The Denver Broncos got to watch some playoff football from the comforts of their warm homes Sunday due to a wild finish to the regular season in which they could have missed the postseason with a Week 16 loss or earned the top-seed with a season finale win and some help. The latter happened and it has been a much-needed rest week for a battered team.
The Broncos have taken on injuries just like every team in the NFL that participates in such a violent sport, but at times their roster has mirrored a wing at a hospital more than a group of football players. At one point 22 players were listed on the weekly injury report and upwards of 20 have remained for several weeks. Now, with the most important three games remaining on their schedule they appear to be returning to near-full strength.
“We’ve gotten some guys freshened up and in a good frame of mind. It looks like we’re going to be pretty close maybe to Wednesday being about as close to where we started back four months ago. That’s a good thing,” head coach Gary Kubiak said Saturday.
The injury bug has reached every position group on both sides of the ball this season but the Broncos have responded incredibly well. With the playoffs here, starters and key leaders will be needed to beat the teams still remaining.
Of the 22 players who started in week one, 19 have a very high probability of playing when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town Sunday. Ty Sambrailo was one of those players and was lost for the season in week three to a shoulder injury. Darian Stewart and Brandon Marshall would be the other two that may not make it back in time. If they were to go, that would make a remarkable 21-of-22 week one starters in to face the Steelers.
Kubiak was not required to list injuries this week or players’ status due to the bye week their top spot earned, but he did comment on several of the biggest question marks entering the week.
“My expectations are for [DeMarcus Ware] to hit the field on Monday for our brief workout Monday,” Kubiak said Saturday. “If he does that, I would think that he’s back at it Wednesday.”
That test of Ware’s knee and back Wednesday appears to be the same idea for safety Darian Stewart who re-injured his hamstring on a great play against Antonio Gates and the San Diego Chargers early in Week 17.
“He’s probably the biggest concern getting to next week, but I think you’ll see him Wednesday. I’d love to see that secondary back intact again for the first time and healthy. T.J. [Ward] is doing really well. We’ll see where we’re at next week, but I think [Stewart] is probably the one that maybe had a little further to come than some of the other guys,” Kubiak stated.
In addition to those two, Brandon Marshall saw very limited time in the team’s final regular season game. After battling through a lisfranc injury from last year he suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 16 and is trying to get back in time to play next Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town.
“My foot is pretty good,” Marshall said. “It’s my ankle that hurts. My ankle, it’s alright. It’s getting there. I’m just rehabbing my tail off and doing everything I can to be ready for Sunday.”
While Stewart, Marshall and Ware appear to be the most endangered players to missing the game, several others have turned a corner and will be ready to go. Peyton Manning, Emmanuel Sanders, Owen Daniels, Demaryius Thomas, Omar Bolden, Evan Mathis, Chris Harris Jr., C.J. Anderson and Ward all have had slight or serious injuries throughout the season but will be ready to go. The bye week is to thank for the increased health of the Broncos at just the right time.
“I think our work these three days, our mindset, just watching them bounce around today has been good. I can rest them tomorrow, a little bit Monday, I can rest them again Tuesday, so we’re going to get plenty of rest, but not to the fact that we’re getting away from ball. I want them in the moment watching what’s going on today and focused, and they have been,” Kubiak said Saturday.
Sanders, who played his way to another 1,000-yard receiving season, has battled ankle, finger and shoulder injuries all year but is surprisingly ready to go. His attention has now turned to his teammates when it comes to health before a rematch with his old team.
“I didn’t finish the [regular] season injured so I’m feeling great,” he said. “I’m just praying T.J. [Ward], [DeMarcus] Ware and those guys get healthy and are ready to go.”
Anderson has also been plagued with ankle and back injuries and will be a big piece to the Broncos offense in the playoffs. He seems to have turned a corner as well.
“Everybody has some nagging injuries it is just who can play through them better,” Anderson said Thursday. “You battle some things. One injury here and you finally get out of the treatment and then bam, another injury, then you finally get out the treatment room again. Safe to say I’m enjoying the bye week and I’m healthy and ready to roll.”
The Broncos’ health, in itself, is looking great and their opponent is coming off of an intensely physical 18-16 victory over their NFC North rival, Cincinnati Bengals. Their two playmakers, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, left the game at separate times with what appear to be serious injuries. While both players are known to recover quickly, their status will be in question throughout the week. If they are ready Sunday, it’s unlikely they will be at 100 percent.
The Broncos, however, will be glad if their health resembles anything like Week 1 of the regular season. Their stacked roster has another important factor if many of them can get on the field in their Divisional playoff round and it has nothing to do with their play. When asked what is the most important characteristic of his team in the playoffs Kubiak’s answer was revealing.
“Leadership. To me it’s about leadership. We’ve got a lot of guys on this football team that have been in a lot of playoff games. They know and they understand what’s at stake.”
It appears the bye week has healed wounds and nearly ever leader on the battled tested Broncos will be between the lines next Sunday, not sidelined and that could be the difference between winning and losing.