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Big win sets Broncos up for week off in playoffs

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Big win sets Broncos up for week off in playoffs

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) When things weren't clicking at the beginning of the season, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos spent most of their time looking at the film and working out the kinks on the practice field - and very little time focusing on the standings.

The work is paying off, and if they bothered to look at those standings Monday, they would've liked what they saw.

After their runaway win over Baltimore and New England's loss to San Francisco, the Broncos are the No. 2 seed in the AFC and only need victories at home over Cleveland and Kansas City, combined record 7-21, to wrap up a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Eight of the 10 AFC teams to make the Super Bowl under the current playoff format have had a first-round bye.

``I always thought if we kept getting better, there was no way we couldn't be one of the top teams,'' Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. ``It was just a matter of keeping your nose down, not worrying about your record, keep working and everything will take care of itself.''

During their nine-game winning streak - longest since they won the first 13 games of the 1998 Super Bowl season - the Broncos (11-3) have steadily gotten better.

One of the issues was how they would fare against a winning team, the likes of which they faced only twice over the first eight wins of the streak. The trip to Baltimore, against a struggling Ravens team, but still a team that has qualified for the playoffs with a 9-5 record, was considered their biggest litmus test before the playoffs begin.

They passed it and didn't even need Manning at his very best to do so.

The Broncos quarterback threw for 204 yards, his lowest output of the season.

But the Broncos were so good everywhere else - rushing for 163 yards, creating two turnovers and returning one for a touchdown, milking the clock in the fourth quarter with a 9:59 drive - they didn't need Manning to do much more than hand off.

In fact, Manning handed the ball off 45 times Sunday, the most in his career.

``Our goal is to try to get better every week,'' he said. ``I feel like we probably have in some areas. You're still looking to play that perfect 60-minute game, and that's your goal every week.''

After Week 5, a 31-21 loss at New England that dropped Denver to 2-3, nobody was mistaking Manning or the Broncos for perfect.

Still getting used to his new offense and his new teammates, Manning was struggling. He threw a career-high 26 incompletions in a loss to Houston and had the three first-quarter interceptions in a loss to Atlanta.

There were still questions about his arm strength, and others about whether he would get used to playing at full speed again.

Manning brushed off most of the criticism, bristled at some of it and, mostly, kept believing that more time with his teammates would solve many of the problems.

Since Week 6, when the winning streak began, the Broncos have averaged 386 yards a game (sixth in the NFL) and scored 30.4 points (second), while allowing 291 yards (second) and 17.8 points (third).

``I knew we had a really good team,'' receiver Brandon Stokley said. ``A lot of people on the outside wanted to push the panic button. But for us, it was just about improving every week. We were a relatively young team with the system we put in, and just getting better, knowing that good things could happen if we kept working hard, that's what we've done.''

Even with the victory over the Ravens, the question remains: How will the Broncos fare against the league's elite? Their only three losses came to Atlanta (12-2), Houston (12-2) and New England (10-4) and Denver hasn't faced a team of that caliber since.

The fact that the Broncos would face a possible rematch with the Patriots at home could give the Broncos a supposed advantage in a series in which they've lost their three meetings in the John Fox era by a combined score of 117-54.

Two of those games, including last year's 45-10 playoff loss (with Tim Tebow at quarterback), were in New England.

But ask any of the Broncos about the path to the Super Bowl that is clearer than it was two days, to say nothing of nine games, ago and, well, you mainly get the trademark blank stare and the pat answer.

``Right now, I know we can control our own destiny, but if we don't play our best game against Cleveland this week, that will be all for naught,'' coach John Fox said.

Notes: Fox did not list RB Knowshon Moreno on the injury report, though Moreno could be seen on the sideline during the fourth quarter with trainers looking at his back. ... Fox downplayed a tweet from CB Tracy Porter, who has expressed his dissatisfaction about the lack of playing time after losing his job to Chris Harris. ``He just needs to focus on getting better every day,'' Fox said. ``I saw good improvement last week.'' Porter, who has been cleared to play after dealing with health issues, hasn't played since Oct. 7. ... Fox said KR/PR Trindon Holliday would still be the returner even though he has fumbled four times since signing with the Broncos in October. He has also scored two touchdowns.

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Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Clifton Brown and Bo Smolka are taking turns putting 25 key Ravens under the microscope leading up to veterans reporting to training camp. They’ll speculate on a best-case, worst-case scenario for at least one player every day, concluding with quarterback Joe Flacco on July 25.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Terrell Suggs, 33-year-old outside linebacker

Best-case scenario:

Suggs makes a full recovery from Achilles injury and returns as a double-digit sack artist and three-down linebacker.

Why it could happen:

Suggs knows people are wondering how much quality football he has left. It’s dangerous to write off great players too soon. Suggs would love to silence skeptics with a strong season, and if some of the young Ravens pass rushers develop, they won’t have to overwork Suggs. If he stays healthy once he comes off the PUP list, a player with Suggs’ talent and experience can still be a valuable defensive leader.

Worst-case scenario:

The Achilles injury limits what Suggs can do, and he is no longer an impact player.

Why it could happen:

It’s asking a lot of Suggs to remain a cog in the Ravens’ defense, after 106 ½ career sacks, and entering his 14th NFL season. Sooner or later, the NFL road will end for Suggs, just like it ended for his former great defensive teammates like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. It will be interesting to hear Suggs’ thoughts on his career when he meets with the media Wednesday. If 2016 is not Suggs’ last ride, the end of the journey is getting closer.

RELATED: FIVE YOUNG PASS RUSHERS TO WATCH

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Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

With Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil starting training camp on the PUP list, the Ravens’ young pass rushers have an opportunity to show what they’ve got.

It’s not surprising, or overly alarming, that Suggs (Achilles) and Dumervil (foot) aren’t ready to participate in full-team practices, which begin Thursday. The priority for them is to be ready by Week 1.

But the reality is that Suggs is 33 years old and Dumervil is 32 – closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Remember when the Ravens loaded up on pass rushers in the draft? Training camp and the preseason will shed light on which young pass rushers are ready to contribute, and which ones are not.

RELATED: RAVENS NAME SIX PLAYERS TO THE PUP LIST

Here are five young Ravens pass rushers to watch closely during training camp and the preseason:

Kamalei Correa, rookie OLB

Correa might see more time at inside linebacker as a rookie, because the Ravens are looking for a starting inside linebacker next to C. J. Mosley. However, Correa’s skills as a pass-rushing outside linebacker at Boise St. convinced the Ravens he was worthy of being a second-round pick. If Correa is getting pressure on quarterbacks, the Ravens will find consistent snaps for him.

Matt Judon, rookie DE

He led the nation in sacks last season with 20 at Grand Valley State. As a fifth-round pick, Judon is making a major leap to the NFL and he is raw. But he also has size (6-foot-3, 275 pounds) and athleticism. Judon could earn an immediate role as a situational pass rusher.

Bronson Kaufusi, rookie DE

He’s huge (6-foot-6, 285 pounds). He’s mature, already 25 years old after completing a two-year Mormon mission before attending BYU. And he’s athletic, good enough to spend one season on BYU’s basketball team before focusing on football. The Ravens’ third-round pick, Kaufusi could also earn a role as a situational pass rusher.

Victor Ochi, undrafted OLB

Ochi (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) has a body build like Dumervil – powerful with a low center of gravity. The Ravens have had at least one undrafted rookie make their roster for 12 straight years. Ochi could extend that streak. He was hoping to be the first player from Stony Brook ever drafted. Now he’s hoping to prove he should have been drafted.   

Za’Darius Smith, second-year OLB

Smith finished strong as a rookie. Of his 5 ½ sacks, 3 ½ came over the final three games. According to Smith, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants 10 sacks from Smith this season. If Smith becomes a double-digit sack artist, the Ravens’ pass rush will take a major leap.

MORE RAVENS: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

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Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

The Ravens announced six players placed on the physically unable to perform list Saturday - linebacker Terrell Suggs, wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, linebacker Elvis Dumervil, running back Trent Richardson, and cornerback Jumal Rolle.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (knee), cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot), tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), and cornerback Will Davis (knee) were not placed on PUP, indicating they were ready for the team’s first full-team training camp practice Thursday.

Any player on the PUP list can be activated and return to practice at any point prior to the regular season. Once a player is placed on the regular-season PUP list, he must sit out at least the first six weeks of the regular season.

RELATED: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

Rolle (Achilles injury) is expected to miss the entire season. Here’s the breakdown on the other five PUP list players:

Suggs – He still has not fully recovered from his season-ending Achilles injury suffered in Week 1 last September. Suggs is scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday, where further details about his progress should be revealed.

Smith Sr. – Also recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury suffered in November. Smith said he would not care if he missed the entire preseason. His priority is to be ready by Week 1.

Perriman – He suffered a knee injury during minicamp which did not require season-ending surgery. However, Perriman has still not played a preseason or regular season game since being drafted in the first round in 2015. After two knee injuries in two years, the Ravens have every reason to be cautious with Perriman until they think he is ready to return.

Dumervil – He had offseason foot surgery after playing through pain last season. Dumervil missed mandatory minicamp, but did not sound concerned about being ready for Week 1.

Richardson – His lingering hamstring issue could ruin his bid for an NFL comeback. The Ravens are deep at running back, and Richardson needs to get healthy to have any chance to win a roster spot.

MORE RAVENS: FLACCO HAS LONG ODDS FOR MVP