Without question, the Denver Broncos will be the best team that the Cleveland Browns have faced all season. The Broncos have won nine straight games -- the longest streak in the NFL -- with consistent and dominant play from their offense, defense, and special teams. Let's take a closer look at the team that I believe should be the favorites to win the Super Bowl.
#1 - Peyton Manning Can Win Anywhere: I firmly believe that QB Peyton Manning is one of the rare players who could go to any team in the NFL and make them an instant Super Bowl contender. That includes teams like Kansas City and Arizona, too. Instead, Manning went to Denver, a team that already had a fair amount of pieces in place. It was a great decision by Manning. Head coach John Fox is a guy who will cater to the strengths of his quarterback in terms of what offense to run, so Manning gets to do almost all of the things he did in Indianapolis.
Except for one bad game (Week 2 against the Falcons), Manning has been brilliant all season. With Cleveland having both of their starting safeties out, you can bet that Manning will find ways to target the Browns' secondary as much as possible. There is a statistical anomaly when Manning faces Cleveland, though. He is 5-0 in his career vs. the Browns, but has thrown just two touchdowns to five interceptions. Can that unusual streak continue this time around?
#2 - Run or Pass, it Doesn't Matter: Heading into this season, it looked like RB Knowshon Moreno might not have much of a future with the Broncos, given his reduction in playing time. After an injury to veteran Willis McGahee over a month ago, that all changed. Moreno was given the keys to being the team's starting running back. The decision was largely based on his ability to block, but he has worked out well in all areas. He's averaging over 23 carriers for about 97 yards over the past four weeks. He's also being targeted out of the backfield by Manning about four or five times per game. Backup RB Ronnie Hillman is still seeing about five carries per game and provides a nice little burst when he's in.
Manning hasn't had to throw as many touchdowns lately because he can depend on the running game. There is nobody better in the league at audibling to a run when a defensive set looks vulnerable than Manning. It'll be interesting to see how Dick Jauron's strategy is against Manning, compared to last week when a major emphasis was placed on stopping Washington's running game.
#3 - Pressure Off the Edges: The Broncos operate a 4-3 defense that can bring a lot of pressure from the edge due to two players: defensive end Elvis Dumervil and LB Von Miller. In normal sets, Dumervil will be going up against LT Joe Thomas, while Miller will be coming from the other side. Dumervil has 9 sacks on the year, while Miller has 16 sacks. This isn't the type of week that Brandon Weeden can afford to hang onto the football like he has been doing. Even if he gets rid of the ball quick, he could end up taking some hits.
Denver ranks 2nd against the run and 8th against the pass on defense, so there isn't much room for mistakes against this unit. Also, it should be worth noting that when Dumervil played the Browns two years ago, he registered four sacks in one half against Joe Thomas. Those are three things that should not go together. Denver ran a 3-4 defense back then, so things have changed a bit, but you know Thomas doesn't want to let lightning strike twice.
#4 - Vast Array of Receiving Threats: With the Browns being forced to mix things up on defense this week, chances are that we might see some of Denver's lower-level receiving threats make a splash. Even though I approve of the tandem of Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown, it's tough for any group of corners to contain both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. If they are up to the task, Manning knows the Browns are without their regular safeties. CB Buster Skrine will be back at the nickel, but someone like Trevin Wade might be thrown into the game in four-receiver sets. Cleveland plans on playing a lot of nickel this week, so the loss of James-Michael Johnson will go largely unnoticed for one week.
Manning likes to throw to both of his tight ends, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen. Together, they have 792 yards and 7 touchdowns on the season. Slot receiver Brandon Stokley is also a reliable target with 463 yards and 5 touchdowns on the year. Matthew Willis has been targeted on occasion, but has had some communication issues with Manning. For some reason, I see Manning and Willis finally being able to hook up for a big play this week.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: Can we at least win the special teams battle against Denver? Well, it'll be difficult. Trindon Holliday has been getting reps at kick and punt return, and he has a touchdown in both areas this year. Defensively, the Broncos' coverage units are ranked 3rd against punts and 5th against kickoffs. One question mark you could look at is kicker Matt Prater, who is 23-of-29 on the season, including just 6-of-11 from beyond 40 yards. As far as punters go, Britton Colquitt has been one of the best in the league; he is 4th in the NFL in net yardage at 42 yards per punt.