Riding their third two-game winning streak of the season, the Buffalo Bills hope to keep their playoff hopes alive as they clash with the Denver Broncos Sunday afternoon at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The matchup pits arguably the NFL’s most potent offense in Denver against Buffalo’s defensive might, with each side hoping to improve its current position in the AFC playoff picture. At 9-3, the Broncos hold a two-game lead in the AFC West, but a loss at New England in Week 9 dropped them to the No. 2 seed in the conference.
At 7-5, Buffalo hopes to end a 14-year-long playoff drought, the longest of its kind in the NFL. The trip to Denver is the first of a difficult stretch of games to end the regular season. In Week 15, the Bills return home to face the Green Bay Packers, and then close the season with consecutive road games at the Oakland Raiders and New England. The Bills have the same record as AFC-East rival Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs, but their poor 4-5 conference record puts them two spots back from the conference’s last wild-card spot.
With three of their last four games against conference opponents, the Bills have the opportunity to climb the postseason standings and might be facing the injury-plagued Broncos at the right time.
The Broncos could miss star tight end Julius Thomas for the third straight game because of an ankle injury, while running backs Montee Ball (groin) and Ronnie Hillman (foot) continue to nurse their injuries. Despite missing so much time, Thomas is still tops on the team with 12 receiving touchdowns. But Denver has weathered the storm at running back with C.J. Anderson emerging with 335 yards and one touchdown in the last two games against top defenses in Miami and Kansas City.
Anderson could see his string of successes cut short against the Bills. Buffalo fields one of the best defenses in the NFL, ranking seventh against the run, first with 48 sacks, and second in points allowed (18.1 per contest). Should the Bills slow Anderson down, that would force Manning to throw into a secondary that’s totaled 15 interceptions, tied for fourth in the NFL.
Forcing turnovers could prove difficult for the Bills. Denver has committed only 12 turnovers all season, nine of which belong to Manning, who hasn’t tossed a pick in two straight games after six in the previous three.
Greatly limited on offense, the Bills will try to avoid a shootout with Denver. Buffalo has put up 22 points per game, and scored more than 30 points only two times this season, both against the beleaguered New York Jets. Journeyman quarterback Kyle Orton has thrown three touchdowns and two interceptions in the last two games, but his defense has contributed a fumble return and a blocked punt for touchdowns in each win.
Still, Orton was successful in his lone start in Denver, the team he had started 34 games for between 2009 and 2011. While playing for the Chiefs on Jan. 1, 2012, Orton completed 15 of 29 passes for 180 yards and no touchdowns in a 7-3 victory against the team that waived him roughly seven weeks earlier. However, that win came against Broncos starter Tim Tebow, not Manning.
The Bills have also seen a steep dropoff from star rookie receiver Sammy Watkins. In the last four games, Watkins hasn’t caught a touchdown and he’s been held to four or fewer receptions in the last five. Watkins is also dealing with a hip injury sustained in last week’s victory over Cleveland. He didn’t miss any time in that game, but was limited in practice Wednesday, according to the team’s official site.
Denver’s defense has greatly improved this year as well. The Broncos are third in total defense, and have a dangerous pass rush of their own with linebacker Von Miller and defensive end DeMarcus Ware accounting for 22 of the team’s 34 sacks.
Oddly enough, Buffalo’s pass rushing tandem of defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and defensive end Mario Williams have also racked up a combined 22 sacks. Though, like Watkins, Dareus was limited Wednesday with a hip injury.
Start Time: 4:05 P.M. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Point Spread: Denver -9.5
Over/Under: 47.5 points
Prediction: Denver over Buffalo, 24-13