DENVER -- If the Broncos are to win two at least two out of three games to squeeze from the regular season into the postseason, which 12 players are most critical down the stretch?
Several are obvious, but half may surprise you.
This is Denver’s Dirty Dozen – the Broncos who have to elevate their own games and do the heavy lifting if the team is to defeat the Patriots on Sunday and then split with the Chiefs and the Raiders in the final two games over the holidays. And if they can’t win against New England, who can carry the Broncos to back-to-back conquests?
I’m calling them out here and now.
Here Paige’s List – in alphabetical order:
ZAIRE ANDERSON – Hey, Cornhusker. The Broncos need you. Without C.J. Anderson, who is injured (but maybe returns for the last regular-season game or the playoffs), you’re the next Anderson up.
The 5-foot-11, underweight (220 pounds) linebacker was a free agent in 2015 and spent the season on the practice squad. This year he stuck with the Broncos active squad, but, primarily, as a special teams player (with one forced fumble). He’s never started an NFL game.
He’s the most unknown on the list. But, first, when Brandon Marshall went down, and Todd Davis followed last week, Zaire stepped in big, making five tackles from the inside linebacker spot in 27 plays. Nebraska’s leading tackler (who had five sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries) as a senior in 2014 proved in practices and exhibitions last season and this that he’s a big-play, high-energy guy.
He could start Sunday, but, if not Anderson should be in the regular rotation the rest of the season. He can stuff the middle where the Broncos are being burned by the run game, and he can pass defend against tight ends and running backs. The Broncos need a sudden charge, and he gave it to them in the second half last Sunday.
RILEY DIXON – The Broncos kept the rookie as the punter over veteran Britton Colquitt, who was the Broncos’ special teams MVP in the playoffs and, especially, the Super Bowl in 2015. Colquitt is ranked eighth this year, Dixon fifth (45.6-41.2). Dixon must turn the field position around for the Broncos – who lead the league in failed third downs. And his fake punt-pass for a first down in Tennessee was one of the Broncos’ most important plays. They now have it in their pockets, and opponents must beware.
JUSTIN FORSETT – The Broncos have offered no run games since C.J.’s departure. Despite the fumble and the lack of yardage last week in his Broncos’ debut, Forsett did a have a 33-yarder called back because of holding. He can catch out of the backfield, and he can get outside, and he should be rested. If Forsett can turn up the heat, the Broncos would have a semblance of a rush.
VIRGIL GREEN – Use him or lose him. Green was supposed to be a major role player this year in the Broncos’ offense. But, between injuries and inactivity, he’s been a bust. The Broncos need to Go Green in these games. He can catch and run after the catch. Yet, he’s been targeted only 31 times, and caught 18 (without a touchdown). He needs to be involved.
VON MILLER – Sure, Von is tied for the league lead in sacks (13.5), but he’s had one in the past two games. Offenses are ganging up on him, but Miller is supposed to be the Broncos’ disruptive force – as he was against Tom Brady and Cam Newton the last two games last year. He has to do the Vonster Mash against Brady, Alex Smith and Derek Carr and reach 20 sacks.
BRANDON McMANUS – He’s made 26 of 30 field goals and 28 of 29 (harder) extra points. And it gets tougher in these cold-weather games. But McManus needs to make every field goal from now on. And he owes the Broncos one long one to win a game.
RUSSELL OKUNG – We know the Broncos’ offensive line is a mediocre mess, but now’s the time for the veteran to be big at left tackle and pull those others with him. Okung was a playoff performer for Seattle. Do it for the Broncos, too.
SHANE RAY – You’re not a kid any more, and DeMarcus Ware is not a stud any more. Ray had one good game, and nothing since. He has to take pressure off Miller.
EMMANUEL SANDERS – We know, All Pro. But the Broncos want more. Emmanuel is the only real leader on the offense. He has to become Peyton almost in the huddle and on the field. And he has to play more in the slot in the last three games.
TREVOR SIEMIAN – Trevor. You got a chance to be an NFL starter for a long time. But, first, you to be a starter – a fast starter. He’s great in the fourth quarter, but, by then, too many times, it’s been too late. Throw early and often to Emmanuel and Demaryius Thomas, and forget about the Bennie Fowlers of the world.
DEMARYIUS THOMAS – (See Trevor Siemian). Thomas finally is playing like a $70 Million Man. He was making demands early in the season. He should be making them now – 15 targets a game, at least a half dozen in the first dozen plays.
DEMARCUS WARE – He’s given the Broncos nothing in the eight games he’s played. Where’s Ware? Is Ware worn out? Four sacks, nine solo tackles. This is it for him in Denver and probably the league. Is this the Ware way to leave? This when he has to give the Broncos leadership and a power rusher on the other side, and a few good plays.
Denver is dependent on DeMarcus, Demaryius and DeDozen.