DENVER (AP) – Instead of revving their high-octane offense like they did a year ago, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos pumped the brakes heading into these playoffs.
They’re no longer the air-it-out team that piled up 606 points last season. Now, they’re built as much on a dominant, star-studded defense and good ground game as they are on Manning’s mind and passing prowess.
While taking on a new identity, the Broncos still managed to tie for the league’s best record for the third consecutive season under Manning. And their 30.1-point scoring average trailed only Green Bay’s 30.4.
Still, Manning’s stretch run — three touchdowns, six interceptions in December — is cause for concern among many an uneasy Broncos fan.
C.J. Anderson, the first undrafted running back to score seven touchdowns in a month since Priest Holmes a decade ago, laughs at the notion.
He offered this observation as the Broncos (12-4) got some much-needed R&R with a first-round bye:
“I’ll just ask the fans this: Do you want Peyton to throw 70 million touchdowns and break 80 million records or do you all want a parade downtown?”
Anderson’s emergence since midseason has given the Broncos the kind of balance they had back in the late 1990s when John Elway had Terrell Davis to take share the load and help hoist two championship trophies.
Anderson began the season buried on the depth chart, and only got his chance because of injuries to Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. He quickly proved as adept at picking up the blitz as the first down, a prerequisite to joining Manning in the Broncos backfield.
He finished with 1,173 yards from scrimmage and 10 TDs despite not starting until Week 11.
“C.J.’s picked up this offense quickly,” Manning said. “He studied during the time that he wasn’t playing, which has paid off for him.”
And the Broncos.
“I feel good that our run game has developed, that we’ve got a couple guys we really trust back there, and the fact that we are a little more balanced,” said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “To have that effective balance going into (the playoffs) is going to be key for us.”
Even with the Broncos downshifting their offense, Demaryius Thomas posted a club-record 1,619 yards receiving. He became the seventh wide receiver in NFL history to post 10 100-yard games in a season.
Emmanuel Sanders set career highs with 101 catches for 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns after four seasons in Pittsburgh where he never came close to those kinds of numbers.
Sanders, who famously called Denver “wide receiver heaven” when he arrived as part of Elway’s splashy free agency class last spring, said this was the kind of year he envisioned.
“I remember last year I was sitting around getting ready to be a free agent, and I said that I feel like me and Antonio Brown have the same type of game. I just need somebody to give me an opportunity,” Sanders said. “What I meant was the yards he’s putting up, the balls that he’s catching, I can do those things.”
A year ago, the Broncos suffered through an injury epidemic. And four players who had to watch the Super Bowl from the sideline have led Denver’s defensive resurgence: pass rusher Von Miller (14 sacks), cornerback Chris Harris Jr. (zero touchdowns), safety Rahim Moore and lineman Derek Wolfe.
They combined with newcomers T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware to post the league’s third-rated defense that was second against the run.
But the fulcrum of coordinator Jack Del Rio’s unit was a major surprise: linebacker Brandon Marshall, who led the team with 110 tackles despite missing the last two games with a sprained foot.
Marshall, cut several times by the Jaguars before ending up as a practice squad player in Denver last year, is both a tale of perseverance and overnight success. He couldn’t even carve out a job for himself on one of the worst teams in the NFL and now he’s an every-down linebacker and arguably the defensive MVP on one of the league’s best teams.
“He’s had a Pro Bowl kind of year,” Del Rio said.
Marshall wasn’t among the Broncos’ league-high nine Pro Bowl selections, however.
Another snub was nose tackle Terrance Knighton, who has guaranteed a return trip to the Super Bowl even if that means having to beat the Patriots on the road for the first time since 2006.
“Teams that win right now and end up winning Super Bowls are teams that can play good defense and have offenses that can run the ball,” Knighton reasoned. “Right now, we’re fulfilling that blueprint.”
Given that, you’d think Knighton had a little voice telling him last year’s joyride would end in bitter disappointment, as it did.
“No, no, because we were on the same high horse that everybody else was on. We didn’t feel like our offense could be stopped,” Knighton said, “and we felt like as a defense we only had to do enough to win.”
This time there’s no riding Superman’s cape.
“No, it didn’t work,” said Knighton, who’s confident the refurbished Broncos can get it done this way.
By Arnie Stapleton, AP Pro Football Writer
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