NFL Wire News

Broncos thankful for bye to get healthy

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There was little celebration in the Denver Broncos’ locker room after a 47-14 throttling of the Oakland Raiders that clinched a first-round bye and completed a 12-4 season that left them as one of five teams to post the league’s best record in the 2014 regular season.

“We expected to be where we are right now,” said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. “So we’re just looking forward to getting out there and playing again.”

But that will wait until after the bye — which is crucial for the Broncos. After playing 13 consecutive weeks since a Week 4 bye that came so early that Knighton deemed it “unnecessary,” the Broncos limp into the playoffs with two more contributors injured in Sunday’s win after safety David Bruton and guard Orlando Franklin suffered concussions.

Bruton’s injury put another squeeze on the core of the Broncos’ two back lines of defense, which is already compromised by the season-ending losses of linebackers Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving and safety Quinton Carter and the Week 17 absences of linebacker Brandon Marshall and safety T.J. Ward.

Ward practiced on a limited basis last week, but without a helmet after suffering a neck strain. Marshall began working out during practice last week as he recovers from a mid-foot sprain that will require him to manage pain when he returns. The bye gives both a better chance of returning, although cornerback Chris Harris Jr. was quick to amend that.

“They will be back. Not a better chance. It’s the playoffs,” Harris Jr. said. “They’ve got to play through everything in the playoffs.”

But the Broncos’ roster is full of nicks, bruises — and players recovering from an illness that has ransacked the Broncos in recent weeks, most prominently hitting Manning during the game at San Diego. By last Saturday, the Broncos’ injury report listed 21 names — 39.6 percent of the 53-man roster.

“I’m tired of reading that injury report,” Broncos coach John Fox said.

“I think this bye week is coming at a good time,” said Manning.

In recent weeks, the Broncos have reshaped their identity, relying less on Manning’s right arm and more on an improved rushing game led by C.J. Anderson and a defense that ended the season atop the AFC and third in the league in yardage per game, and second in yards allowed per play.

For the first time in the Manning era, the Broncos appear capable of winning the kind of grinding duel that often comes in the postseason. That’s the sort of football that the Ravens and Jets played when they won at New England in the 2009, 2010 and 2012 postseasons; for the Broncos to achieve their Super Bowl dream, they might have to do it again.

“That’s been our goal all season: to win on defense,” said Harris. “We want the offense to always do well, but we’re not paying attention to what they do all the way, we’re just worried about what we can control.”

–Tight end Julius Thomas remains mostly a non-factor, three games into his return from a sprained ankle suffered in the Nov. 16 loss at St. Louis.

Thomas was only targeted on a play that was wiped out by a defensive holding penalty during Sunday’s win over Oakland. He has just three catches for 63 yards and no touchdowns since his return, after racking up 40 receptions for 426 yards and 12 touchdowns prior to the injury.

The first-round bye will be especially welcome for Thomas, who said he plans to spend the week focusing on his rehabilitation from the injury.

“I definitely needed this bye,” he said. “When you’re practicing and playing, it’s kind of hard.”

Thomas said that he realized from the moment doctors diagnosed the injury that he would be fighting through discomfort when he returned.

“I knew it was going to be one of those things where you’re going to have to fight through it,” he said. “Talking to the doctor about it, it’s something that’s going to linger a little bit.

“There’s no timeframe on when you feel like you’re ready to just go run around and it’ll feel great again. He (the doctor) kind of expressed that’s going to be a long time coming, but you can’t injure it worse, so just continue to do what you can.”

REPORT CARD VS. RAIDERS

–PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus — It was a solid game for the Broncos through the air, although Oakland made Denver pay for its biggest mistake, a lateral to Emmanuel Sanders that Justin Tuck deflected to Keith McGill, who returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. The Broncos’ red-zone passing offense remained an issue, with three incompletions on a goal-to-go from the Raiders 3-yard line in the fourth quarter, but after the lateral, Denver avoided mistakes and was reasonably efficient.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus — The one-two punch of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman was together for the first time since Hillman suffered a mid-foot sprain in Week 9, as the two combined for 143 yards on 28 carries and three touchdowns, all of which were scored by Anderson, who racked up his second hat trick of the month. Hillman is still working his way through pain in his foot, but showed some sharp cuts and acceleration that offers promise for the postseason.

–PASS DEFENSE: A-minus — Pressure from up front led to three sacks, including a strip-sack fumble by Lerentee McCray that Tony Carter picked up and returned 20 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. As was the case the previous two games, the Broncos prevented the wide receivers from getting much done, but allowed most of the Raiders’ completions — 11 of 18 — to tight ends and running backs, who had 122 of 158 gross passing yards for Derek Carr.

–RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus — Better tackling helped the Broncos prevent the second-level runs that the Bengals created six days earlier, and eventually the Raiders were forced to abandon the ground game as their deficit grew to two and three scores. Steven Johnson looked much more assured at linebacker as the Broncos ended the game and the season second in the league in rushing defense.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B — For a second consecutive week, Omar Bolden delivered an explosive kickoff return; his 76-yard sprint led to a C.J. Anderson touchdown run two plays later that effectively put the game out of reach. Wes Welker had a 19-yard punt return and the Raiders’ returns weren’t game-breaking, although there could be some concern about Brandon McManus’ kickoffs after two of his last three kicks squibbed feebly well short of the goal line.

–COACHING: B — Although the red-zone passing proved problematic, the Broncos were able to purge their offense of the mistakes that dogged it in Cincinnati, with only the deflected lateral marring the day. Jack Del Rio adapted to the injuries that struck his safeties and linebackers by shuffling the deck of his sub packages, using safety David Bruton and linebacker Corey Nelson alongside fill-in weak-side linebacker Todd Davis in the nickel. He also got Bradley Roby some extensive work by giving Aqib Talib a second-half breather.


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