ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There are times, usually just after Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has dropped the phrase "unfamiliar opponent" into a sentence, when Manning will add a thought or two about the next step.
About creating the "what-if" scenarios as he prepares, about trying to gauge what could happen with the people who are in place on the other sideline.
So, consider this the what-if scenario in the Broncos' postseason. As in what if the weather turns, the wind is howling, the temperature drops? What if the Broncos’ passing offense turns cold? What if the defense they face gets hot?
What if the things that have been the best for the Broncos for almost every moment of the regular season are not there for one day in the playoffs?
Then it will be time for Plan B. And most any team that survives and advances far enough to hold the Lombardi Trophy needs a Plan B at least once along the way.
For the Broncos, the most likely candidates would be:
Regain the mojo: The Broncos opened the season about as well as a team can on special teams. They blocked a punt against the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener and blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown in a Week 4 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Also in that first month, Trindon Holliday returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown against the Giants and he returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown against the Eagles. Toss in kicker Matt Prater’s NFL-record 64-yard field goal against the Titans on Dec. 8, and there is potential for game-changers on these Broncos’ units. The kind they got last January when Holliday returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in what eventually became a double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
But the past two months or so have been of the, uh, not-so-much variety for the Broncos' special teams. Holliday’s been spotty catching the ball – six muffs – they've surrendered big returns, including a franchise record 108-yard kickoff return for a score by the Chiefs’ Knile Davis, and had a punt blocked for the first time in Britton Colquitt’s career in the regular-season finale.
They have another week to find what’s lost there, starting with Holliday, who exudes confidence yet doesn't always play that way.
The RB platoon: Some in the league believe Manning’s playoff record – 9-11 – is due in large part to his teams not being able to do something else on offense other than have him throw the ball as often as possible.
Granted, the lure to have him throw the ball is exceedingly strong given what he’s done in his career. And this year is certainly no exception after he set NFL records with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns.
But at some point in this postseason, if the Broncos advance all the way to the Big Game, they will need Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball to power the offense. Whether it be for an entire game, just a half, a quarter or even a gotta-have-it-right-now third-down play, there will be a time when things will be in their hands.
The Broncos have shown the potential with, in the early going, a 164-yard rushing day against the Raiders in Week 3 to go with a 141-yard rushing day against the Eagles in Week 4. And then there was a 280-yard effort on a frigid night in Foxborough, Mass., a game that would have a lot more traction among those assessing the Broncos’ playoff chances had a Denver punt not bounced off Tony Carter’s leg in overtime to set up the Patriots' game-winning field goal.
Ball rushed for 117 yards against the Chiefs’ defense and the one an opposing defensive coordinator recently pointed out as potential trouble for defenses in the postseason was the 154-yard day against the Titans when Moreno rushed for 78 yards and Ball 77.
But a Broncos offensive line that has been exceedingly proficient at keeping Manning out of harm’s way will have to roll up its sleeves when needed, likely out of an open formation like a three-wide receiver set, and pound the ball. If they don’t believe that they should simply put last year’s playoff loss on the big screen when they had simply been able to grind out one more first down in the closing minutes of regulation, Joe Flacco would have never had a chance to be the hero.
Live up to their word: The Broncos' defensive players have said all season they have more in them, that they can find another level.
They have to. This is a group that surrendered 506 passing yards to Tony Romo and 303 passing yards to Chad Henne. They've given up 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards this season, for 1,852 yards in all – nine of those in that October game against Dallas – but that’s a far cry from the 38 pass plays of at least 20 yards they surrendered last season.
And help isn't on the way.
Von Miller is on injured reserve, Derek Wolfe is a question mark. It means Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers, Malik Jackson and Jeremy Mincey have to find their way to the opposing quarterback. It means their secondary has to move from "close'' to making a play, to making them.
They’ve shown a little more teeth against the have-nots over the past two weeks – 240 total yards by the Texans, 255 by the Raiders last Sunday.
But across the board they must tackle better, play with more assignment discipline and in the end, be the defense they keep saying they are.