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Week 11 Judgements: Broncos' dominant defense big reason for recent surge

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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DENVER -- For all the attention Denver gets because of quarterback Peyton Manning -- and rightly so -- it's about time someone notices what's happening with the Broncos' defense. And what's happening is that it's shutting down opponent after opponent, with three of its last six victories over opponents who couldn't score more than 14 points. One of them was New Orleans, and you see what the Saints have done since Denver buried them.

"I think we woke them up," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. So do I. But somebody should wake up to a Denver defense that stuffed San Diego on 11 of its first 12 third downs Sunday, held the Chargers to 54 first-half yards and forced eight Mike Scifres' punts -- in one half.

"I think it's the best Denver defense I've seen since I've been playing," quarterback Philip Rivers said afterward. "I don't know, just coming off the field I'd say it's as good a group as they've had because they can rush you with four down linemen, can play coverage and mix pressure."

Rivers should know. He was sacked four times and intercepted twice. He also fumbled three times, with one of them lost, and get used to it. But the Broncos can do that to you. This is a defense that had a run of 26 consecutive third-down stops ended Sunday when the Chargers finally hit after 11 misses in a row. That streak, which includes the past three games, is the longest in the NFL in 10 years and merely another reason to put the Broncos at or near the top of the AFC.

2. Those three sacks do more than push Denver's Von Miller to 13 for the season; they have him in the race for Defensive Player of the Year with J.J. Watt and Charles Tillman ... and the gap is closing.

3. I don't know, but I think the Matt Ryan MVP campaign just got put on hold. Make Peyton Manning the frontrunner now.

4. Just a hunch, but if Dallas lost to Cleveland the Cowboys might've locked Jerry Jones AND Jason Garrett out of the locker room.

5. OK, Dallas fans, so you have to like the comeback of your Cowboys. But keep a couple of things in mind: 1) It was Cleveland, and 2) it was Cleveland without Joe Haden, its best defensive player.

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6. That makes it 43 turnovers for Philip Rivers since the start of last season, and when you canvas the Denver locker room there's a feeling is that he's missing the playmakers ... and the offensive line ... necessary to have the impact he and the Chargers had in past seasons. It's not just that the Chargers lost people like LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles and Vincent Jackson as targets; they subtracted key offensive linemen like Kris Dielman and Marcus McNeill, too. In fact, on Sunday, Rivers had to operate a handful of series without both of his starting guards, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out what happens if the line springs leaks: Rivers isn't as good, and neither are the Chargers.

7. When they talk about the Black Hole in Oakland, I think they're referring to the middle of the Raiders' defense. It's gawd awful, with the Raiders hemorrhaging 135 points the past three games, an average of 45 per.

8. So Chad Henne didn't win. He threw for four touchdowns against the league's second-ranked defense and looked so good that Jacksonville should have serious reservations about Blaine Gabbert ... if it doesn't already. Henne's not exactly Tom Brady, but at least the Jaguars have a pulse with the guy -- which is more than I can say for Gabbert.

9. Since starting 5-0 last season, Detroit is 9-13, including the playoffs. Say good night, folks.

10. There is no way to underscore the importance of Baltimore's victory. The Ravens not only move two games up on Pittsburgh in the AFC North; they draw the Steelers next at home, where the Ravens won their past 15 and 23 of the past 24 regular-season starts. That's critical for a club whose only losses have been on the road and that still must face Denver and the New York Giants.

11. If I'm Chicago, I'm nervous. That image in the Bears' rear view mirror might be larger than it appears ... and it's the Green Bay Packers, winners of five straight and six of their past seven. It's also the Green Bay Packers, winners of seven of their past eight vs. Chicago.

12. Finally, the New Orleans Saints are back to .500, and, yep, they look like a playoff threat. But the next five weeks will tell us more: In order, they have San Francisco at home, Atlanta and the Giants on the road, Tampa Bay at home and Dallas on the road. That's a schedule of opponents that are a combined 32-16-1, and it's a litmus test for New Orleans.

13. If I'm Andy Reid, I take next year off. After 14 years in Philadelphia, the guy deserves a break. So, if I were Reid, I'd get away, try to relax and regenerate my battery. The guy has been through a ton of hardship this year, and the year's not over. When it is, I just wish he'd walk away and take care of himself for a change.

14. I hope that satisfies the Michael Vick bashers. The Eagles just stink, period.

15. Shame on the New York Giants if they don't win the NFC East. There's nobody there with a winning record, and, yeah, I know, Dallas plays four of its next five at home. So what? The Cowboys were lucky to beat Cleveland.

16. Once upon a time, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis were the coordinators on the NFL's best team, the New England Patriots. Now, each is in the first year of a head-coaching job and having ... ahem, less than scintillating results. Weis has lost his past 10. Crennel has lost his past seven. Combined the two are 2-19. Not a good year for the Belichick Tree.

17. Now you know why Tampa Bay paid the big bucks for Vincent Jackson. There is no way the Bucs go 80 yards in 50 seconds for a game-tying touchdown without the guy. Jackson makes Josh Freeman better, and Freeman never looked more accurate than on that game-tying drive when he completed three passes of 17 or more yards each -- including a 24-yard strike to Jackson. It was Jackson's sixth TD in his past seven starts.

18. The more I see USC's Matt Barkley, the more I like Oklahoma's Landry Jones.

19. Houston cornerback Johnathan Joseph says the Texans' defensive lapses are "things that can be fixed." Geez, I hope so. It's Jacksonville that put up 37 on you guys, for crying out loud. If you can't solve Chad Henne, good luck holding off Tom Brady ... and Peyton Manning ... and Joe Flacco. I think you get the idea.

20. Trust me, that Jets' victory was personal. For the Jets, losing to former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer would've been a colossal setback for a team in disarray. Schottenheimer was ousted after last season, and his replacement -- Tony Sparano -- hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory since. The last thing the Jets wanted to hear about was another mistake ... and they won't. Congratulations, guys, you dodged a bullet -- even if it's only until Thanksgiving, when the Jets play host to New England. Yeah, I know, when is a holiday not a holiday? When the Patriots come to town.

FIVE THINGS I LIKE

1. The competition for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The field is loaded, with Chandler Jones, Bruce Irvin and Luke Kuechly among the candidates. But Green Bay's Casey Hayward could be the frontrunner, especially after making his team-best fifth interception Sunday. That's nearly half the team total (12).

2. RG3 vs. Philadelphia. Not only did he produce a perfect passer rating (158.3); he missed only one of 15 passes for a 93.3 completion percentage and had four touchdowns. It was the best percentage for a quarterback with four TDs since Steve Young did it in 1994.

3. Fast finishes. There were four more games Sunday where the winning points were scored in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or in overtime. That makes 36 for the season, and that makes for must-see viewing.

4. Jacoby Jones. Talk about one of the year's most underrated moves. Getting Jones gave the Baltimore Ravens another weapon, with Jones producing his third touchdown off a return Sunday night. At some point, people are just going to stop kicking to the guy.

5. Justin Blackmon with Chad Henne as his quarterback. The Jaguars' first-round draft pick basically did nothing with Blaine Gabbert in the lineup. Then Gabbert bows out, Henne steps in and you saw what happened. Blackmon had 236 yards in catches -- or 14 fewer than he had the previous nine games. He also doubled his touchdowns to two.

FIVE THINGS I DON'T

1. Rob Gronkowski's injury. A fractured forearm will keep him sidelined an estimated 4-6 weeks, and that's brutal for a team already operating without tight end Aaron Hernandez. Aside from Tom Brady, Gronkowski is the most potent weapon on the league's most potent offense, and losing him could jeopardize upcoming games vs. Houston (Dec. 10) and San Francisco (Dec. 16). Both are at Gillette Stadium. That means it could also jeopardize New England's bid for a first-round bye.

2. Mason Crosby's accuracy. He's 1 for 5 on field goals of 50 or more yards. Worse, he missed the same kick twice at the end of the first half Sunday. That was a 50-yarder that missed ... only Detroit's Jim Schwartz called a timeout just before Crosby swung into action. So he kicked again ... and missed again. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy swears he has faith in the guy, but tell me he's not on a short leash. He should be. Green Bay entered Sunday's game with the league's worst field-goal percentage.

3. Carson Palmer's accuracy. The Raiders wanted touchdowns when they made the deal for Palmer, and the Raiders are getting them ... from opponents. In 19 games with the Raiders, Palmer has thrown five pick-sixes. The Raiders threw none from 2006-10.

4. Patriots' "fans" booing Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri. You gotta be kidding. All the guy did was deliver three Super Bowls for the Patriots, plus make what might be the greatest field goal ever (2001 AFC playoffs vs. Oakland). And this is his reward? Please.

5. Brett Keisel's timing. The Steelers' defensive end jumps offside on third-and-7 with 2:04 left, costing the Steelers not only five yards but a lot of time. The clock wound down to the two-minute warning and gave Baltimore another third down -- meaning another 45 seconds, which turned out to be fatal.

FIVE GUYS WHO HAVE SOME 'SPLAINING TO DO

1. Philadelphia defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The Eagles haven't been just bad since he took over a month ago; they've been dreadful, never allowing fewer than 28 points a game. In their first five games under Juan Castillo the Eagles never allowed more than 27, and mark down that change as the beginning of the end for the 2012 Eagles.

2. Cleveland defensive back Sheldon Brown. It was his 35-yard pass-interference penalty that set up Dallas' game-tying field goal to send a game Cleveland should've won into OT. It was also the Browns' second penalty of a series that started with 1:07 left. Bad things happen to bad teams, and the Browns are one of the worst.

3. San Diego coach Norv Turner. What was with that first-half game plan? I mean, 54 yards, two first downs and 0 for 8 on third downs? "The biggest issue is that we flip-flopped," he said. "You guys [reporters] have been talking about how much we move the ball in the first half and not as much in the second half. I think [it was] the culmination of three things: We were not able to get the run going, we had a tough time protecting and they covered us down the field." Explain that to president Dean Spanos, Norv.

4. Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. On Cleveland's go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Ryan had to run two defenders on the field right before the snap -- one reason the Cowboys were out of position for Ben Watson's 17-yard touchdown catch. That's not supposed to happen, and it's definitely not supposed to happen with Ryan.

5. St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher. His Rams score with just under six minutes left to narrow the margin to 27-13, then go for ... two points? Huh? What's up with that? I mean, let's say they convert. That makes it 27-15. So what? It's still a two-score game. Sorry, someone's got to explain that one to me.

JUST ASKING BUT ...

 Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich?

 When does Philadelphia win another game?

 Who quarterbacks Arizona next week?

 Where does Michael Vick play next year?

 Who has the better shot to make the playoffs -- Seattle, New Orleans or Tampa Bay?

NUMBERS TO REMEMBER

3 -- Consecutive years with 10 Rob Gronkowski TD catches
5 -- Interceptions of Matt Ryan
12 -- Consecutive Baltimore wins in the AFC North
31-4 -- Matt Ryan's career record at home
42 -- Philip Rivers turnovers since last season
46 -- Consecutive games with at least 20 Drew Brees completions
51 -- 300-yard passing games for Tom Brady
509 -- Yards catching by Andre Johnson and Justin Blackmon ... in the same game.
527 -- Matt Schaub yards passing
1995 -- Last time a rookie quarterback won in Foxborough (Kerry Collins)
2002 -- Last time New England had two interception returns for touchdowns in one game

MY TOP FIVE

1. Houston
2. Atlanta
3. Chicago
4. Green Bay
5. Baltimore

MY BOTTOM FIVE

32. Kansas City
31. Jacksonville
30. Cleveland
29. Oakland
28. Carolina

NEXT WEEKEND'S THREE BEST GAMES

Atlanta at Tampa Bay ... This is what's known as a reality check, Tampa.

San Francisco at New Orleans ... Now we find out just how legit a playoff threat the Saints are.

Green Bay at N.Y. Giants ... Time for Eli Manning to prove Phil Simms wrong.

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