ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With 10 wins in hand, a one-game lead plus a tiebreaker advantage in the AFC West and all but five teams in the AFC already saddled with at least six losses, it's fair to start looking at the Broncos' tactics with an eye toward postseason preparation, even though the playoff bid has not been mathematically clinched yet.
Thus, while Sunday's win was massive in the standings, it also resonated with how it transpired: featuring a handful of deep passes and a ground game that continued its progress from the previous week.
It's the "third phase" of the offense, as Peyton Manning often describes it. And it was rarely more effective this season than Sunday.
The Broncos used play-action on their opening snap and went back to it frequently, particularly on the connections to wide receiver Eric Decker. His first touchdown, a 41-yarder, came off a playfake that the Broncos had set up with handoffs to Montee Ball on the previous two plays. That caused safety Eric Berry to briefly move toward the line of scrimmage before following tight end Joel Dreessen down the seam, which left Decker in a one-on-one matchup as he ran his post route.
Decker's next big gain, a 42-yard pass, was set up by a play-fake that was preceded by a run (a 5-yard carry by Ball). At the handoff, Kendrick Lewis sprinted forward, leaving the Chiefs undermanned on the back end; once Decker won his one-on-one duel with cornerback Marcus Cooper at the line of scrimmage, all Manning had to do was get the ball downfield.
The final deep shot to Decker, a 37-yarder, was, again, off a play-action fake. And again, it followed at least one handoff; Ball had carried three times for 24 yards on the previous three snaps. This time, it wasn't so much the playfake itself as the Chiefs' slow reaction to Decker cutting across the field and heading for the corner on a flag route; he used a bump from Brandon Flowers to get separation, and then got to the end zone before Quintin Demps arrived. By this point, the Chiefs are on their heels.
But the playaction doesn't always work, as Manning noted.
"(Berry) had a blitz on a play-action pass early in the game where we had to throw it away," Manning said. "That kind of makes you not as crazy about doing play-action if he's going to be able to get free and had a couple run-throughs on some run plays."
Three things happened on that play, which forced the Broncos into their first third down of the game during their opening offensive series.
First, Berry sold out. When Manning went into his fake, Berry didn't turn away. Of course, unlike on Manning's actual handoff to Knowshon Moreno on the previous play, none of the offensive linemen moved upfield. A play earlier, left tackle Chris Clark had begun working his way beyond the line of scrimmage; when Manning play-faked, the line held its position prior to the faked handoff.
Second, the Broncos were keying on Tyson Jackson, who lined up at right defensive end. Both Chris Clark and Zane Beadles engaged Jackson, and by the time Beadles peeled off him and tried to stop Berry, it was too late.
Third, there was no hesitation from the other defensive backs off the snap; they focused on the pass potential all the way. Thus, Manning had no open options; an incompletion was making the best of a busted play.
But this was the exception to the rule, and showed that the play-action isn't perfect. It is to the Broncos' credit that they stuck with it in spite of Berry's threat, and in doing so helped keep the Chiefs' defense off-balance, which set up the clumps of yardage picked up on the ground and in the air.
- On a per-carry basis, the Broncos have averaged 5.21 yards per rush the last two games, after averaging just 3.60 yards in Weeks 1-11. Commitment to the run is only part of the reason; the Broncos ran more often than the league average even before the last two games, and now have run on 42.7 percent of their snaps -- 13th-most in the league and 1.3 percent above the league average.
- One of Montee Ball's attributes that attracted the Broncos to him was his ability to gain yardage after contact, which accounted for many of his long gains at Wisconsin. Fifty-three of the 73 yards he gained on his two longest carries came after contact; he successfully eluded a diving Derrick Johnson on the 45-yard run and stiff-armed Demps for an extra eight yards on the game-sealing 28-yard jaunt.
- For the second time in the season series, Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for a gain of at least 70 yards at the expense of rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper. Unlike the 70-yard connection in Week 11, this 77-yarder didn't happen in part because that side of the field was cleared of potential targets; it was simply Thomas blowing past Cooper and catching the football in stride.