ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- They don’t have T-shirts yet, but if the Denver Broncos get three more wins over the next four weeks, the team’s touchdown-makers will really be the stuff dreams are made of.
Broncos wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert calls them “the 5-10 club.’’ It’s exclusive to be sure, and beyond having a future Hall of Famer at quarterback, it makes the Broncos' offense tough to decode. It has also created a battle on the Broncos’ practice field just to get involved in some way, and that has helped everyone.
“The hardest thing to do here is get on the field,’’ Tolbert said of the Broncos’ game-day choices.
That’s because the Broncos have -- count ‘em -- five players who finished the regular season with at least 10 touchdowns. Five. No other team in league history has had more than three.
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had 14, running back Knowshon Moreno had 13 (10 of those rushing), tight end Julius Thomas had 12, wide receiver Eric Decker had 11 and wide receiver Wes Welker had 10, despite missing the last three games of the season. All with quarterback Peyton Manning dealing for a league-record 55 touchdown passes in Adam Gase’s high-speed attack that set a league record with 606 points.
And just to frame things properly, there were 23 players leaguewide this season who finished with at least 10 touchdowns. The Broncos had 21.7 percent of the total and were the only team on the list with more than two players.
“It can be anybody at any time,’’ Thomas said. “It can be anywhere on the field to any of our guys. … That’s why everybody’s always ready, so when the ball comes your way you can make a play, or if the ball doesn’t come your way you can help somebody else make a play.''
Case in point is Andre Caldwell, who had five catches in the Broncos’ first 13 games. Then, in the first of three games Welker missed because of a concussion down the stretch, Manning had six completions to Caldwell, including two touchdowns.
“With Peyton Manning at quarterback, anybody can score at any given time,’’ Tolbert said. “Our guys know that. … All of a sudden Welker goes down, the next game 'Bubba' comes in and he has two touchdowns.’’
Defending Manning has always been about choices for opposing coaches. When Manning led the Indianapolis Colts, they had to deal with likes of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai through the years. And in 2004 the Colts featured an offense with three 1,000-yard receivers in Harrison, Wayne and Brandon Stokley to go with a 1,548-yard rusher in James.
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey was on the field for Denver when that Colts team defeated the Broncos, 49-24, in an AFC wild-card game as Manning finished 27-of-33 for 458 yards and four touchdowns. Wayne, often in man coverage on then-rookie Roc Alexander, finished with 221 yards receiving and Clark finished with 112 yards.
"That team could come at you a lot of different ways,’’ Bailey said. “This one, and time will tell, can spread it out even a little more, especially down in the red zone where offenses are always looking for those matchups to win. Defense is about tendencies sometimes, percentages and what teams have done in the past in similar situations, and this offense is tough that way. And Peyton has 10 more years’ experience in the league, 10 more years of doing what he does, and that’s a lot of time.’’
The Broncos had two 1,000-yard receivers this season in Thomas (1,430) and Decker (1,288) to go with 1,000-yard rusher Moreno (1,038). But what many defensive coaches say has made the Broncos’ offense so difficult to decipher is Manning’s willingness to move the ball to the best matchup, rather than having “go-to" players in given situations.
Also, many defensive coaches say they can find a way to offer at least some double coverage on three players in the pass pattern, but that things get dicey with the fourth. And if the offense’s running back can contribute as a receiver as the fifth, then there are almost always choices for a quarterback savvy enough who has enough time to find them.
That has taken some potential predictability out of the equation as defenses prepare. The Broncos had five different players with at least 60 receptions. Gase has also used the running game more than most might think.
The Broncos finished the regular season with 461 rushing attempts -– 11th in the league -- and the team’s 16 rushing touchdowns were tied for seventh in the league. Of the remaining teams in the playoffs, the Broncos, the New England Patriots (second, with 19) and the San Francisco 49ers (fourth, 18) finished among the league’s top seven in rushing scores.
“I think our guys just feel like anything can happen at any time with the guy we have at quarterback … so they prepare like it, every rep is a championship rep in practice, and those opportunities come,’’ Tolbert said. “I don’t think we have the kind of players who worry about the numbers. They just prepare and go play.’’
The Broncos also enter the playoffs at full strength. The last time the Broncos faced the Chargers – a 27-20 San Diego win on Dec. 12 – Welker did not play and Caldwell had his two-touchdown game. The Chargers were effective at getting to Manning at times with a variety of coverage looks that included safety Eric Weddle lining up all over the formation.
And while the Chargers did surrender the scores to Caldwell, they held Julius Thomas, Thomas and Decker to just three receptions combined in the second half, forcing Manning to throw to running backs Moreno and Montee Ball. The Broncos did not have a pass play longer than 22 yards in the game.
Welker’s presence will likely change how the Chargers go about allocating their defensive resources.
“We all know he’s a dynamic player and he’s a guy that has been a big part of our offense this year. To have him back, San Diego is going to have to key on him,’’ Decker said. “They’re going to have to make sure they have a plan for him. It just opens everybody else up and it gives us more options, more opportunities.’’
“I think everybody -- Wes and everybody that has come back from injury -- is going to be a big factor in this game,’’Demaryius Thomas said. “They didn’t account for Wes last game because he didn’t play, but they will this game. It’s good for us because you don’t know what they’re going to throw at us, but it’s another weapon on the field to help us out.’’