The Denver Broncos are set to face the division rival Oakland Raiders this Sunday in what appears to be an anti-climatic ending to this whirlwind 2014 season. At 11-4, the Broncos are pretty much where most people expected them to be at this point, give or take a win.
While this may not be a sexy matchup, considering the Broncos are more talented from players one to 53, a postseason bye is still up for grabs. The Broncos could’ve wrapped up the AFC’s 2nd seed with a win over the Bengals last week, but couldn’t stop the Bengals from running train on them.
Honestly, I really don’t feel the need to preview this specific game. It’s going to take a miracle for the Raiders to beat the Broncos in Mile High. I realize I’m tempting the football gods, but the Raiders are going to need more than just them to help them win this game.
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With tiebreakers over both the Colts and the Steelers, the Broncos can still lose to the Raiders (lol) and grab the two seed, thus earning a first round bye. In this scenario, the Bengals would also have to lose in Pittsburgh to the Steelers. In short, a Broncos win guarantees them their third wild card bye in three years.
With the number two seed in sight for the Broncos, it begs the question of just how important is it for Denver to attain this prize. As stated, the Broncos have gotten a bye in each of their two seasons with Peyton Manning at quarterback with no Super Bowl trophy to show for it. While I don’t think getting the third seed would effectively end the Broncos’ championship hopes, I do think it would be beneficial all around to them to get that coveted week off.
I’m talking about two critical Broncos: Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas.
It seems obvious that people would prefer the bye for Peyton, but there’s also an argument against it. For starters, Manning’s only Super Bowl win has come as a three seed, meaning he played in the wild card round. In each of his two Super Bowl losses, Manning’s teams had a bye that week. This isn’t that surprising, as we’ve all seen that he does better as a rhythm passer; whether that’s snap-to-snap, drive-to-drive, or week-to-week.
But Peyton really hasn’t looked like himself lately, and it’s been due in part to the somewhat (unusual) disconnect between him and Thomas. Before the Bengals game last week, I figured it was just due to Manning operating under a new offensive philosophy that is predicated by heavy running. Before last week, he wasn’t doing terrible, but he had been missing some throws deep, throws that he’s made a countless number of times.
But last week was different. It wasn’t the physical side of Manning I was worried about. He was just different mentally. There were a couple of prime examples that stood out to me, both coming in the fourth quarter.
Dec 22, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) throws a pass during the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
The first was Manning’s second pick of the game. The Broncos had a 28-27 lead with over 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter after surmounting a gritty comeback. With the ball at Denver’s own 20 yard line, Manning was in shotgun with an empty backfield; Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders, and C.J. Anderson were on his right and the Thomas’s on the left (DT in the slot). Cincy’s pre-snap look included cornerback Adam Jones lined up over DT while showing blitz, Reggie Nelson one-on-one with DT and no LB’s in the box. DT’s route, a short out, would seemingly be open. However, Jones faked the blitz and took on Demaryius with safety help over top. Manning trusts that DT will shake Jones, but to no avail. After his break, Jones beats him underneath and picks the ball off.
While Thomas’s route could’ve been crisper, he was never open and Manning forced a ball in a terrible situation. A sack would’ve been 10 times more acceptable than a turnover considering the Bengals would’ve already been in field goal range with a turnover and the Broncos had already come all the way back from a 20-7 halftime deficit. Luckily, Nelson was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty and the Broncos defense forced a three-and-out punt.
The second play was even worse in my eyes. I was at the game and it looked terrible live. I can only imagine how it looked on TV.
This time it was Manning’s third of his four picks. The Broncos were down 30-28 with 2:50 left in the game and three timeouts, game still not over. Manning was in the shotgun with Anderson flanked to his right, DT split wide right and Sanders, Welker, and Julius Thomas on his left. Manning’s first option was DT on a short “arrow” as Jon Gruden called it (going inside then cutting back out). The Bengals had dime personnel with a single high safety (Nelson) and man coverage with their corners. They had two backers in the box, both of whom stayed in coverage (and pretty shallow at that).
Nelson was playing extremely deep, effectively taking himself out of the play. Manning faked a handoff to Anderson who went left for a pass, drawing the weak side linebacker and leaving Emmanuel Sanders wide open on a 10-yard crossing route in the middle of the field. Watching it live, this is where I initially thought Peyton was going as he wound up to pass.
Instead, Manning hurries, throws off his back foot instead of stepping up in the pocket (though the blocking wasn’t perfect, go figure), and undershoots DT on his out pattern. It appears DT slips, but after watching and re-watching this play over and over and over, it looked as if DT was open out of the break, the ball was already out, and it was poorly thrown: either that, or Manning expected DT to sit after he made his cut back outside. Even still, Thomas wouldn’t have been open.
Dec 22, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (88) makes a catch while being pushed out of bounds during the third quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
It’s too late in the season for Manning to be making mental mistakes, especially in critical situations. It’s also too late in the season for Manning and DT to not be on the same page in any situation. These guys have played together for almost three full years including four playoff games. They should be on the same page in crunch time when Adam Gase is calling the milk and butter plays.
Statistically speaking, Demaryius Thomas isn’t in a funk. In his last two games he’s collected 13 catches for 238 yards and a touchdown. His Pro Football Focus grades have been mixed over this span, with a 4.0 in San Diego and a 0.1 in Cincinnati. (Though to be fair, he got a -0.9 in the penalty category for the bogus facemask they called. So really it should have been at least a 1.0).
But again, the “problem” with DT has been not being on the same page with Manning. I’m not saying every play should go off without a hitch, but for the most part, especially in crunch time, All-Pro quarterback should know where (soon-to-be) All-Pro receiver will be and vice versa.
But just like with Thomas’s rough start to the season, I have confidence that he and Manning will work it out. They have too much work ethic and talent not to. But they could use the extra week of rest to help.