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NFL Preview - Denver (8-4) at Indianapolis (12-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - If the home fans have their way, Sunday's game between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium will touch off a celebration.
At the same time, a win for the home team would also bring about something of a farewell.
At 12-0, a Colts team that has already wrapped up the AFC South title needs just one more win to sew up the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the conference portion of the playoffs. Given that situation, and the probability that Indy head coach Jim Caldwell will not utilize his best players for part or perhaps all of the team's final three regular season games, fans in Indianapolis might not see the proper version of its team until the weekend of Jan. 16th.
Not that anyone in Indy will be complaining, mind you.
With a victory, the Colts will also polish off their 22nd consecutive regular season win, which would surpass the NFL mark of 21, set by the 2006-08 New England Patriots. Peyton Manning and company tied the record with last week's 27-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
The double-digit victory was a rare breather for an Indianapolis team that had won its previous five games by a combined 18 points, and was something of a referendum on the things the Colts have done well all year long.
Manning (24-of-37, 270 yards, 1 TD) was difficult for the Titans to get off the field, counterpart Vince Young (24-of-43, 241 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) played suitably well but didn't finish off enough drives against the bend-but-don't- break Indianapolis defense, and Titans rusher Chris Johnson (27 rushes, 113 yards) went over 100 yards but didn't go for longer than 11 yards on any of his 33 touches.
Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos moved closer to joining Indianapolis in the playoff bracket, running away and hiding in a 44-13 win at the Kansas City Chiefs that helped the team maintain full control of its postseason fate.
Denver ran roughshod over Kansas City, piling up 245 yards on the ground thanks to the trio of Correll Buckhalter (12 carries, 113 yards), Knowshon Moreno (21 carries, 86 yards, 2 TD) and Peyton Hillis (7 carries, 47 yards).
Defensively, the Broncos forced Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel into a miserable 10-of-29, 84-yard, two-interception performance as his former New England coordinator McDaniels looked on from the other sideline.
Denver has followed up a four-game losing streak by defeating the Giants and Chiefs by a combined score of 70-19.
In addition to owning the top wild card position in the AFC as Week 14 begins, the Broncos remained just one game behind the first-place Chargers (9-3) in the AFC West with the triumph.
Denver holds an 11-6 edge in the all-time regular season series with Indianapolis, but has lost both regular season meetings with the Colts since claiming a 33-14 win at home in Week 17 of the 2004 campaign, when Indy rested most of its starters in preparation for the playoffs. The Colts were 38-20 home winners when the clubs last met, in 2007. Denver last won in Indianapolis during the 2003 regular season, a 31-17 victory.
The Colts have won the only two postseason meetings between the teams, routing Denver at the RCA Dome in AFC First-Round Playoff matchups in 2003 (41-10) and 2004 (49-24).
The Broncos' McDaniels and Colts' Caldwell will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
The selection of Moreno in the first round of this past April's draft signaled a shift in the Broncos' offensive identity, and though there have been times when Denver has relied heavily on the pass this year, last week's ground assault was a clear indication of what the Broncos wish to be. The effort moved McDaniels' club up to ninth in NFL rushing offense (125.6 yards per game). Moreno (774 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 6 TD), who has gone for 80 or more yards in each of his past four games, needs to average just 56.5 yards per game over his final four contests to hit 1,000. Buckhalter (563 rushing yards, 1 TD, 27 receptions), who has been a terrific addition to the attack this season, has averaged a robust 5.4 yards per carry on the year. Their presence has made life easier for quarterback Kyle Orton (2627 passing yards, 14 TD, 7 INT) and the passing game, which has been more efficient than explosive of late. Orton was 15-of-25 for 180 yards with two touchdowns and a pick against the Chiefs, hooking up seven times for 94 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown pass, to No. 1 wideout Brandon Marshall (65 receptions, 7 TD). Second wideout Eddie Royal (33 receptions) also had two grabs in the game, and tight end Daniel Graham (20 receptions) caught his first touchdown pass of the year. Of some concern for the Broncos is the toe injury that forced right tackle Ryan Harris to injured reserve this week. The Denver o-line allowed three sacks to the Chiefs last Sunday, bringing the total for the year to 23 surrendered.
Denver will be working against an underrated Colts defense that enters Week 14 having allowed the fewest touchdowns in the league (19), and is tied for first in fewest rushes allowed of 20 yards or longer (3) this season. That said, Indianapolis is not without its injury concerns, as linebacker Clint Session (94 tackles, 2 INT) is questionable with a calf problem, and pass rusher Robert Mathis (36 tackles, 9.5 sacks) could be scratched due to a quadriceps strain. Given the Colts' current place in the AFC hierarchy, look for Indy to proceed with extreme caution in regard to injuries for the remainder of the regular season. Looking to slow Moreno and the Denver running game will be a run- stopping group led by middle linebacker Gary Brackett (72 tackles, 1 INT) and defensive tackles Eric Foster (24 tackles) and Daniel Muir (37 tackles). Brackett posted 10 tackles against Chris Johnson and the Titans last week, while Foster had a nice effort with five stops as well as a fumble recovery. Looking to slow Marshall and Royal on Sunday will be young cornerbacks Jerraud Powers (61 tackles, 1 INT) and Jacob Lacey (60 tackles, 2 INT), who have played well this season despite their inexperience, with help from safeties Melvin Bullitt (67 tackles) and Antoine Bethea (78 tackles, 4 INT) over the top. Lacey posted the team's lone interception of Vince Young last Sunday, while Bullitt was a force in run support with 12 tackles. End Dwight Freeney (20 tackles, 10.5 sacks) took over the team lead in sacks when he took down Young last week, but will see constant double-teams if Mathis is out of the lineup against the Broncos.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
With the Colts unlikely to play another meaningful game before the playoffs, Sunday could represent Manning's last full opportunity to state his case for MVP consideration. Not that his current body of work isn't enough of a case. Manning (25 TD, 11 INT) leads the NFL in passing yards (3685), and is at the helm of an attack that paces the league in passing offense (302.8 yards per game), completion percentage (69.9), fewest sacks allowed (10), fewest fumbles lost (3) and third-down percentage (51.0). Manning has gotten it done with young wideouts such as Pierre Garcon (43 receptions, 4 TD), who had a huge game with six catches for 148 yards against Tennessee, and rookie Austin Collie (47 receptions, 5 TD), who caught his QB's lone touchdown strike of the day on a short second-quarter pass. No. 1 wideout Reggie Wayne (83 receptions, 9 TD) and tight end Dallas Clark (77 receptions, 5 TD) commanded a lot of attention against the Titans, combining for a relatively quiet seven receptions and 73 yards, and figure to be targets for the Broncos secondary as well. The dark side of the Colts' passing prowess is that the team is last in NFL rushing offense (87.7 yards per game), though Joseph Addai (662 rushing yards, 43 receptions, 12 TD) scored twice last week and has been a consistent visitor to the end zone.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this game will be the matchup between the Colts receivers and a veteran Broncos secondary that has been a major reason for the team's re-emergence this year. Cornerbacks Champ Bailey (61 tackles, 1 INT), Andre' Goodman (32 tackles, 4 INT, 1 sack), and Ty Law (9 tackles) will all carry some responsibility for slowing the Indy wideouts, with safeties Brian Dawkins (82 tackles) and Renaldo Hill (50 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) looked toward for support. Both Goodman and Hill had interceptions of the Chiefs' Cassel last week, and Goodman added a fumble recovery in the blowout. Those players will have to be on their game, because the usually prolific pass rush led by outside linebacker and NFL sack leader Elvis Dumervil (42 tackles, 15 sacks) is going to have difficulty pressuring the notoriously quick-firing Manning. The Broncos will have a lesser challenge against the run, but when the ball is in Addai's hands, a run-stopping group led by inside linebackers D.J. Williams (89 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Andra Davis (72 tackles, 3.5 sacks) along with end Kenny Peterson (35 tackles, 1 sack) should be up to the task. Williams had a team-high eight tackles against the Chiefs. The Broncos are seventh in the league in yards per carry allowed (3.9), and third in NFL total defense (288.9 yards per game).
The Broncos have not been a can't-miss team from a fantasy perspective, but players like Moreno, Buckhalter, and Marshall all have some value as contributors. Orton is not much of a starting option unless you're desperate. This is not a week to start the Denver defense, but if you own big-legged kicker Matt Prater, feel confident in rolling with him.
On the Indy side, Manning carried many fantasy squads to the playoffs, just as he has his real team, and his top options Wayne and Clark are must-start figures as well. Though the Colts feature the weakest rushing attack in the league, Addai gets in the end zone enough to merit a start as well. Garcon and Collie are not without risk, but generally contribute something, as does kicker Matt Stover.
Though the Colts have a recent history of running the Broncos off the field, a new-look Denver team should be encouraged by the fact that most of Indy's foes of the past six weeks or so have hung around well into the fourth quarter. The improved Broncos defense should be able to get the Colts off the field somewhat regularly, and an efficient Denver attack should have plenty of opportunities to keep the game close by putting up points. It's impossible to pick against the Colts since they've simply been so good at flexing their muscles and wrapping up wins when it matters, but look for the result here to be in doubt well into the final frame.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 20, Broncos 16
12/10 13:53:12 ET
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