ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos (8-3) look to clinch the division title and a playoff berth for the second consecutive season when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5) in their final interconference game of the year. The Bucs enter the game on a hot streak, winning four of their last five contests. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:05 p.m. MST at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Below is a preview of the game that includes important matchups on each side of the ball, noteworthy facts about the game and a key to victory for Denver.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
The Buccaneers are ranked in the top of the league in run defense in the NFL, and at the bottom in pass defense.
Running back Knowshon Moreno will lead Denver against the Bucs' stout run 'D,' coming off a strong performance against the Chiefs in Week 12. Head Coach John Fox expects "more of the same" from Moreno against Tampa Bay, as the fourth-year back showed grit and toughness in compiling 111 total yards in his first start of the year.
Quarterback Peyton Manning thinks the team could see an improved outing from Moreno as he continues to get more practice reps with the offense and get more live action, as well.
"He went in there against a good defense and ran the ball well and was sharp in his pass protection, made some good plays in the pass game and that's what we're going to expect out of him every week," Manning said. "I think he'll even, hopefully, be better with more repetitions and getting back in the flow."
Fullback Jacob Hester - Denver's newest addition - could see his first action as a Bronco and chip in with Moreno, Ronnie Hillman, Lance Ball and Chris Gronkowski. Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy said Hester brings "added depth" as well as experience to the lineup.
While the Bucs struggle against the pass, surrendering a league-high 315.5 yards per game, the secondary has come up with timely interceptions in 2012. Tampa Bay's 16 interceptions are the third-most in the NFL. Five of those came in the fourth quarter, with three coming when the two teams were separated by a touchdown or less.
Also helping the Bucs transcend their shortcomings in the secondary is a turnover differential of 11.
"I see a very opportunistic defense that causes a lot of turnovers," Manning said. "I see a team that's causing turnovers and their offense is turning those turnovers into touchdowns. They're not giving it right back to the other team or settling for field goals. It's sometimes 14-point swings. They're stingy in the red zone -- holding teams to field goals. That's what I see on tape."
Safety Ronde Barber will certainly be on the radar for Manning and the Denver offense as they look to protect the ball throughout the game. Barber is in his first season as a safety after playing 15 years in the NFL as a cornerback, but the veteran has made a seamless transition and leads NFC free safeties in Pro Bowl votes.
With 62 tackles and four interceptions, the 37-year old is savvy, aware and still effective enough to make an impact on the game.
"It doesn't matter where he's playing, whether he's playing corner, whether he's playing nickel, whether he's playing back there at safety," McCoy said. "You have to be careful playing against him because he's going to do some things that other players can't do. He's been around a lot and he's a great football player."
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Josh Freeman and rookie running back Doug Martin are the key players in an offensive attack that has scored more than 28 points per game in 2012.
Freeman has made tremendous strides in his fourth year, throwing 21 touchdowns to just seven interceptions - a nod to the quarterback's decision-making ability. As an offense, Tampa Bay has turned the ball over only 11 times.
"He understands defenses," safety Mike Adams said. "He knows where to go with the ball. It will be a challenge. This will be a big, balanced team who can run the ball and pass the ball so it will be a big challenge for us defensively."
At 6-foot-6 and 248 pounds, Freeman is similar in size to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who the Broncos faced in the first game of the season. Safety Mike Adams said Freeman reminded him of Roethlisberger, and Head Coach John Fox also drew a comparison between the two.
"He is a hard guy to get on the ground because he does have physical strength and size that would be kind of like Ben," Fox said.
But cornerback Champ Bailey pointed out one important difference in Freeman that makes him a different type of challenge for defenses.
"I wouldn't compare him to Big Ben," Bailey said. "You might just be talking about size. I think Ben's one of a kind when you get out of the pocket and extend plays. I haven't seen anybody do it like him. (Freeman's) thing is, he wants to stay in the pocket and make the big throws, take the hits and that's what makes him special."
Martin, meanwhile, comes to Denver ranking fourth in the NFL with 1,050 rushing yards. The Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate has run for 642 yards and seven touchdowns in the last five games, coinciding with his team's 4-1 record in that span. In a conference call with Denver media on Wednesday, Tampa Bay Head Coach Greg Schiano listed the similarities between Martin and Ravens running back Ray Rice, who he coached at Rutgers.
"I think they both have some unique abilities," Schiano said. "Vision, patience, balance, strength, those kind of things that allow them to be really good running backs. Some of those things you can develop and some of them are God-given and that's what makes those two special."
Bailey, who is no stranger to getting involved in the run defense, was most impressed with Martin's ability to shed tackles and gain yards after contact. The 14th-year pro knows it might take a little extra to bring him down.
"He stacks up among the best in the game right now," Bailey said. "You look at just how hard he runs, he doesn't like to go down. You don't see a lot of rookies fighting for those extra yards, especially this late in the year."
KEY TO THE GAME: Establish the Run
The Bucs allow just 81.5 rushing yards per game. Their secondary has had its fair share of struggles against the pass and needs all the help it can get in keeping Manning and his weapons from lighting up the scoreboard. If Tampa Bay eliminates the Denver rushing attack, it will be able to focus on Manning. Schiano put it aptly.
"The thing we have to make sure of - if they can run the ball, it's going to be a struggle," he said in a press conference on Wednesday.
The Broncos and Buccaneers have squared off only seven times prior to Sunday's game, dating back to 1976 when Denver defeated Tampa Bay 48-13 at home.
The Broncos own a 5-2 advantage, including a 3-1 mark at home.
Most recently, they beat the Bucs 16-13 in a game they hosted in October of 2008.
- The Broncos rank in the top four in three major offensive categories: yards per game (391.8, 4th), yards per play (6.0, 4th) and points per game (28.9, 3rd). The Buccaneers rank just ahead of Denver in yards per play with 6.1 (3rd) and just behind Denver in points per game with 28.2 (4th).
- The Broncos run the ball for 104.4 yards per game, while the Bucs run the ball for 121.7 yards per game.
- Each team has had success in the red zone. The Bucs rank third in the league scoring touchdowns on 66.7 percent of their trips inside the 20. The Broncos rank sixth in the league scoring touchdowns on 60 percent of their trips inside the 20.
- Defensively, Denver ranks in the top four in yards per game (308.4, 4th) and yards per play (4.6, 3rd). The Tampa Bay defense ranks on the other end of the spectrum in those categories, allowing 397.1 yards of offense per game (30th) and surrendering 6.2 yards per play (31st).
- The Bucs defense is tied for sixth in the NFL with 22 takeaways. The Broncos are tied for 13th with 18 takeaways.
- Denver ranks first in the league with five interceptions in the fourth quarter with the score within seven points. Tampa Bay is tied for second with three.
- Cornerback Champ Bailey needs one interception to tie Tyrone Braxton (34) for the fourth-most in franchise history.
- With eight touchdown receptions on the year, wide receiver Eric Decker is one shy of setting a new career high.
- Defensive end Elvis Dumervil needs one forced fumble to pass Dennis Smith for the most by a Bronco in a single season since the statistic was tracked beginning in 1984.
- Quarterback Peyton Manning needs nine completions to pass Dan Marino for the second-most pass completions in NFL history.
- Linebacker Von Miller needs three sacks to tie defensive end Elvis Dumervil for the most single-season sacks in franchise history.
The Broncos faced Tampa Bay wide receiver Vincent Jackson twice a year for seven years when the wideout was a member of the AFC West rival San Diego Chargers. Jackson is from Colorado Springs and attended the University of Northern Colorado. On the year, he leads Tampa Bay with 47 catches for 959 yards and seven touchdowns.
Quarterback Peyton Manning completed nearly 400 passes to Bucs tight end Dallas Clark from 2003-2010 in Indianapolis.
Tight end Jacob Tamme was a teammate of Clark's for the last four years before both pass-catchers switched teams.
Center Dan Koppen was teammates with Tampa Bay wide receiver Tiquan Underwood last year with the New England Patriots.
The game will be televised on FOX (31), with Dick Stockton (play-by-play) and John Lynch (color commentary) calling the game and Jennifer Hale reporting from the sidelines.
Locally, KOA Radio (850 AM) will feature Dave Logan (play-by-play) and Ed McCaffrey (color commentary) with Andy Lindahl reporting from the sidelines.