(Sports Network) - Another consistent outing from Peyton Manning and a bend-
but-don't break effort from the defense has the Denver Broncos on the verge of
back-to-back division titles for the first time in 25 years.
They'll look to wrap up the AFC West this Sunday against the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers, who themselves had hopes of a division title dealt a major blow
Coming off their first division crown since 2005, the Broncos have ripped off
six straight wins for a second season in a row, and at 8-3 they own a four-
game lead over the second-place San Diego Chargers in the AFC West. That means
that the Broncos can claim their second straight division title for the first
time since 1986-87 with a win this weekend over the Buccaneers or a Chargers
loss at home to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Denver, which hasn't won seven in a row since it began the 1998 season with 13
straight victories, is aiming to win its 12th AFC West title in franchise
history, which would match the Oakland Raiders for the most all-time.
"Well, No. 1, we don't want to worry about all that. We want to worry about
the Tampa Bay Bucs in all three phases," said Broncos head coach John Fox.
Denver extended its winning streak with a 17-9 win over the hosting Kansas
City Chiefs last Sunday. Manning overcame an early interception to throw for
285 yards with two touchdown passes, while the defense held Kansas City to
just three field goals, including two in the first quarter.
It marked the first time over the Broncos' winning streak that they did not
top 30 points in a game and, in fact, the 17 points were a season low.
"Guys did a good job on defense. The inside guys played stout," noted
defensive end Elvis Dumervil. "They got a few plays on us, but we didn't give
up a touchdown. They got a couple of field goals, but we did a good job
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas hauled in four passes for 82 yards with a
touchdown as he surpassed 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his
young career. His 1,015 yards on the season are the sixth-highest in the
Knowshon Moreno also shined in his first action since Week 2, running for 85
yards on 20 carries. He saw the bulk of work after Willis McGahee tore the MCL
in his right knee in the previous week's win over the Chargers.
Tampa Bay has been putting forth an excellent effort as of late and carried a
four-game winning streak into last Sunday's meeting with the NFC South-leading
Atlanta Falcons. The Buccaneers gave the Falcons all they could handle, but
ended up dropping a 24-23 decision to fall to 6-5 and four games behind
Atlanta for the division lead.
Tampa Bay's secondary, playing without cornerback Eric Wright due to an
Achilles tendon ailment, was tagged for 345 yards through the air by Atlanta
quarterback Matt Ryan, with rookie corner Leonard Johnson getting beat for a
back-breaking 80-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
"You don't give up the big play, the monster play, against a very good
quarterback, but we did give it up and there in lies the issue. That's been a
little bit of our Achilles' heel and we'll get it corrected," noted Bucs head
coach Greg Schiano.
The Bucs will again be without Wright after he was suspended for four games
this week for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He
had been appealing the ban after taking the drug Adderall.
Also not helping the Buccaneers in a game that featured seven lead changes or
ties was settling for three Connor Barth field goals, including a 22-yarder
late in the second quarter despite having a 1st-and-goal at the three-yard
Tampa Bay will try to keep from getting too discouraged by the fact that the
division title may now be out of reach.
"At this point, we're looking strictly at the next game," said quarterback
Josh Freeman. "It's a one-game season. We're not looking at divisional
opponents. That's stuff that will take care of its self down the road. All
we're focusing on is putting together the best performance we can against the
team we have out there against us."
The Broncos lead the all-time series between these clubs 5-2. That includes a
win in each of the last two meetings, 2004 in Tampa Bay and a home victory
during the 2008 campaign.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
As if a matchup with Manning isn't hard enough, Wright's suspension leaves the
Buccaneers with two rookies in its starting secondary -- Johnson and safety
Mark Barron -- along with fourth-year corner E.J. Biggers. The reserves aren't
rich with experience either following the loss of safety Cody Grimm to a
hamstring injury that landed him on injured reserve.
Three other rookies fill the depth chart in safeties Ahmad Black and Keith
Tandy as well as corner LeQuan Lewis. Part of the lack of experience stems
from Tampa Bay's trade of corner Aqib Talib to the New England Patriots on
"It probably lends to the confidence that we have in our young players, that
we felt that we could do that. ... Every decision we make is, what gives the
organization that best chance to win. When we made that decision, that's what
we thought was best," said Schiano.
Coincidentally, Talib had served a four-game suspension this season while with
the Bucs for also taking Adderall.
Of course, the great equalizer for the Buccaneers is safety Ronde Barber, a
16-year vet who had eight tackles versus the Falcons while also intercepting
his 47th career pass.
Schiano noted that Barber is helping a young secondary that he feels is
playing physical and aggressive. That has shown in the stats as the Bucs are
third in the NFL with 16 interceptions and tied for sixth with 22 total
Of course, the secondary will need to execute on those aggressive plays
against Manning, who has completed 67.7 percent of his passes this season
while throwing for 3,260 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Manning, a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, did take a hard shot
versus the Chiefs and hit his head on the turf, but Fox said on Monday that
his quarterback was cleared in the locker room at halftime.
This Sunday will serve as a reunion for Manning and Tampa Bay tight end Dallas
Clark, who was a teammate of Manning's for eight seasons with the Indianapolis
Colts. The duo hooked up for 44 touchdowns during that span and Clark has
caught 31 passes for 320 yards with three scores this season with the Bucs.
Denver's backfield continues to have a different look thanks to the loss of
McGahee. Moreno spearheaded the attack ahead of Ronnie Hillman and Lance Ball
despite limited action this season, earning praise from Manning.
"I tip my hat off to Knowshon Moreno. I give real credit to him for being a
professional, staying in his play book, knowing when his number is going to be
called, even eight to 10 weeks later; he stepped up today and did a heck of a
job," complimented Manning.
Denver signed former San Diego fullback Jacob Hester this week. Hester adds
pass-catching ability to the mix as he made 55 receptions during his tenure
with the Chargers.
"He's a very smart guy. He's a little more of a ?tweener' (between a running
back and fullback) type as far as a bigger, more physical type of back," said
Fox. "He is very sharp in protections and he gives us a little bit different
dimension than the guys we have on the roster at this point."
This figures to be tough sledding for a Buccaneers team that really needs a
win. The Broncos should lean heavily on Manning given that Tampa Bay ranks
dead last in the NFL in pass defense, giving up 315.5 yards per game.
Add in an inspired Moreno, who does battle with the league's top-ranked run
defense, and Denver has more than enough firepower against a team that has
struggled to win close games this season.
"We've been in this situation too many times, where it's one point, three
points," said Tampa Bay defensive tackle Roy Miller. "You can say we fight,
but at the end of the day it's all about wins and losses. We made plays, but
we didn't make enough."
That's not an issue for Manning, who should capitalize on his first chance to
punch Denver's playoff ticket.