It would have been the first playoff appearance of a career in which Kuper’s individual improvement to become one of the league’s best interior offensive linemen was outweighed by the decline of the team around him. When he was drafted, the Broncos were coming off a 13-3 season and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game; by his fifth year, they’d slipped to 4-12.
One year and two more injuries later, Kuper finally gets the shot he’s patiently awaited. No Bronco since the 1970′s had ever played so long for the team without tasting the playoffs — but that appears set to end, as he’s recovered from his latest ankle injury and is poised to start against Baltimore.
“This is what I’ve been playing for since I got here,” Kuper said. “I was doing everything I could to come back during the season, not necessarily for the playoffs. But to be available for the playoffs is great.”
And it’s great for the Broncos, as well, considering that the offensive line has allowed one sack every 82.5 pass plays with Kuper in the lineup, compared with one sack per 23.2 pass plays without him.
Kuper has allowed six sacks in 36 starts since 2010, according to Stats, Inc. Ramirez has yielded 6.5 sacks in 11 starts this season. While Ramirez has become an asset in run-blocking, his ups and downs — particularly against difficult foes like Houston defensive end J.J. Watt — meant that the Broncos missed Kuper badly while he was sidelined.
“He’s a team guy and he’s one of those guys that when he’s on the field everybody looks to and kind of rallies around,” said wide receiver Brandon Stokley. “So, hopefully we’ll have him out there this week.”
Kuper’s effort in recovering from the leg injury and a fractured left forearm that kept him from starting until Week 6 was enough to earn his teammates’ vote for the Ed Block Courage Award.
“Obviously, you don’t want to be in that situation because that means you had to fight through some injuries or adversity,” Kuper said, “but to be recognized as a guy who will do that, I think that’s just part of being a professional.”
Said Peyton Manning: “What Kup’s been through from an injury standpoint, certainly physically it’s taken its toll. That’s a real challenge mentally, and I can just tell you that from my experience last year … He and I have spent a lot of time in the training room together.”
While they share a rehabilitation experience, they don’t share playoff experience. Manning made his postseason debut in his second season and has missed the postseason just twice since then. Only five quarterbacks have started more playoff games than Manning (Brett Favre, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, John Elway and Terry Bradshaw).
Still, there’s a first time for everything — and given that Manning was sacked twice and hit on three consecutive plays against Baltimore on Dec. 16, the Broncos hope Kuper breaks his playoff drought Saturday.