8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Denver -7
A potential Super Bowl preview headlines this week’s plate of action, as the Denver Broncos host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Night Football. After a disappointing 1-2 start that can only be described as underachieving, the 49ers (4-2) have proven to be quite the resilient group, putting together a three-game winning streak, calming the storm that has surrounded their lockerroom since the Summer. Injuries, suspensions, and a good ol’ fashioned power struggle between the General Manager and Head Coach Jim Harbaugh have played a part in the Niners’ struggles this season, and as a result have made them a fixture in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. With that said, San Francisco has still managed to circle the wagons, earning narrow victories over Philadelphia (26-21) and Kansas City (22-17), and most recently St. Louis last Monday Night (31-17). Defensively, they have once again been as stingy as they come this season, but over the last three weeks it has been the offense that has slowly found consistency. Against the Eagles and Chiefs it was the running game that spearheaded the attack, as Harbaugh’s charges rushed for a combined 389 yards. However, the script flipped last Monday Night, for the Niners had to rely upon the arm of Colin Kaepernick to win the game, which he promptly did.
The majority of the criticism that has surrounded Kaepernick throughout the early stages of the 2014 campaign is that he hasn’t been as consistent as you would expect a Quarterback in his third full season as the starer would be. In the eyes of many, his improvement as a passer has stalled, leaving those same pundits to wonder if he was simply a product of the Pistol Offense. Now, the jury may still be out on that opinion, but one thing is for certain; if Kaepernick continues to play like he did against the Rams, then his detractors will quickly diminish. Last Monday Night, the fourth-year veteran had arguably the finest performance of his career from the pocket, as he completed 22-of-35 passes for 343 yards, three touchdowns and most importantly, no interceptions. as the hosts managed to stuff the run all night (89 yards on 30 carries), Kaepernick deftly exploited them in coverage, calmly going through his reads and finding seven different receivers, with Anquan Boldin the recipient of seven passes for 94 yards and touchdown, while Brandon Lloyd caught an 80-yard bomb for a score that opened the lead. Perhaps it’s all a sign of his maturity under center; Kaepernick has improved in multiple areas over the past twelve months, completing a career-high 64.3% of his passes for 242.7 yards per game (7.9 yards/attempt), ten touchdowns and four interceptions.
On the opposite side of the ball, injuries may ravaged one of the perennially nasty defenses in the league, but the 49ers continue to make plays nonetheless. Just take a moment to look at some of the players that they’ve been missing of late; Patrick Willis (toe), Jimmie Ward (quadriceps), Tramaine Brock (toe), Chris Culliver (shoulder), Perrish Cox (quadriceps), and Glenn Dorsey (biceps) are all expected to miss tonight’s contest with an assortment of injuries, and that doesn’t even include the likes of former Pro Bowlers Aldon Smith, who is serving a ten-game suspension, and NaVorro Bowman who continues to rehab from a torn ACL suffered in last year’s Conference Championship Game. “Next Man Up” has been their mantra this season, as they continue to rank towards the top of the league in a multitude of categories. Through six games, San Francisco has allowed just 20.5 points (6th overall) on 287.1 total yards (2nd overall), including 207.3 versus the pass (2nd overall) on just 5.4 net yards per attempt (3rd overall), and another 79.8 versus the the run (5th overall) on 3.9 yards per carry (9th overall). Furthermore, the Niners have forced eleven turnovers, ninth-most in the NFL, while racking up ten sacks. Tested against some of the most potent offenses in the league, Vic Fangio’s unit has continued to rise to the occasion; they logged four takeaways against the Cowboys in the Opener, followed by limiting the Bears to just 216 total yards, while relegating the prolific Eagles to a mere 213 yards on eleven first downs. They’re sure to be tested once again tonight, by arguably the most difficult offense in the league to prepare for, particularly when you’re short-handed…
Meanwhile, the Broncos (4-1) continue on in their mission to atone for last year’s debacle in Super Bowl XLVIII, as they clearly look to be once again the cream of the crop in the AFC. Apart from coming up short in overtime at Seattle, John Fox’s charges have been borderline great this seas, emerging from an early Bye Week with convincing victories over the likes of the previously unbeaten Cardinals (41-20), followed by the floundering Jets (31-17). Against Arizona, Denver rung up a season-high 568 yards of total offense despite committing a pair of turnovers, with a healthy 476 of that figure coming through the air as Peyton Manning picked apart a Cardinals’ defense that seems to lose another starter every week. A week later they stormed into MetLife Stadium and put together a balanced performance, passing for a modest 221 yards while rushing for another 138. That last number was particularly significant for Fox will be without starting Tailback Montee Ball for about three weeks after the youngster sustained a groin injury early in the victory over Arizona. Now these guys aren’t the most prolific team in terms of running the ball (91.2 yards/game), but they do manage to do it just enough to keep defenses honest, while Manning and Co. go to work. Third-year veteran Ronnie Hillman is expected to get the majority of Ball’s carries in the short term, though the Running Back has been used sparingly throughout his career, totaling just 180 carries over the past three seasons.
But let’s be honest folks, in regards to the Broncos’ offense, it’s all about Manning. The reigning MVP continues to defy father time, playing at a ridiculously high level even at the ripe old age of 38. Through five games thus far, Manning has completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 306.0 yards per game (8.0 yards/attempt), fifteen touchdowns and three interceptions, which believe it or not all compare modestly to the record-shattering statistics that he posted in 2013. And speaking of records, at this stage of his career, there are plenty of records that have been falling like rain of late; with three touchdowns last week, Manning brought his career total up to 506 passing touchdowns, just two shy of Brett Favre’s all-time record of 508. Give that he has tossed at least two scores in every game this season, it’s probably a safe bet that No. 18 will make some history against the Niners’ defense tonight. In fact, Manning has thrown no fewer than two touchdowns in eleven consecutive regular season games, and has experienced that drought just once over the past 23 contests. On the receiving end of all those passes are Demariyus Thomas and Julius Thomas, who have accounted for thirteen of their Quarterback’s fifteen scoring throws. the former leads the Broncos with 491 yards and four touchdown receptions, while the latter has hauled in a team-high nine scores at Tight End. But who leads the team in catches, you ask? Newcomer Emmanuel Sanders has arrived to reel in 35 passes on 51 targets, with the speedster totaling 473 yards.
However, while Denver’s offense remains a constant, the defense will almost certainly determine just how far this team ultimately goes in the postseason. Some say the best defense is a good offense, and that has been the case on many occasions for the Broncos, and pretty much any team that Manning has played for throughout his illustrious career, but at some point John Fox’s defense has to get stops. Management spent a fortune on bolstering this side of the ball after the Seahawks embarrassed them in the Super Bowl, acquiring the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward in Free Agency. With that said, it’s a bit too early to ascertain whether or not those offseason moves have paid off; through five games, this team has allowed 20.8 points (7th overall) on 318.2 yards (4th overall), including 241.4 through the air (16th overall) on 5.4 net yards per attempt (4th overall), and another 76.8 yards on the ground (4th overall) on 3.3 yards per carry (5th overall). A healthy Von Miller has made a huge difference, leading a unit that has notched fifteen sacks thus far with a total of six. The aforementioned Ware has dropped the opponent’s Quarterback four times, and is just two off last year’s total. With that said, the plethora of pressure that they have applied hasn’t necessarily translated into turnovers; Denver has only forced five turnovers this season, the eleventh-lowest figure in the league, including just one fumble recovery. One would have to expect the 49ers to line up and try to beat them in the trenches, shortening the game with the rushing attack. The Broncos however, are much more effective when playing with the lead, but they could have problems slowing down Frank Gore and Co. with Middle Linebacker Danny Trevathan now on Injured Reserve with a torn ACL suffered two weeks against Arizona.