Anyone who thought the Browns would waltz into Sports Authority Field at Mile High and get anything less than the Denver Broncos’ best shot will be in for a rude awakening Sunday.
The Broncos (11-3) still have unfinished business as they hope to lock up the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC and the first-round bye that goes with it. They can guarantee themselves no worse than that by beating the Browns (5-9) this weekend and the Kansas City Chiefs (2-12) on Dec. 30.
So as the Browns try to recover after their three-game winning streak was snapped and their slim playoff hopes dashed by a 38-21 loss to the Washington Redskins, they’ll encounter future hall of fame quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the NFL’s best defenses and a team that has prevailed in its past nine games.
Manning is not expected to cut the Browns any slack, even though he and his father, Archie, are good friends with owner Jimmy Haslam. And the Broncos aren’t expected to overlook the Browns partly because they actually like rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden quite a bit.
Mike Klis, who covers the Broncos for the Denver Post, explained it all in the following question-and-answer session:
Q: Are the Broncos making it a point to guard against complacency?
A: “I guess they should guard against being overconfident because the Browns suck. They’re trying to say that the Browns are hot, but they lost to Washington, and it sounded like they were finger-pointing in the locker room afterward, throwing the coaches under the bus. I mean their second string can beat the Chiefs in the last game. It doesn’t matter if they overlook the Chiefs. They just can’t lose to the Chiefs because they’re so bad. The Browns, they know, are tough up front on both sides of the ball. They liked Weeden. Interestingly enough, the charter flight went to pick up Manning [when the Broncos courted him as a free agent in March], but they stopped. The Broncos went to Weeden’s pro day [at Oklahoma State] and they took him out to dinner I think the night before, and they spent a whole day with Weeden while Manning was waiting on their plane in Stillwater [Okla]. So it’s kind of an interesting little twist. So had the Broncos not [signed] Manning, I think Weeden would have been the guy they would have tried to move for [in the draft]. So even though he’s played like a rookie, they know he’s got talent, and [coach John] Fox also knows you never know when the switch goes on for certain players. Maybe the switch goes on for Weeden this week, so they’ll take the Browns seriously. The Broncos will play everybody. They’re not going to rest Manning in the fourth quarter. The Browns will get the Broncos’ best shot personnel-wise. That’s for sure.”
Q: Manning, 36, missed all of last season and was coming off four neck surgeries. Now he’s in the MVP discussion. How has his season unfolded relative to your expectations heading in?
A: “My expectations weren’t very good because of what you just said. I didn’t think a guy coming back from four neck surgeries at 36 years old with a new team, new players, new coaches and a new system would click. I thought it would be more of a struggle. I thought they would be a 9-7, 10-6 team at the most. Here they are 11-3. It’s been amazing. He’s kind of shown that it’s not about arm strength. It’s about awareness. It’s about reading. It’s about progressions. It’s about film study and knowing what the defense is going to do before the defense knows, and he is accurate. Out of all those things that I said, I still think the No. 1 thing is when he has to drop a pass in there, it’s right on the money. It may wobble, it may float, it may look ugly, but it gets there perfectly. I don’t know how he does it. He’s imperious. There’s something regal about the guy. It took, I think, a week for him to completely take over the team. However long he’s been here, it’s his team. Make no mistake about it. He’s been great. And the other thing on top of Manning, the defense has actually wound up to be better than the offense. That’s what’s been impressive. That’s why the Broncos, I think, have a chance to go all the way.”
Q: To what do you attribute the defense’s success and how much has Jack Del Rio’s arrival as defensive coordinator contributed to it?
A: “No. 1, the reason why the defense is special is [linebacker] Von Miller. He’s the biggest factor. He’s just a great, great athlete. He’s a difference maker. He either brings the pass rush or draws attention and creates pass-rush opportunities for [defensive ends] Elvis Dumervil, Derek Wolfe, Robert Ayers, for linebackers on a blitz, for [former Browns defensive back] Mike Adams on a safety blitz. I mean they bring pressure. And the other thing that’s been a little surprising is they stop the run, too. When you stop the run and you put pressure on the quarterback every play, it’s unbelievable. They have six defensive touchdowns this year. I would say Del Rio has helped with stopping the run scheme-wise, and also I think he’s a real good play caller. He seems to have a knack for making the right call at the right time. So Del Rio has definitely been big. If there is a defensive coordinator of the year award, I think he would get it hands down.”
Read Mike Klis’ coverage of the Broncos at www.denverpost.com/broncos. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKlis. Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.