NFL Preview - Denver (8-6) at Buffalo (5-9)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Anyone thinking the Tim Tebow experience in Denver would be a one-year folly...think again.
Broncos vice president John Elway finally went public with his praise for his quarterback this week, a few days before Tebow and his teammates head to Buffalo for a key Week 16 matchup with the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Denver enters the regular season's penultimate game with a one-game lead in the AFC West and can clinch the division plus a loss by the Oakland to Kansas City on Saturday. A victory over the Bills, coupled with losses by the New York Jets, Cincinnati and Tennessee, would secure at least a Wild Card berth.
That's not where many would have expected the Broncos would be heading into Week 7, when head coach John Fox turned to Tebow after a 1-4 start. In fact, there was speculation the move was made simply to assuage a restless fan base and prove the former Heisman Trophy recipient was little more than a first- round novelty of a past regime.
Only a month ago, after Tebow had won four of his first five starts, Elway answered "no" when asked if he was any closer to believing the team had found a long-term signal-calling solution, and supplemented the reply with comments that Tebow needed improved technique and better results on third downs.
This week, a few days after a 41-23 loss to New England ended a six-game win streak and dropped Tebow to 7-2 as a 2011 starter, the Hall of Fame former quarterback relented a bit.
"Tim Tebow's not going anywhere," Elway said. "I mean, he's going to be a Bronco and we're going to do everything we can and hopefully he's that guy."
"I think that [initial] comment was probably a little bit too blunt, because I think the big picture with Tim is we've got to see the whole body of work. And so really what you want to see with him is the improvement that's going to happen over time.
"He's done what we knew he could do and where we've seen his progress is what he does within the pocket. We know Tim's a great player and what we've got to do is make him a great quarterback, and what I've learned is you've got to be able to win from within the pocket."
Meanwhile, some are wishing the Bills had exercised similar restraint with their quarterback.
Harvard product Ryan Fitzpatrick, who'd made 36 starts in six years prior to this season, led the Bills to a 4-2 record through mid-October of this 2011 campaign when he agreed to a six-year, $59 million contract extension -- including $24 million in guaranteed funds that stood as a sizeable raise from his existing $3.22 million base salary.
In eight games since, Buffalo is 1-7 and lost seven straight times. Fitzpatrick has had precisely one 300-yard game while throwing 13 interceptions to 10 touchdowns over that span.
Caught in the maelstrom along with his passer is Bills head coach Chan Gailey, who's now 9-21 since taking over in Buffalo prior to the 2010 season.
"You lose this many games in a row, we all get criticism," Gailey said. "There's nobody that escapes criticism when you're doing what we're doing right now."
Buffalo holds an 18-15-1 edge in its overall series with Denver and snapped a string of five straight defeats to the Broncos with a 30-23 road win in a 2008 meeting. Denver had won three times at Ralph Wilson Stadium over the course of that above-mentioned streak, including a 28-17 decision in 2005 that was followed by a 15-14 triumph in the 2007 season opener. The Broncos haven't lost in Buffalo since Elway was still the team's quarterback, a 27-20 setback on Sept. 26, 1994.
These teams have also faced off once previously in the postseason, with the Bills scoring a 10-7 home win in over Elway's Broncos in the 1991 AFC Championship.
Fox and Gailey have never met head-to-head as head coaches, but the two have faced their counterpart's respective teams in the past. Fox went 1-1 in two encounters with Buffalo during his tenure with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-10, while Gailey -- an assistant and former offensive coordinator for the Broncos from 1985-90 -- lost a 1998 matchup to his onetime employers while then in charge of the Dallas Cowboys.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Tebow is 7-2 as a starter in 2011 and accounted for 14 total touchdowns (10 passing, 4 rushing). He has an AFC-best 106.3 fourth-quarter passer rating as well and owns a 5-0 road record with eight touchdown passes, no interceptions and a 106.0 rating this season. The second-year pro had a career-best two rushing touchdowns against the Patriots last week. Running back Willis McGahee (990 rushing yards), who was selected in the first round of the 2003 draft by the Bills and spent his first four NFL seasons with Buffalo, needs 10 rushing yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the fourth time in his career, while backfield mate Lance Ball posted his first career rushing touchdown last week while totaling 105 yards from scrimmage (64 rushing, 41 receiving). Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has reached 100-plus receiving yards in two of the past three games and leads the NFL with 338 receiving yards in December.
The Buffalo defense has 12 interceptions in seven home games in 2011 and first- year tackle Marcell Dareus has 5 1/2 sacks on the season, the most by a Bills rookie since Aaron Schobel had 6 1/2 in 2001. Veteran linebacker Nick Barnett, who's in his first year with the Bills, has 113 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble for the year. In the backfield, ninth-year cornerback Drayton Florence has 45 tackles, a forced fumble and three interceptions.
Statistically speaking, the Broncos on offense are 20th in scoring (20.9 ppg), 19th in total yards (322.5 ypg), 31st in passing (159.4 ypg) and first in rushing (163.1 ypg). On defense, the Bills are 27th in points allowed (26.5 ppg), 26th in total yards allowed (369.5 ypg), 16th against the pass (230.0 ypg) and 29th against the run (139.5 ypg).
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Fitzpatrick needs two touchdown passes to surpass Drew Bledsoe (55) for the fourth-most in franchise history and registered his second 300-yard passing game of the season with 316 yards in last week's 30-23 loss to Miami. With 3,329 passing yards in 2011, he needs 171 more to join Bledsoe, Joe Ferguson and Hall of Famer Jim Kelly as the only Bills quarterbacks to reach 3,500 in season. Running back C.J. Spiller totaled a career-high 167 yards from scrimmage (91 rushing, 76 receiving) last week. He is averaging 5.8 yards per carry in his past three games and has two rushing touchdowns over that span. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson is averaging 99 receiving yards per game over the past two weeks, while counterpart David Nelson has career bests in catches (56), receiving yards (594) and touchdown catches (5) in 2011. Fellow wideout Derek Hagan registered his first touchdown catch of the season last week. Tight end Scott Chandler hopes to return from an ankle injury that's kept him out of the last two games and with six touchdown catches this season, he needs one more to surpass Pete Metzelaars (6 in 1992) and Jay Riemersma (6 in 1998) for the most by a tight end in a season in franchise history.
Denver rookie linebacker Von Miller has seven sacks in six road games and is second among NFL rookies with 11 1/2 sacks this season, trailing only San Francisco's Aldon Smith's 13. End Elvis Dumervil aims for an eighth straight game with at least a half-sack on Saturday, while in the backfield, rookie safety Quinton Carter has 51 tackles and an interception in the team's 14 games.
By the numbers, the Buffalo offense is 17th in scoring (22.2 ppg), 14th in total yards (347.9 ypg), 15th in passing (229.7 ypg) and 13th in rushing (118.2 ypg). Denver's defense is 24th in points allowed (24.5 ppg), 22nd in total yards allowed (363.8 ypg), 20th against the pass (238.4 ypg) and 20th against the run (125.4 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Denver's ground attack. Leaping off the stat sheet is the contrast between Buffalo's 29th-place standing in defending the run and Denver's league-leading ground output of 163.1 yards per game, which makes them the only team averaging more rushing than passing yards. If the Broncos can run here, they win.
Momentum, Part I. The Broncos had a six-game win streak snapped -- and some of their aura eliminated as well -- with the 18-point home loss to New England last week. With the playoffs still in their hands, it'll be interesting to see how a team that started 1-4 will handle a true stretch drive.
Momentum, Part II. Hard to believe that the Bills were 5-2 when the Broncos were 2-5. Buffalo has tumbled badly since a strong burst from the gate, losing by blowouts (37-10 at San Diego) and nail-biters (30-23 at home to Miami) in the last two weeks. How they'll react to the Tebow circus will help determine their fate.
Forget the New England game, folks. The true measure as to whether Denver is a playoff-caliber team will be determined here, with a holiday-week road trip to a below-.500 opponent after a potentially disheartening home loss. Expect the Broncos to lean on Tebow's leadership, not to mention a running game that matches up well with its opponent, and renew the phenomenon for at least another week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 27, Bills 21
12/22 19:14:53 ET