Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) gives a thumbs up to cheering fans against the Houston Texans during the second half at Reliant Stadium. The Broncos won 37-13. (Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports)

The Great, The Bad, and The AFC West Champs: Broncos, Week 16

I don’t think there’s really anything pithy with which to begin this article. The truth is, I sit at the computer in awe when I process what we have seen this season in relation to Peyton Manning. Frankly, my brain hurts almost as much as those defensive coordinators whom must game plan for the 2013 NFL Most Valuable Player (let’s face it, it is a fait accompli). The bar stands to be raised even higher as it pertains single season records as the Denver Broncos still have one more game and the defensive competition is way below average…but more on that a little later. Even more important than PFM’s record breaking numbers is the fact that the Broncos wrapped up its third straight AFC West championship with a 37-13 victory against the depleted, yet hapless Houston Texans. Here’s the rundown.

The Good: PEYTON “FREAKIN” MANNING!! Need I say more? Probably not, but I will. The 37-year old future hall of fame quarterback put up a line that should leave any football fan, pundit, coach, future or former quarterback, or even a Tibetan monk with saucer-sized eyes. PFM went 32 for 51, 400 yards, 4 TDs, and no INTs. Remember, this is week 16 and he is 37 years old. That unto itself is mind-boggling. Sunday’s performance in Houston for Manning set the single season record for TD passes at 51. The mark of 50 was set in 2007 by Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Peyton’s 400 yards has him at 5291 for the season; just 186 yards shy of supplanting Drew Brees’ 2011 record of 5476 yards. If it wasn’t for the occasional human/mortal moment, I would swear he was a cyborg, programmed to carve up NFL defenses. Congratulations, Peyton on being the greatest single season QB in the games history. Oh, and please continue this up through and including that game that is to be played in February that I refuse to mention by name. In the post game presser, Manning addressed the touchdown record with his typical class and humility:

“I really feel like it’s a team accomplishment – certainly an offensive accomplishment. A lot of people played roles in this. I think it’s a unique thing and a neat thing to be part of NFL history – even if it may be temporary…”

The running game was good again. This is something that really makes the Broncos two-dimensional on offense. It was definitely something they lacked after Knowshon Moreno left the playoff game in January with an injury. Moreno and Montee ball have given Denver a running game that can break big gains as well as get the tough yards between the tackles. That will come in quite handy once the tournament begins. Against the Texans, the two combined for 108 yards on 15 carries, for an average of a paltry 7.2 yards per carry. Moreno also contributed 2 catches for 26 yards.

The receiving corps contributed as usual. However none more than Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. Decker caught 10 passes for 131 yards and 2 TDs; including Manning’s record-tying 50th. Thomas caught 8 for 123 yards and a TD. Meanwhile, Julius Thomas has shown all year why Peyton worked so closely with him during training camp. He is a very dangerous matchup for any defense. “Orange” Julius had 6 receptions for 78 yards and caught Manning’s record-breaking 51st TD. Apparently though, Julius was not aware that he caught #51. Peyton addressed this in the postgame interview.

“Yeah – it wouldn’t have surprised me if Julius would have handed it to some babe up in the stands and tried to get her phone number in exchange for the ball. That would be right up Julius’ ally. That’s pretty in-line with his thinking oftentimes.”, Joked Manning.

The Broncos have shown all year long why they are the most prolific offense in the history of the game. This offensive production against Houston was all done without the services of Wes Welker; who is out for the remainder of the regular season with post-concussion symptoms. We have seen what this offense can do when Peyton has a full compliment of weapons. So it will be a big lift if Welker can work his way back in time for the playoffs. 

My defensive kudos go to Safety, Mike Adams. Adams had six solo tackles, three helpers, and an interception at a critical point in the game. At the start of the 4th quarter, with Denver only up 16-13, he picked off quarterback, Matt Shaub at the 28 yard line of Houston and returned it to the 20. That set up a 10 yard TD strike from Manning to Decker which seemed to deflate a Texans team which had some confidence entering the 4th quarter only down by three. The timing of Adams’ interception was not lost on the team’s leader:

“…and the defense getting us the ball. Mike Adams’ interception, in my opinion, was the play of the day today. We were in a little rut on kind of both sides of the ball and that really springboarded the whole team. I’m certainly really appreciative of it.”, said Manning.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie also had a pick with 3:39 left in the game. In addition to the two INTs, the Broncos did not turn the ball over, which is a big source of encouragement going forward. Ball protection is critical at this point in the season. 

The Bad: Von Miller suffered a potentially significant knee injury on the second defensive series of the game. This is not just bad, but potentially catastrophic. The Broncos are already missing starters Rahim Moore (out until a potential AFC title game), Kevin Vickerson (out for the year), Derek Wolfe (out indefinitely) so the loss of another starter is a horrible twist of fate. And not just any starter, but one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. Defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio is going to have to come up with some kind of game plan to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. 

Penalties!!! Freaking penalties!!! Eight of them for a total loss of 67 yards. This is going to come back to but them in the part of the body where the jockey leaves whip marks. 

Even though Denver did not turn the ball over, it did find its way to the turf once. The culprit? Trindon Holliday. He put the ball on the ground after the Broncos’ defense was able to get off the field with 10:13 left in the 4th quarter. At 23-13, this could have given momentum back to Houston. This has been an ongoing epidemic for Holliday all season long. He went from being an explosive, game-changing asset to a complete liability on special teams. I don’t believe there is anybody on the roster who the coaching staff would want to take over kick returning duties as that usually means a DB or WR. The Broncos could ill-afford to lose either. Thus it will, in all probability be Holliday’s gig for the remainder of the season and post season. 

The AFC West Champions: For the third consecutive season, the Broncos reign supreme in the AFC’s western division. I have to give some respect to our bitter rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs for keeping this a close race all season. In 2012, the Broncos had the division wrapped up with several weeks left in the season. I am not sure if they lacked sharpness in the playoffs because of not playing a meaningful game late in the season last year. However the Chiefs made sure that the same scenario did not repeat itself in 2013. At the time of the writing of this article, the Patriots are beating the Baltimore Ravens 20-7 in the 4th quarter. If that score holds up, the Broncos will still have to play one more meaningful game in week 17 to secure the #1 seed…and that might not be a bad thing. Enough cannot be said for the job that head coach, John Fox (and his staff) have done since assuming the job after the 2010 season. Fox has led Denver to the playoffs in all three years at the helm and with virtually two completely different teams. In addition to the normal rigors of being a coach in the NFL, Foxy had to overcome heart surgery in the middle of the season which cost him 5 games on the sideline. Great job, Coach Fox! Thank you!

Up Next: It’s the Broncos annual visit to the Black Hole as they take on the Oakland Raiders to close out the 2013 regular season. I have yet to get confirmation as to whether Kevlar Vests and riot gear will be passed out to the Broncos and its staff before deplaning. Stay tuned.

Kickoff is slated for 2:25 PM Elway Standard Time. CBS will have the call, but probably not the A-team of Nance and Simms. 

I wish all of you who read this (and what the heck, even those of you who don’t) a very, Merry Christmas! Be safe and we’ll see you back here next week. 

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Tags: Denver Broncos Eric Decker Peyton Manning