out a way to get pressure on Peyton Manning. The problem is, Manning is so aware that he rarely takes sacks.
"He's very sharp," Shanahan said. "He knows defenses. He knows blitzes. He has an uncanny feel for when to get rid of the ball and who to throw it to. He's something."
SERIES HISTORY -- 15th meeting. The Broncos lead the series 10-4. The teams met twice at Indianapolis in a three-week stretch last season. The Broncos beat the Colts 31-17 to clinch a playoff berth, then two weeks later in the first round of the playoffs Indianapolis beat Denver 41-10.
NOTES AND QUOTES
Broncos safety John Lynch played for Colts coach Tony Dungy for many years when the two were together at Tampa Bay, and they have a lot of respect for each other. Dungy said he wished the Colts would have had more money to sign Lynch when he was a free agent this past offseason.
"John is one of those guys you love to coach," Dungy said. "He practices hard, he plays hard, he has a good pulse of what's going on on the team."
--Broncos defensive end Reggie Hayward is playing very well, and he could be a key to Denver's pass rush against Peyton Manning, who is nearly impossible to sack. Hayward has 9.5 sacks this season and is coming off an impressive three-sack game against Tennessee.
"Reggie played as good as I've ever played last week," former Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce said.
--Denver has set a team record with 16 different players recording at least one sack this season. Nine different defensive linemen have contributed to that record.
"It all starts on the D-line," Hayward said. "For our defense to be successful, it starts up front. If we're hitting on all cylinders, our defense usually has a great game."
--The Broncos will be in the playoffs with a win on Sunday against the Colts, but Broncos coach Mike Shanahan isn't working on his pre-game speech.
"If I have to motivate our football team to get them to play at a certain level in this game then we have the wrong makeup of this team," Shanahan said.
BY THE NUMBERS 327 -- In a playoff victory over the Broncos last season, Peyton Manning threw for 327 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone. He finished with 377 yards and five touchdowns on 22-of-26 passing.
QUOTE TO NOTE "Would I play him? Heck, no. I wouldn't play him at all." -- Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, joking about if he would play Colts quarterback Peyton Manning this week in a meaningless game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL The Broncos placed running back Garrison Hearst on injured reserve on Tuesday, and are getting dangerously thin at running back.
The other running backs on the roster are Cecil Sapp, who was on the practice squad for most of the year, and Johnathan Reese, who was signed on Tuesday. Reese has never appeared in a NFL game.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
-- RB Tatum Bell got 12 carries against Tennessee but wasn't that effective. He still is playing with a separated shoulder. Bell should continue to be a big part of Denver's offense but Reuben Droughns will probably carry most of the load.
-- LB D.J. Williams was named the AFC's defensive player of the week for his performance against Tennessee last week. Williams, who leads the Broncos with 109 tackles, is the first AFC defensive rookie to be given that honor this season.
-- S Kenoy Kennedy is having a very good season and is third on the team with 88 tackles. Of the Broncos' top six tacklers, four are starting defensive backs: Kennedy, Champ Bailey, Kelly Herndon and John Lynch.
-- RB Reuben Droughns leads the league in lowest percentage of carries that he has been stopped for a loss. Droughns has been thrown for a loss 18 times in 260 carries (6.9 percent), which is the best mark among backs with a minimum of 175 carries.
-- QB Jake Plummer is the top-rated quarterback in Broncos history with a minimum of 500 passing attempts. Plummer's 86.3 rating is better than Brian Griese's mark of 84.1 and John Elway's mark of 79.9.
GAME PLAN If the Broncos can play to at least a stalemate when the Colts' starters are in the game, they should win pretty easily. If Denver gets beat by rookie backup quarterback Jim Sorgi at home with a playoff berth on the line, the Broncos don't deserve to get in the playoffs anyway.
The Colts have said they will play their starters, but have not committed to how long the starters will stay in the game. When Peyton Manning is in the Broncos need to get some pressure on him to disrupt his timing. A hit or two on Manning might hasten Tony Dungy's decision to get him out of the game.
The Colts don't have many defensive strengths, but one is getting after the quarterback. The Broncos have had success with screen passes the past few weeks, and that would be a perfect way to slow down the pass rush a little bit.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Colts DE Dwight Freeney vs. Broncos LT Matt Lepsis. Lepsis has played well all year, especially when he's able to use his athleticism against quick speed rushers. But Freeney, who leads the NFL in sacks, is even more athletic than players like Simeon Rice and Jason Taylor, both of whom Lepsis has faced. Lepsis' first concern is making sure Freeney doesn't blow by him to the outside.
--Broncos CB Kelly Herndon vs. Colts WR Brandon Stokley. Herndon moves inside to cover the slot receiver in Denver's nickel defense, and there's no better receiver in the slot than Stokley. Last season against Indianapolis in the playoffs Herndon got beat a few times because he was playing with a large cast on his broken hand and couldn't jam the receiver he was against. Herndon is healthy this year but still has a very tough challenge.
--G Dan Neil is banged up and may have played his last game as a Bronco. Neil is listed as questionable for this week's game. He has been inactive for each of Denver's past two games.
--FB Kyle Johnson has a chance to play this week. He is listed as questionable on the injury report. But Johnson plans to practice all week and the Broncos will make a decision based on how he looks in practice.
--DE Trevor Pryce looked good in practice on Wednesday and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan was optimistic about Pryce's chances of playing on Sunday. Pryce, who had back surgery on Sept. 22, hasn't played since the first game of the season.