For every team that ends up making a playoff run, there is a defining game that can be looked back as the one that put the team over the top and set the tone for the rest of the season. In 2009, it was a home win against San Francisco in which Brett Favre threw a touchdown pass that only Favre could try and make. In 2012, it was going on the road to Houston as a prohibitive underdog and coming away with a win that put the team in the playoffs – a win followed up by the Vikings’ last win against the Packers.
On Sunday, the Vikings have a chance to make a similar statement game when the team travels into Denver to take on the 3-0 Broncos, looking for their first road win against a team with a winning record since that 2012 victory in Houston. Winning in Denver won’t be easy because few teams have the firepower on both sides of the ball as the Broncos, making them able to win defensive struggles and high-scoring offensive shootouts.
Offensively, it all starts and ends with Peyton Manning. At age 39, he doesn’t have the arm strength he once did and there are legitimate fears that his next big hit will be his last, but all he does is win – just ask the Vikings, who haven’t beaten Manning in three tries. He isn’t putting up the eye-popping numbers that he typically does – through three games, he has thrown for 755 yards with five touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 83.3 – but he still makes all the passes necessary and nobody reads defenses and maneuvers them where he wants better.
If there is a concern with Manning, it’s that he is taking more hits than he is accustomed to. Last year, in 16 games, he only took 17 sacks. Through three games this year, he has already taken eight sacks and has been knocked down a dozen times more after releasing the ball. The Vikings will be looking to attack and keep Manning from getting comfortable because, if he does, there is nobody better at taking advantage of a defense with the weapons he has at his disposal.
It can be argued Denver has the top wide receiver tandem in the league in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Both caught more than 100 passes last year and are on pace to do it again. In three games, Thomas has caught 24 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown and Sanders has caught 22 passes for 239 yards and two scores. Both are dangerous in the open field and have the speed to take bubble screens and slants the distance. Throw in veteran third receiver Andre Caldwell and tight ends Owen Daniels and Virgil Green and Manning has plenty of downfield weapons to exploit the Vikings defense. If he is afforded time, he is still capable of picking defenses apart and isn’t shy about throwing 40-50 times a game, something that his running game has forced him to do.
Denver has a long history of consistently being one of the most efficient run offenses in the NFL and with Gary Kubiak coming on as head coach, he has brought a blocking scheme that made Arian Foster a perennial Pro Bowler with the Texans. But, to date, it hasn’t translated in the Denver running game.
There were high expectations at the running game with the emergence of C.J. Anderson. Over the last two years, the Broncos simply got rid of their featured running backs, allowing Knowshon Moreno to leave via free agency following a monster 2013 season and giving up on Montee Ball during training camp this season. Anderson was supposed to be the answer, but he has rushed 32 times for just 74 yards (a 2.2-yard average) and backups Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson haven’t fared much better. As a team, the Broncos are averaging just 2.6 yards a carry and are running the ball just 22 times a game. You don’t often succeed with a running game that forces you to become one-dimensional, but somehow the Broncos have made it work – even without Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady, who was lost for the season due to injury.
The main reason the Broncos aren’t struggling out of the gate this season has been the result of having the league’s top-rated defense. They are allowing just 259 yards a game and have created 10 turnovers. Games are often decided by how teams come out early and how they finish late. Denver has dominated in both aspects of that equation. They have yet to allow a point in the first quarter and have outscored their opponents 27-7 in the fourth quarter of games. Dominance like that is hard to come by and it all starts up front, where the Broncos are fearsome with their front seven.
Denver has arguably the two best pass rushers in the league with outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. Both multi-time Pro Bowl players, Ware is enjoying a career resurgence after Dallas allowed him to leave in free agency. He has 3½ sacks and is a handful for left tackles to control. Miller is a freak of nature and has one of the fastest first steps in football. He is able to blow past right tackles and will be by far the stiffest test rookie T.J. Clemmings has faced since taking over for injured Phil Loadholt. While Denver has other strong players in the front seven, including defensive ends Vance Walker and Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan, no two players will be more critical to shutting down the Vikings offense than Ware and Miller.
The Broncos secondary is as strong as the Vikings have faced this season. Pro Bowler Aqib Talib is often tasked with taking on an opponent’s top receiver and he has two of the six interceptions that Broncos have notched through three games. With fellow cornerbacks Chris Harris and Bradley Roby – both of whom also have interceptions to their credit – and safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart, the Broncos are athletic and loaded with playmakers to clean up the mess left behind when the pass rush of Ware and Miller forces ill-advised throws.
With a defense allowing just 16 points a game and an offense dotted with playmaking talent, there may be no bigger challenge the Vikings face prior to meeting up with Seattle and Green Bay later in the season than they will face when they head into Denver. Since the start of the 2013 season, the Broncos have lost just once at home and that was Dec. 12, 2013 against San Diego. They’ve won their last nine and are looking to make the Vikings their latest victim.
If the Vikings are to pull off a statement win on the road, they likely are going to have to play a near-perfect game – controlling the clock, winning the turnover battle and overcoming the Broncos defensive third-down conversion rate of just 18.8 percent. The Broncos can be had, but it will take a strong performance in all three phases of the game because, if the game is close in the fourth quarter, it’s hard to bet against Manning, Ware, Miller, Thomas, Sanders et al because they win so consistently that it can’t be viewed as a fluke. They’re a Super Bowl contender for a reason – they win games with offense, defense or special teams – which makes the sledding tough for a Vikings team looking to establish an identity as a potential giant-killer.