The playoffs have arrived for the Broncos. The “real season” as many on the team are calling it begins Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts come to town. The week one, 31-24 Bronco victory seems like years ago and both teams appear to have made several changes since their last run-in.
The Colts have thrown their way to a league leading passing attack that should remind the Broncos of themselves in 2013. The Colts defense has shown flashes of brilliance accompanied by epic collapses in their losses. The Broncos however have been undergoing a metamorphosis throughout the season and in the second meeting the Colts may not recognize the way in which Denver plays.
The Broncos defense in particular was coming into week one with four new starters and several players returning from serious injuries in 2013. The Colts scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to make the game close and they went on to surpass 400-yards in the loss (370 passing).
Chris Harris Jr. was still recovering from his ACL tear in the previous year and saw limited time. As a result, rookie Bradley Roby struggled to cover veteran receiver Reggie Wayne in his first professional game. Wayne led the team with 98 receiving yards in the game.
“Yeah at that time, I wasn’t fully healthy. I was going in and out of the game when we played them the first time. So now this time, I’ll be in. Shoot, I’m not coming out,” Harris Jr. said Monday.
Roby and Harris Jr. have gone on to have superb seasons. Roby likely will be up for consideration for defensive rookie of the year and Harris Jr. was voted to his first Pro-Bowl. Harris Jr. has not seen much of a change in the Colts’ offensive philosophy since week one.
“The only thing different to me is they throw the ball even more. That is the only thing I’ve been seeing. It’s like 7-on-7, so that is something we’re going to have to be ready for.”
Since week one the Broncos cornerbacks have been fantastic at containing some elite receivers and Aqib Talib should get the toughest matchup with T.Y. Hilton. The real concern for the Broncos will be containing the running backs and tight ends of Indianapolis.
The linebackers will have to step up this time due to the increased receptions by the new starting running back Daniel Herron. He had 10 receptions in the Colts victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last week. Brandon Marshall’s health will be a big factor in slowing down Andrew Luck.
The defense has come a long way since week one and has become a top-five NFL defense while the Colts have shown they can throw the ball week-in-week-out. The Broncos defense only allowed one other team to surpassed 400 total yards on the season. The Colts rank first with 305.9 passing yards a game due to Hilton’s maturation and the steadiness from Coby Fleener and Donte Montcrief.
T.J. Ward is undoubtedly ready for his first NFL playoff game and is adamant about both teams progress since week one.
“We’ve grown so much as a unit, not only just as a secondary but as a defense total. I think you’re going to see two different teams completely from the first game of the season, us and them.”
In the first matchup the Denver offense came out with the same balance they have shown throughout the season but the difference this week will be in the personnel.
In the September matchup the leading rusher for the Broncos was Montee Ball. The Broncos could only muster 3.2 yards a carry on 32 attempts. Luckily, Peyton Manning had a wide open Julius Thomas often. The big tight end caught seven balls for 104 yards and three first-half touchdowns.
A week 11 ankle injury has since sidelined and limited Thomas’ play but he explained how he impacted the game in week one, on Monday.
“I was able to get some man coverage at times. It’s something that I enjoy. Playing against man is probably one of the more fun parts of the game. I don’t know what they’re going to do. If you find out, just leave me a little note. But it’s going to be exciting. Regardless of what they do, we’ll have a good plan. And it’s up to us to execute it.”
Since his injury he has not been healthy enough to be the threat he was in the first game. He will likely get the same coverage but it remains to be seen if his ankle is healthy enough to get open consistently.
Wes Welker’s absence in week one had an enormous impact on the outcome. Demaryius Thomas was forced to play the slot and only caught four passes on 11 targets. He has since exploded for 1,619 yards receiving. He will be matched up with Vontae Davis and that should open up the field for Emmanuel Sanders and Welker.
Possibly the biggest change from week one to January 11th will be C.J. Anderson. Since week ten he has led the team to an average of four yards a carry. His emergence as the starter has changed the dynamic of how games start and finish for the Broncos. The balance seen in week one will continue in the playoffs but the execution in recent weeks has proven that the Broncos can be efficient in both pass and run.
The Colts defense cultivated 41 sacks on the season and has held teams to 23.1 points a game. However, they have struggled against teams with a winning record. The Broncos will have to avoid turnovers while the Colts will have several players to try and contain. The Colts will start the same defensive players they did in week one but a healthier Bronco team will present an even tougher matchup than the first time.
The storyline will be nauseatingly about Luck and Manning but it will be Anderson, Harris Jr., Hilton and Herron that will hold the keys to who advances to the AFC Championship. Both teams have traveled the long road of a regular season and the week one film may be no good to either team. One thing is certain; both of these teams contain a heck of a lot of talent. The staff that can get the most out of their roster will continue the journey, while the other will have a long winter to wonder what changes they could have or should have made.