Jussel: Broncos won’t rest starters with playoff seed at stake

Late each season in the National Football League, teams that have run away with division titles face a dilemma: Just how much do we play our key players in games that don’t mean anything to us?

Usually, that equation rears its head the last week or two.

The Denver Broncos are in that situation now — with four games remaining, three of those against teams with terrible records, not just losing records, but terrible records.

John Fox’s AFC West champions play tonight at Oakland against the 3-9 Raiders, way too soon after a physical battle Sunday against Tampa Bay, but giving them the added benefit of having extra days to prepare for the one decent team they have yet to play, Baltimore the following week. After the game in Baltimore, certainly a key game in the battle for seeding, the Broncos face Cleveland and Kansas City, bottom-dwellers in their divisions.

If tonight’s game in the Black Hole in Oakland was a high school game, the Broncos would be tempted to play most of their scrubs, maybe even the jayvees.

Denver won’t do that — just yet — for several reasons.

First, there is that Peyton Manning thing.

Manning won’t sit still for sitting still.

He did it three times seasons while at Indy after early clinchings, never sitting out an entire game but playing very little before heading to the pine. He did it in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

In both 2007 and 2008, he sat most of the final game — and both years the Colts were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Chargers. He sat most of two final regular-season games in 2009 after the Colts opened with 14 wins and the Colts lost both of those games, then lost to the Saints in the Super Bowl.

Think Manning will be happy about sitting any length of time this season?

Err, probably not.

Rookie QB Brock Osweiler might get some reps between now and the end of the regular season, but you can bet Manning will use all of the time he has remaining on the field to make the Broncos better than they are right now. And for Manning to make the team perform more efficiently, you can make book that he will want his regular partners on the field most of the time.

Another reason Denver can’t afford to play the jayvees tonight and beyond is the upcoming battle for playoff seeding.

Nothing changed for the 9-3 Broncos over the weekend. They are still seeded fourth in the AFC and would play fifth-seeded Indy in the first round in Denver.

A change did take place at the top, however, with Pittsburgh’s win over Baltimore. The Ravens dropped to 9-3 and from second to third in the seeding. They would be forced to play a first-round game, as it sits now a rematch with Pittsburgh in Baltimore.

With the Ravens descending, the Patriots, also 9-3, moved into the second spot. Houston still holds the top spot, thanks to its 11-1 mark.

However, things could still change plenty, with each of the contenders and qualifiers facing tough schedules the rest of the way, except Denver.

Which brings us back to tonight’s tilt in the Black Hole in Oakland. Is there any way the Raiders can hang a loss on Denver?

I think not.

For one thing, the Raiders will have roughly two days to prepare for Manning and his aerial assault. It’s tough enough when you have three or four days to get ready, but two?

That doesn’t bode well for a Raiders squad that has one of the league’s worst defenses.

Check this out:

Von Miller has 15 sacks for Denver. Elvis Dumervil has eight. Wesley Woodyard has four. Derek Wolfe has three. As a team, the Broncos have 38 sacks this season.

On the Oakland side of things, defensive end Matt Shaughnessy has 3.5 and nose tackle Richard Seymour has three. The Raiders have 14 sacks on the season — less than Miller by himself.

No pressure on Manning?

Good luck.

Offensively, the Broncos have struggled for the past several games, even in scoring 31 points against Tampa Bay. But the Raiders should be just what the doctor ordered.

Last time the teams met, on Sept. 30 in a 37-6 Bronco romp in Denver, Manning threw for 338 yards.

He will do the same type of thing tonight.

I’ll take my 9-3 record picking with or against Denver (on a one-game skid; I misfired on the Bucs) and say the Broncos win this one going away, 34-17.

Rick Jussel is a former sports editor at The Daily Sentinel.


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