The Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit the mile high city to play the Denver Broncos in what appears to be an entertaining game between two similar NFL teams. The Broncos, at 8-3, have the opportunity to clinch the AFC West for the second year in a row, while the Buccaneers look to avoid another letdown against a good team, and keep their playoff hopes alive.
Eerily, both teams enter Sunday with very potent passing games that mirror each other. Josh Freeman has posted very good numbers after a dismal 2011 season and now seems to have the weapons around him needed to succeed. Freeman comes in having thrown 21 TDs against only seven interceptions, but has had fumbling issues, recording six throughout 2012. The downside to Freeman is that he only completes 57% of his passes and has not been able to beat the good teams on the Bucs schedule this year. The upside is that the offense scores points because the receivers, namely old Denver rival Vincent Jackson(formerly of San Diego) and Mike Williams get good yards after the catch, and rookie RB Doug Martin knows how to move the chains.
For the Broncos, Peyton Manning is having an MVP-caliber year, reminiscent of his 2004 season, throwing for 3,260 yards, 26 TDs, only eight interceptions with two fumbles, while posting a 105 rating and completing 68% of his passes. He, too, has receivers in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas who will stretch the yardage and a slot receiver in Brandon Stokley who seems to be in the right place at the most opportune times. Although the run game may have taken a small hit when Willis McGahee went on the IR, I don’t think it would have mattered who is running the ball against this Bucs defense.
The Buccaneers are number one against the run, but pose a secondary that allows a league worst 315.5 yards a game. That is where the Broncos will have a huge edge, no matter what happens with Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman running the ball. The pickup of FB Jacob Hester may help at the goal line, but usually the Broncos do not need to make many of those runs as they usually score earlier on big plays. The loss of Buccaneers CB Eric Wright to a four-game suspension for testing positive for banned substances will hinder their pass defense even further. Look for Manning to be able to make big plays along the sidelines to exploit coach Greg Schiano’s overachieving squad.
The Broncos defense has turned into one of the best in the league this season with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio doing a superb job with preparation and game calling. The pass rush will be able to rattle Freeman and get to him at will towards the second half when they finally wear down the Bucs offensive line. The running of Martin will keep the Broncos honest in the first half, and hold them from blitzing too often, but eventually, they will be able to keep him to under 110 yards on the day. This will be considered a victory for the Broncos and will allow them to concentrate more on Williams and Jackson, and not giving up a huge play late in the game.
The one note that needs to be taken into consideration is the fact that the Bucs do not beat the good teams on their schedule. Their five losses have come against teams with a combined record of 32-23, while their wins have come against teams with a combined 20-46. This is not the mark of a team that is ready to be involved with playoff football. The Broncos are too good on both sides of the ball, with or without a solid run game to lose to the Bucs on Sunday.
While the Broncos clinch the West early and look to try to climb to the two seed in the coming weeks, the Bucs will be headed in another direction: out of the playoff hunt. Freeman and his upstart Bucs will actually keep this one interesting because of the big play possibility of TE Dallas Clark, Jackson, Williams and Martin, but in the end, the Broncos will prove to be just another good team on their schedule.
As I stated in my NFL Week 13 Picks article from yesterday, the Broncos will win, but I feel the Bucs will still find a way to keep it close. Final score: Broncos 24 Bucs 21
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