by Vincent Verhei
Last week in this space, we looked at Carolina's worst games this season, in search of weaknesses that Denver might be able to exploit in the Super Bowl. Not it's time to turn the tables and check out the Broncos at their worst. Which teams were able to keep Denver off-balance, and expose holes in their game?
In chronological order, here are Denver's four worst games by DVOA this year:
- Baltimore 13 at Denver 19, Week 1: Denver's offense never made it to the end zone on this day, but they did give up a touchdown on a 24-yard interception return for a touchdown that put the Ravens up 10-9 in the third quarter. Peyton Manning and company were bailed out by a defense that scored on a 51-yard Aqib Talib pick-six that put Denver back in front, and by kicker Brandon McManus, who went 4-for-4 on field goals, including kicks from 56 and 57 yards. The Ravens still managed a first down in the red zone in the final minute of the game, but Joe Flacco threw two incompletions before being intercepted by Darian Stewart to seal the win. (Speaking of Flacco, it's worth noting that this game scores so low for Denver in part due to opponent adjustments, but those opponent adjustments for Baltimore are affected by the multitude of injuries the Ravens suffered throughout the year. The Broncos had to play the Ravens at full strength, when Flacco, Steve Smith, and Justin Forsett were all healthy. By season's end, when Ryan Mallett was handing off to Javorius Allen and passing to Kamar Aiken, the Ravens were almost literally a different football team.)
- Denver 26 at Cleveland 23 (OT), Week 6: In a game that was similar to the Baltimore contest, McManus made four short field goals (though he missed a 51-yarder) and Talib scored again, this time on a 63-yard interception return. The Broncos took a 16-7 lead in the fourth quarter, but the Browns came back with a 35-yard Karlos Dansby pick-six to put the Browns up 20-16. The Broncos added a 75-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Emmanuel Sanders to take the lead before the Browns tied the game on a field goal. The Broncos got the ball twice with a chance to win the game in regulation, but gained 13 total yards on the two drives and headed to overtime. Then they were intercepted on their first drive, but after their defense forced a three-and-out, they were able to march 72 yards in 13 plays to get the winning kick.
- Kansas City 29 at Denver 13, Week 10: The day that Manning broke the all-time career passing yardage record… and then was benched for Brock Osweiler. Nine of Denver's first ten drives went three plays or less, none gained more than 25 yards, and each ended in an interception or a punt. Meanwhile, Kansas City was getting a big day from Cairo Santos (5-of-6 on field goals, including kicks of 48, 49, and 50 yards), and an 80-yard touchdown catch by Charcandrick West put Kansas City up 29-0 in the fourth quarter before Osweiler led a pair of garbage-time touchdown drives.
- Oakland 15 at Denver 12, Week 14: Proof that Denver's offensive struggles ran deeper than Manning's arm, and that the midseason switch to Osweiler was no panacea. McManus kicked four field goals in the first half to put the Broncos up 12-0, but his only kick in the second half, a 49-yarder that would have tied the game, was no good. The Raiders only had eight first downs in the entire game, four of them on an 80-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, but their defense chipped in with a safety, then Sanders fumbled a punt to set up what proved to be the game-winning 11-yard touchdown drive.
Sometimes we do this exercise and have to hunt for patterns, or look for fits in three out of four games or something. This time it's much easier. In their worst four games, the Broncos' offense was a complete disaster, averaging 4.6 yards per passing play and 3.5 yards per rush. In most statistical measures, Osweiler was clearly the better passer in these four games. Still, his high sack numbers show a clear lack of pocket presence at this stage in his game, and given the ferocious nature of the Carolina pass rush, it's not quite so cut and dry that one quarterback or the other should start.
|Manning vs. Osweiler in Denver's Bad Games|
We all know Manning is starting the Super Bowl and will likely finish it as well, so there's not much point in arguing which of the two quarterbacks gives Denver its best chance to win. That doesn't mean this table can't teach us anything, though. Take note of that right-hand column. Osweiler was much more accurate than Manning, while Manning was more elusive, but neither was able to generate many big plays. The Broncos threw 34 deep passes (balls that traveled more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage) in these four games, completing only five of them for 153 yards. Two others resulted in DPIs for 52 more yards, but that's still a horrendous average of 6.0 yards on deep throws. (The Jets averaged 9.0 yards per deep pass in 2015, the lowest figure in the league.) And if we limit that further to passes that traveled more than 25 yards downfield, then in these four games the Broncos went 0-for-10, with one DPI for 36 yards. Neither of Denver's top two wideouts made consistent plays in these four games, either. Demaryius Thomas had a 65 percent catch rate, but averaged only 9.9 yards per catch. Sanders had that 75-yarder against Cleveland, but otherwise averaged just 8.9 yards per catch, and his catch rate was a woeful 42 percent. So this was the key to shutting down the Denver passing game in 2015: taking away the home-run ball, make them drive the length of the field, and wait for them to implode.
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The other thing to note about the Denver offense in these games is how one-dimensional they were. True, they were playing catchup most of the way against Kansas City, but the other three games were all back-and-forth affairs. Yet even as the passing game floundered, Denver didn't make much of an effort to run the ball. In these four bad games, they ran the ball only 32 percent of the time; in their other 12 games, that number climbed to 40 percent. This would make sense if we were talking about the Manning of 10 or five or even two years ago, but given his obvious drawbacks now, passing on two-thirds of all plays seems ludicrous. But if that's how they want to play it, the Panthers won't need to be shy about stuffing the box and daring Manning to beat them. The Broncos have shown a tendency to kill themselves with a pass-wacky attack this year.
So all of this is the bad news for the Broncos. The good news? Even in these, their worst games of the year, their defense was still lights-out dominant. In fact, their DVOA in these four games of -34.0% was actually better than their full-season DVOA of -25.8%. Their overall decline in these four games was entirely due to offense and special teams. The defense showed a remarkable ability all year to play at its best when it was needed most.
A sample of the defense's amazing numbers in Denver's four worst games overall:
- The quartet of Joe Flacco, Josh McCown, Alex Smith, and Derek Carr was held to a 51 percent completion rate and 5.1 yards per pass, with five touchdowns, four interceptions, and 11 sacks.
- Opponents averaged 78.8 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry.
- Steve Smith, Jeremy Maclin, and Amari Cooper combined for just five catches for 30 yards. True, Cleveland's Travis Benjamin had nine catches for 117 yards, but opponents' top wideouts still had a measly catch rate of 41 percent and 10.5 yards per catch.
- Given the critical role Greg Olsen plays in Carolina's passing game, we should mention Denver's ability to cover tight ends. Denver game a smattering of big plays here, as tight ends averaged 53.8 yards with three touchdowns and 11.9 yards per catch in this four-game set. However, that came with a catch rate of just 50 percent. Gary Barnidge and Travis Kelce, the best tight ends they played in this sample, combined for eight catches and 75 yards in 18 targets.
- Running the ball didn't work out much better. Some of these teams went with run-heavy attacks and racked up high-yardage totals, but none averaged more than 3.3 yards per rush, and collectively that average was just 2.8.
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At their worst this year, the Broncos became an extreme version of themselves, with the best defense on earth trying desperately to win with an offense that could barely manage to stay out of its own way. Given that their Super Bowl opponents from Carolina are also strongest on defense, it's likely that the NFL's championship game will be a low-scoring contest decided by a very small number of big plays. Carolina's offense has consistently outplayed Denver's this season, so the Panthers should definitely be favored, but there's a good chance that the game will still be up for grabs into the fourth quarter. With neither team likely to put many long drives together, or get big plays in the return game, turnovers will be even more important than usual. The team that gets more short-field scoring opportunities will likely leave Santa Clara as Super Bowl champions.