NFL Preview - Tennessee (5-7) at Denver (10-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Denver Broncos own sole possession of first place in the AFC West following a road victory last week.
They also now have their head coach back and are closing in a playoff spot.
John Fox is expected to be on the sidelines for the first time since late October when the Broncos put their perfect home record on the line against the Tennessee Titans.
Denver was 7-1 under Fox, who underwent a heart procedure on Nov. 4 after complaining of lightheadedness during a golf outing a few days earlier. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio took over for Fox on an interim basis and the Broncos won three of four under Del Rio.
"We missed him," said Del Rio. "It will be great to have him back."
Del Rio's stint as interim coach included a pair of victories over Kansas City, putting the 10-2 Broncos a game ahead of the Chiefs for first place in the AFC West.
The Broncos announced last Thursday that Fox had been medically cleared to resume his duties and he returned to work on Monday, saying he felt good and that the hardest part was watching his team play and not being there.
"As my surgeon said, I had a valve that was about as big as a pinhead and now it's the size of a 50-cent piece. I feel tremendous," Fox said. "Obviously, the doctors feel good about me getting back to work. I actually would have preferred to get back sooner, but there was a pretty hard deadline of four weeks post-surgery. I honored that and here I am."
And here the Broncos are, holding the AFC's top record thanks in part to a 6-0 mark at home. That included a 27-17 win over the visiting Chiefs on Nov. 17, but they failed to take advantage the following week with a 34-31 overtime setback to the New England Patriots.
Denver blew a 24-0 halftime lead versus New England, but was able to dig itself out of a 21-7 hold to beat the hosting Chiefs 35-28.
Peyton Manning threw five touchdown passes, four of those to wide receiver Eric Decker. Running back Knowshon Moreno also caught a touchdown pass and rookie Montee Ball ran for 117 yards on 13 carries.
Manning and Decker connected for three straight scores to start the second half, turning a seven-point deficit into a 35-21 lead. The Chiefs made it a one-score game on Jamaal Charles' one-yard touchdown with 6:32 left, but a final drive came up short when Alex Smith's fourth-down pass to Dwayne Bowe was broken up by Broncos safety Mike Adams in the end zone.
"A great, gritty effort on the road," said Del Rio. "We knew it was going to be a hostile environment and figured they would have a surge early with emotion as a factor and I love the way our guys responded to that."
Manning threw two interceptions in the first half that led to Kansas City touchdowns, but finished with 403 yards passing and broke his own Broncos record by reaching 41 touchdown passes this season.
Decker had eight receptions for 174 yards and came into the game with three touchdown catches on the season before hauling in his team-record four versus the Chiefs.
Denver can now clinch a playoff spot with a victory. The Broncos could also lock up a postseason bid with a loss by either Miami or Baltimore.
The Titans, meanwhile, fell to 5-7 on the season and a game back of Baltimore and Miami for the second wild card spot in the AFC with a 22-14 setback at the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
Tennessee quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was picked off three times and also lost a fumble as the Colts kicked five field goals before sealing the outcome with Donald Brown's four-yard TD run with 1:56 to play.
"I think you always have to give them credit," noted Fitzpatrick. "That being said, I didn't play well today in a lot of different aspects but obviously in the turnovers. You can't turn the ball over like that and expect to win in any game."
Fitzpatrick threw for 201 yards and a touchdown while also scoring once on the ground as the Titans outgained the Colts 347-264 and had five sacks despite the losing outcome.
Tennessee fell three games back of Indianapolis for first place in the AFC South and is 0-4 against the division this season.
"You're not going to win the division when you're 0-4 in your division and that's where we're at," said Titans coach Mike Munchak. "We have plenty of opportunities. It seems like we stand here after a lot of these games saying we lost to Houston in overtime, we lost to these guys by three points, by a touchdown, we lost to Jacksonville by two. We're there, we can't finish the game. We make too many mistakes for whatever reason."
The Titans are wrapping a three-game road trip and host the Arizona Cardinals next weekend. They are one victory shy of matching last season's total of six.
Tennessee snapped a three-game losing streak to Denver with a 17-14 home victory on Sept. 25, 2011 and lead the all-time series 21-14-1. However, the Titans are under .500 in the Mile High City at 7-8-1.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The big focus will be on if Fox's return alters the Broncos' game plan in any way.
That isn't likely, given the Manning-led offense ranks first in the NFL in yardage and scoring, putting up 38.7 points per game.
Denver's 464 pints are the third-most by a team through the first 12 games of a season in NFL history, behind only the 2007 New England Patriots (469) and 1950 Los Angeles Rams (466).
"I don't think it will change much. ... I'm sure it will be very similar," said Munchak. "When you're winning and successful like they have been, there's not going to be a lot of changes in what they do as we start to study them. It's going to be a challenge. They're playing well, and they're usually playing with a lead."
That has a lot to do with Manning, whose 4,125 passing yards are the most in league history through 12 games. His 41 touchdown passes also are two shy of Drew Brees (2012( for the seventh-most in a single season. Manning is already second on that list with 49 thrown in 2004 with the Colts, later surpassed by only Tom Brady's 50 in 2007 for New England.
Manning gave a lot of credit to Del Rio for keeping the team together while Fox was gone.
"You can tell he's an experienced head coach," Manning said of Del Rio. "Our team has faced a lot of adversity in a short time and you never expect your head coach not to be with you the entire time. But coach Del Rio's done a good job of keeping us together. He had a tough stretch of four games and we were able to endure."
Receivers Decker, Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas all have over 60 receptions this season, with Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas having caught 10 touchdown passes. Moreno has added two receiving scores to his nine rushing and Welker has nine TD grabs, leaving the Broncos one Welker touchdown short of becoming the first team in NFL history to have four players total at least 10 touchdowns from scrimmage.
A lot of focus this weekend could be on Decker, who was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week, and avoiding a letdown.
"We know what our goal is ultimately and to be able to achieve a championship you have to be consistent and I think that's one of the biggest things about this locker room, the character of the guys in here is that we're always striving to get better," noted the wideout. "We're never slowing down or being OK with what we did. We're always kind of stepping that ladder."
Julius Thomas needs one scoring catch to pass Shannon Sharpe for the most by a tight end in team single-season history, but has missed the past two games with a knee injury.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe also missed the Chiefs game after being hospitalized when he experienced seizure-like symptoms last Friday.
The Titans rank seventh in defending the pass, giving up just 212.6 yards per game. They held the Colts to 160 net passing yards and got sacks from five different players.
Jurrell Casey notched his team-high eighth sack of the season last weekend, the most among AFC defensive tackles, while end Derrick Morgan logged his fifth.
Facing Manning is certainly a test, but the Titans are eligible to have safety Michael Griffin back after he served a one-game suspension for his second violation this season of delivering a blow to the head of a defenseless receiver.
Griffin is third on the club with 60 tackles and George Wilson last weekend filled the void created by the suspension. Wilson logged five tackles and two passes defended.
"That was disruptive not having your starting safety," noted Munchak. "I thought George (Wilson) came in and did a nice job. When you look at the numbers, if you're into stats, we won every stat except the turnover stat and the final score."
Munchak's offense was also thrown off by the loss of tight end Delanie Walker (45 receptions, 5 TD) to a concussion during the Colts game. With Craig Stevens already out due to a concussion suffered the week earlier, Taylor Thompson was the only healthy tight end.
Fullback Collin Mooney was also lost during the game due to a leg injury.
With the status of Walker and Stevens unknown until the end of the week, the Titans signed tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on Tuesday and he practiced the following day.
"They both seem to be doing pretty good, but we got to follow the procedure there. Hoping to have both of them on Friday," Munchak said of Walker and Stevens.
The only question for the Broncos will be if they begin to let off the gas ahead of the postseason. Denver is a virtual lock to clinch a playoff spot soon, but still has the division title left to wrap.
The return of Fox should also give Denver some added energy this weekend against an inferior opponent.
"I know he's excited to be back," Manning said of Fox. "You can sense that -- that passion and enthusiasm. The players are excited that he's back as well."
Manning has won five straight versus the Titans and is 13-5 against them all- time with a 102.2 passer rating. It should be more of the same this weekend despite Tennessee's capable pass defense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 31, Titans 23
12/05 14:55:25 ET