The 8-3 Denver Broncos can clinch the division with a win or a San Diego Chargers loss. They take on the 6-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for just the eighth time in history. The Bucs rode a nice little hot streak, winning four straight before falling to the 9-1 Atlanta Falcons by one point last week. They’ve also beat the other three teams in the AFC West. The Broncos own a 5-2 advantage over the Bucs all-time (3-1 at home, 2-1 away). The last time these two teams met was in Oct. ’08 when the Broncos won 16-13 at home. Perhaps the most intriguing reunion of this matchup is that of Peyton Manning and former Colts’ tight end Dallas Clark even if they do play on the same side of the ball. Kickoff is set for 2:05 p.m. MDT on Fox.
Broncos: It’s all about exposing the Bucs’ frail secondary early. The Broncos have put up just 10 first quarter points in their last four games. Starting off in the no huddle will gas the Bucs’ 32nd ranked pass defense quickly, and most importantly force them to play from behind, passing the ball, and keeping it out of rookie running back Doug Martin’s hands. The Broncos will be able to throw some deep balls as the Bucs have given up 51 plays of 20 or more yards. Using Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker for their size downfield will be especially beneficial. Knowshon Moreno will really get the chance to prove if he can carry the running game into the playoffs. The Bucs are No. 1 against the run.
Buccaneers: Josh Freeman and Doug Martin have carried the Bucs to a 4th ranked scoring offense, just one spot behind the Broncos. After having 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions last season, Freeman is producing more like he did during his rookie year. He has 21 touchdowns and 7 interceptions to go along with his 2,761 passing yards. Martin, meanwhile, has made the Bucs the 11th best rushing team in the league after being ranked 30th last season. He’s the 4th most productive back in the NFL putting up 95.5 yards per game, and fumbling just once. The Broncos are all too familiar with former Charger Vincent Jackson who leads the team in receiving with 959 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Broncos: The best Broncos’ defense is an offense that can prolong scoring drives and keep Martin off the field. The Broncos are 9th against the run, but they’ve had their fair share of trouble with talented backs. Jamaal Charles rushed for 107 yards on 23 carries just last week. The team also saw Arian Foster run for 105 yards on 25 carries, and Stevan Ridley go for 151 yards and a touchdown in losses to the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots respectively. It looks like rookie Malik Jackson will fill in for starting defensive end Robert Ayers since Ayers missed a full week of practices and meetings while mourning the death of his father. The Bucs have given up the same number of sacks on Freeman as the Broncos have on Manning (16). This defense will have their work cut out from all angles.
Buccaneers: What can we say? We haven’t seen as big a polarizing side of the ball since the Broncos were ranked No. 1 in rushing and No. 32 in passing during the 2011 season. The Bucs are 1st in rush defense, but 32nd in pass defense. However, the team is 3rd in interceptions with 16 on the season. The problem in the secondary lies in the suspension of Eric Wright and the departure of Aqib Talib. The team has E.J. Biggers and undrafted rookie Leonard Johnson at cornerback. 16-year veteran Ronde Barber made the move over to safety and it’s made a big difference. He leads the team with 4 interceptions this season. Micahel Bennett leads the team with 7 sacks, but overall, the Bucs are 28th in sacks.
Broncos: The Bucs have a solid red zone defense. They’re 9th in the league in red zone touchdown percentage (47.1%). That means Matt Prater has to be ready to go if the Broncos can’t get six. He missed two kicks last week, and he’s missed a kick in each of the last three games after not missing one in the team’s first eight games.
Buccaneers: The Bucs have a playmaker in Dekoda Watson who was just named NCF special teams player of the month. He blocked a punt in week 10 against the Chargers which was run back for a touchdown. Kicker Connor Barth has just one more miss than Prater on the season, but three of his five misses have come from beyond 50 yards.
Broncos: John Fox sang the praises of this Bucs team. You can bet that he did the same in front of his team. Along with the Baltimore Ravens, the Bucs present the biggest challenge for the Broncos between now and the playoffs.
Buccaneers: After 12 years at Rutgers, Greg Schiano entered the pro ranks and has taken a 4-12 team in 2011 to 6-5. He brings fire to the team and stream of controversy in which the underlying message is ‘My team never quits.’
Prediction: Broncos – 28 Buccaneers- 20