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Health, depth both key to Denver's success

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Health, depth both key to Denver's success

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) On almost a daily basis, John Fox needs about as little time to roll through the Broncos injury report as it takes cornerback Chris Harris to return an interception 98 yards for a touchdown.

In a league where injuries can make or break a team's season, it's Denver's lack of them, along with its ability to replace the few players who do go out, that has turned the Broncos into legitimate Super Bowl contenders with a nine-game winning streak.

Led by starting-caliber performances from Harris and running back Knowshon Moreno, Denver (11-3) heads into the final stretch of the season looking pretty much the way the front office envisioned the roster on opening day.

``All in all, I'd say our personnel department's done an outstanding job,'' Fox said. ``You try to pick your best 53 and have confidence that all of them can play when called upon.''

Moreno ran for 118 yards on 22 carries against the Ravens last Sunday. He has rushed for 391 yards since filling in for one of Denver's few injured stars, Willis McGahee, who went down with a knee injury on Nov. 18.

On the other side of the ball, Harris had the longest interception return for a touchdown in Denver's regular-season history on Sunday. His 98-yard return down the sideline was his second score this year. Both have come since he replaced Tracy Porter at cornerback opposite Champ Bailey.

``He's a tough cover guy in practice, whether he's going against (Brandon) Stokley, (Eric) Decker, or (Demaryius) Thomas, it's been that way all season,'' said Peyton Manning, whose own health, top on Denver's list of preseason concerns, has held up so far this year. ``With our secondary, there have been some good challenges.''

Moreno was a first-round draft pick who lost his job and was working on the scout team as recently as four weeks ago. Harris was an undrafted free agent from Kansas.

Mix in 10-year veteran Dan Koppen at center and 15-year veteran Keith Brooking at linebacker and the picture is clear: By staying patient with the players they have and keeping a sharp eye on who's available in the free agent market, the Broncos haven't gone backward on the few occasions when they've lost starters.

``There's never a week you can let up, never a day you can ease up,'' said the team's leading tackler, Wesley Woodyard, whose linebacker position has endured the most flux this year, with an injury to Joe Mays and the nine-game suspension of D.J. Williams.

Woodyard said having depth isn't only a help when players go down.

``You've always got to be at your best because the guy behind you is just as good as you, and everyone wants to be in there,'' he said. ``They can make plays, too. You've got to be focused and be on your game every week.''

Nobody personified that idea better than Moreno. The fourth-year veteran was relegated to the scout team, set back by the lingering effects of a knee injury and a lost fumble during Week 2, which sent him to the bottom of the depth chart.

Only when McGahee got injured did Moreno get another chance.

Growing more confident with each week he's in the lineup, Moreno is finding and moving toward the holes more quickly. Last week, he had his second straight 100-yard game, the highlight of which came when he hurdled Ravens safety Ed Reed.

``Just being prepared and working,'' Moreno said when asked how he handled the eight straight weeks he was inactive on game day. ``Just basically playing my role. Also, if I wasn't going to play on Sundays, I was going to give it my all in practice. It was just having faith that maybe down the road I'd get my chance again.''

Harris was also just a guy looking for a chance.

A starter for most of his four years at Kansas, he spent three long days during the draft and his phone never rang.

Only when the draft was over did he get a call from the Broncos, asking him to come to camp as a free agent. He was a long shot to make the roster, but quickly showed he can play. He has also shown a knack for the ball: Harris' 98-yard pick and return against Joe Flacco adds to a 46-yard interception return for a score Oct. 15 against San Diego.

Harris has cemented himself in the starting job that initially belonged to Porter, who hasn't been active since Oct. 7, shortly before doctors began trying to regulate the medicine he uses to control seizures. Porter returned to practice Nov. 22.

Along with 2011 free agent pickup Tony Carter and another savvy free agent signing - eighth-year safety Jim Leonhard was available in August - the defensive backfield has options if anyone beyond Porter goes out.

``You see a guy practice and they practice great and that's why they're still on the team,'' Bailey said. ``But when it's time to go out there and do it, some guys don't do what they did in practice. These guys do. They're doing exactly what I've seen since they got here. I'm just glad that now that they've gotten the opportunity to play, they're taking advantage of it.''

Notes: The Broncos had to practice indoors for the first time this season because of a snowstorm that rolled through town Wednesday morning. ... Denver signed OL Lonnie Edwards to the practice squad to replace Quentin Saulsberry, who was suspended for four games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. ... Moreno was listed on the injury report (ribs) but practiced fully. Trainers were checking on him on the sideline in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game.

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Here's how the Ravens can clinch division, home field advantage in Week 15

Here's how the Ravens can clinch division, home field advantage in Week 15

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Now that the Ravens have clinched a playoff berth, they’re focused on ensuring they don’t have to leave the state of Maryland in January. 

Should the Ravens beat the Jets on Thursday night, they’ll win the AFC North for the second straight season. Additionally, they can clinch the division even with a loss, should the Steelers lose to the Bills on Sunday Night Football.

Baltimore can also clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs with a victory over the Jets and either a Patriots loss or a Chiefs loss.

While that seems promising with three games left to play, the Patriots are headed to play the 1-12 Bengals while the Chiefs are hosting the Broncos. Both games are at 1 p.m., so it's likely the Ravens will have to wait another week to clinch a first-round bye.

And should the Ravens hit the lottery and both the Patriots and Chiefs are upset, the Ravens will clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over the Jets.

With the injuries they’re expected to deal with on Thursday against the Jets, any chance to rest starters and veterans would be a welcome one for the Ravens. Especially considering past Super Bowl teams and how they reached the final game.

Since the Ravens' victory over the 49ers in the 2013 Super Bowl, five out of the last six champions were their conference’s No. 1 seed. 

Over the season, the Ravens have shown they’re up to the task of facing playoff-bound teams, too. As of the end of Week 14, they’ve already played the other five teams currently slotted to make the AFC Playoffs. They’ve gone 4-1 in those games — the lone blemish a 33-28 loss to the Chiefs in Week 3 — and have outscored those opponents 156-100. 

So if the Ravens beat the Jets on Thursday, they’ll certainly be scoreboard watching on Sunday afternoon. 

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Lamar Jackson limited while Mark Andrews and Ronnie Stanley miss Monday practice

Lamar Jackson limited while Mark Andrews and Ronnie Stanley miss Monday practice

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Three days after the Ravens practiced with all 53 members of the active roster, there’s now legitimate injury concerns for the AFC’s top team. 

Tight end Mark Andrews and left tackle Ronnie Stanley both missed practice with a knee injury and a concussion, respectively, whlie Lamar Jackson was a limited participant with a quad injury. The team will have just two more days to prepare for kickoff against the Jets, a little over 72 hours after the team’s first practice of the week. 

The most notable injury, however, was Jackson’s absence. 

“We’ll see,” coach John Harbaugh said of Jackson’s practice availability this week. “It’s less than 24 hours after the game, it’s hard to say. It’s not a serious injury in that sense. This is day-to-day when we play Thursday night, so we’ll see where we’re at.”

Harbaugh declined to share more about the specific injury to Jackson. 

When asked about Stanley’s concussion, he also declined to share more about the team’s injuries. 

“I’m not going to get into injuries, we just got done playing the game 24 hours ago,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to play a game Thursday night. The guys that are ready to play will play. The guys that aren’t won’t. So just look at the injury report and take it from there.”

While it’s promising that Jackson was just a limited participant, the absences of Andrews and Stanley — and special teamers Anthony Levine and Chris Board — are far more worrisome. 

Stanley has missed just a handful of snaps this season, and played in 100 percent of the snaps against the Bills. 

Andrews played just nine snaps, as a knee injury kept him out of the lineup for the majority of Sunday’s game. 

Should neither of the four that missed practiced be able to go, the Ravens will have to replace their starting left tackle, leading pass-catcher and two special teams starters in short time.

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