ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – The wobblers were gone. The players-turned-sideline-spectators, too.
The unbeaten Broncos returned from their five-day furlough refreshed, rejuvenated and almost at full strength with rookie pass rusher Shane Ray (knee) the only player not in attendance at a Monday morning practice.
Peyton Manning threw tight spirals, Emmanuel Sanders grabbed passes over his bruised left shoulder without grimaces, Aqib Talib ran without a limp and DeMarcus Ware fired off the ball without his bad back locking up.
Offensive guards Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez even traded their baseball caps for football helmets and practiced with their teammates, their knotty knees much better.
Ty Sambrailo, who’s missed most of the last month with an injured shoulder, was back at left tackle, too.
“This will be probably the first day in about a month that we actually start the week with all of them in place,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “Evan looks good coming off the break. Lou looks better coming off the break. So, hopefully we’ll get a full week out of all of them as we prepare for this game.”
Only twice in the last month did Denver’s O-line practice together before taking the field on Sunday, and that goes a long way toward explaining the discombobulated nature of their 29th-ranked offense, which keeps getting bailed out by the league’s No. 1 defense.
“It gives you the confidence of knowing you’re” at full strength, defensive end Antonio Smith said. “Whatever you need to call on, it’s there at your disposal. You’re not having to figure out, well how are we going to have to get around this to win because we’re lacking in this area or that area.”
The Broncos and Packers are both 6-0 heading into their Sunday night showdown in Denver.
Manning vs. Aaron Rodgers.
“You’ve got two good defenses and two great quarterbacks,” Smith said. “I think that it’s going to be fun. Our job is to stop their quarterback. Their job is going to be to stop ours. It will be a battle of the defenses when you bring it back to the beginning. A battle of the defenses, I guess, but we’re going to make sure Peyton will be the best quarterback. That’s our job.”
This is just the fourth time in NFL history that two unbeaten teams have met this deep into a season.
It also happened in 1921, when the Akron Pros (7-0) and Buffalo All-Americans (6-0) tied 0-0.
In 1973, Minnesota and the Rams were both 6-0 and the Vikings won 10-9.
And in 2007, the Patriots (8-0) beat the Colts (7-0) 24-20.
The Packers have yielded an NFL-low 101 points, one fewer than the Broncos, but Denver’s defense has actually allowed just 82 points – 20 have come off Manning’s trio of pick-6s.
The Broncos are unbeaten thanks to a defense that has 26 sacks by a dozen different players and 18 takeaways, plus clutch drives by an offense that’s averaging just 1.5 touchdowns a game but comes up big when it counts.
After escaping Cleveland with a 26-23 win in overtime despite three interceptions, Manning said he wouldn’t spend his bye week in Las Vegas because he wasn’t feeling very lucky.
Instead, he headed to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to watch his Tennessee Volunteers play Saturday.
On Monday, he had noticeably more zip on his tight spirals.
Manning will throw some on Wednesday, too, his normal day off, but Kubiak wasn’t sure to what extent.
Overall, Kubiak was pleased to get his players back on the field after working through such a hodgepodge of lineups the last few weeks.
“We looked fresh,” Kubiak said. “We moved around good. You know, it was a good break for everybody. But we’ve got a tough 10 weeks ahead, and none bigger than this one, we know that.”
Well, there is that trip to Indy next week, always an emotional time for Manning.
Then, there’s a home game against Kansas City and a trip to Chicago to face former Broncos coach John Fox and ex-offensive coordinator Adam Gase, architect of Manning’s record-setting seasons.
Finally, there’s Tom Brady and the Patriots to wrap up this nasty November schedule.
“We’ll worry about Aaron Rodgers and then when Andrew Luck comes up, worry about him,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “If you can just focus on one game at a time, when you look up at the end you’ll be right where you want to be.”
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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