Big win sets Broncos up for week off in playoffs

When things weren’t clicking at the beginning of the season,
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos spent most of their time
looking at the film and working out the kinks on the practice field
– and very little time focusing on the standings.

The work is paying off, and if they bothered to look at those
standings Monday, they would’ve liked what they saw.

After their runaway win over Baltimore and New England’s loss to
San Francisco, the Broncos are the No. 2 seed in the AFC and only
need victories at home over Cleveland and Kansas City, combined
record 7-21, to wrap up a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Eight of the 10 AFC teams to make the Super Bowl under the
current playoff format have had a first-round bye.

”I always thought if we kept getting better, there was no way
we couldn’t be one of the top teams,” Broncos cornerback Champ
Bailey said. ”It was just a matter of keeping your nose down, not
worrying about your record, keep working and everything will take
care of itself.”

During their nine-game winning streak – longest since they won
the first 13 games of the 1998 Super Bowl season – the Broncos
(11-3) have steadily gotten better.

One of the issues was how they would fare against a winning
team, the likes of which they faced only twice over the first eight
wins of the streak. The trip to Baltimore, against a struggling
Ravens team, but still a team that has qualified for the playoffs
with a 9-5 record, was considered their biggest litmus test before
the playoffs begin.

They passed it and didn’t even need Manning at his very best to
do so.

The Broncos quarterback threw for 204 yards, his lowest output
of the season.

But the Broncos were so good everywhere else – rushing for 163
yards, creating two turnovers and returning one for a touchdown,
milking the clock in the fourth quarter with a 9:59 drive – they
didn’t need Manning to do much more than hand off.

In fact, Manning handed the ball off 45 times Sunday, the most
in his career.

”Our goal is to try to get better every week,” he said. ”I
feel like we probably have in some areas. You’re still looking to
play that perfect 60-minute game, and that’s your goal every
week.”

After Week 5, a 31-21 loss at New England that dropped Denver to
2-3, nobody was mistaking Manning or the Broncos for perfect.

Still getting used to his new offense and his new teammates,
Manning was struggling. He threw a career-high 26 incompletions in
a loss to Houston and had the three first-quarter interceptions in
a loss to Atlanta.

There were still questions about his arm strength, and others
about whether he would get used to playing at full speed again.

Manning brushed off most of the criticism, bristled at some of
it and, mostly, kept believing that more time with his teammates
would solve many of the problems.

Since Week 6, when the winning streak began, the Broncos have
averaged 386 yards a game (sixth in the NFL) and scored 30.4 points
(second), while allowing 291 yards (second) and 17.8 points
(third).

”I knew we had a really good team,” receiver Brandon Stokley
said. ”A lot of people on the outside wanted to push the panic
button. But for us, it was just about improving every week. We were
a relatively young team with the system we put in, and just getting
better, knowing that good things could happen if we kept working
hard, that’s what we’ve done.”

Even with the victory over the Ravens, the question remains: How
will the Broncos fare against the league’s elite? Their only three
losses came to Atlanta (12-2), Houston (12-2) and New England
(10-4) and Denver hasn’t faced a team of that caliber since.

The fact that the Broncos would face a possible rematch with the
Patriots at home could give the Broncos a supposed advantage in a
series in which they’ve lost their three meetings in the John Fox
era by a combined score of 117-54.

Two of those games, including last year’s 45-10 playoff loss
(with Tim Tebow at quarterback), were in New England.

But ask any of the Broncos about the path to the Super Bowl that
is clearer than it was two days, to say nothing of nine games, ago
and, well, you mainly get the trademark blank stare and the pat
answer.

”Right now, I know we can control our own destiny, but if we
don’t play our best game against Cleveland this week, that will be
all for naught,” coach John Fox said.

Notes: Fox did not list RB Knowshon Moreno on the injury report,
though Moreno could be seen on the sideline during the fourth
quarter with trainers looking at his back. … Fox downplayed a
tweet from CB Tracy Porter, who has expressed his dissatisfaction
about the lack of playing time after losing his job to Chris
Harris. ”He just needs to focus on getting better every day,” Fox
said. ”I saw good improvement last week.” Porter, who has been
cleared to play after dealing with health issues, hasn’t played
since Oct. 7. … Fox said KR/PR Trindon Holliday would still be
the returner even though he has fumbled four times since signing
with the Broncos in October. He has also scored two touchdowns.

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