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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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Justin Tucker missed a game-tying PAT, but the Ravens aren't fazed at all

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USA TODAY Sports

Justin Tucker missed a game-tying PAT, but the Ravens aren't fazed at all

Justin Tucker making an extra point for the Baltimore Ravens is a sure thing.

As sure as the sun will rise each morning, Tucker's dependability and success have been a constant for the team. But on an afternoon where winds of around 17 mph were a factor though 60 minutes, Tucker's success came to a shocking halt. 

After Joe Flacco and the offense made their way downfield, Flacco found wide receiver John Brown in the end zone to make the score 24-23 with 24 seconds left in regulation.

In walked the most accurate kicker in NFL history to do what he's done so many times before; keep the Ravens in the game. As the ball sailed off Tucker's foot, it took a right and became the first point-after-touchdown the kicker has ever missed.

"I felt like when the ball came off my foot, that I hit it just how I wanted to," Tucker said at the podium following the Ravens' Week 7 loss to the Saints. "Don't get me wrong, today was a challenging day to kick the ball in our stadium, to the right of our bench."

Two hundred and twenty two-straight PATs. 222 consecutive makes, including 112 consecutive since PATs were moved back to the 15-yard line in 2015. Tucker was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September, marking the fifth time he's been awarded the honor.

From the field to the press box and all the way to the nosebleeds, M&T Bank Stadium was in shock. 

"A lot of things go through your mind, but I've been there plenty of time," Flacco said. "If you play football long enough, you're going to be there at some point. We're a very tight team here, and the first thing you think about is your brother and him dealing with it. Justin's the best in the world at what he does, and he's the most confident person that I know. It's not going to be an issue." 

"We're a tight group – we are light years better than we've been in the past," safety Eric Weddle said in the locker room after the loss. "Shoot, 'Tuck' is going to win us some games. We're not worried about that missed kick. Shoot, I think it's the first extra point ever that he's missed. Let's not get on him too hard. He's going to be hard on himself. That wasn't the only reason we lost." 

The support for Tucker, in what was a one-off for their teammate, was apparent throughout the entire locker room. When Tucker took to the podium to address the media, long snapper Morgan Cox and punter Sam Koch stood in the interview room while their kicker tried to explain what went wrong in a show of support.

"This one just happened to get away from me," Tucker added. "I'll have to look at it. I can't tell you exactly what happened, but at the end of the day, I feel like I cost us the game. Every single one of my teammates thus far has told me the opposite, and no one plays wins or loses a game, but that's a tough thing to grapple with when you're the guy in the situation at the end of the game."

Even members of the Saints were in disbelief. Almost everyone was mentally preparing for overtime as Tucker's accuracy is known around the league.

"When [Tucker] missed it, I thought, 'Let's get up and get out of here,'" running back Mark Ingram said. "I mean, that guy is good, so I was shocked."

"I automatically was thinking about overtime and what we were going to do," quarterback Drew Brees added. "I was very, very surprised when he missed it."

What the Ravens and fans alike can take solace in is that Tucker's stats speak for themselves showing more positive plays than negative. While it was probably the most heartbreaking loss they've had since Week 17 of the 2017 season, Tucker's point of emphasis when speaking with the media postgame was about more than a missed extra point.

"But, more than anything, I just wanted to be here [at the podium]," he said. "If I was going to ever teach my son or any young person about accountability, I felt like it was really important that I stand up here and answer whatever questions you guys may have."

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What you need to know from the Ravens' 24-23 loss to the Saints

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What you need to know from the Ravens' 24-23 loss to the Saints

The Baltimore Ravens' top-ranked scoring defense clashed with the New Orleans Saints' top-ranked scoring offense in a game fans will soon never forget.

After a constant back and forth and a chance to tie the game, Justin Tucker missed his first ever point-after-touchdown attempt with seconds to spare.

Here's what you need to know from the Ravens' 24-23 loss over the Saints.

— We knew this game was going to be interesting and the Saints didn't waste any time getting things rolling. Facing a fourth down, New Orleans faked a punt for a five-yard gain from third-string quarterback Taysom Hill. The 20 play, 69-yard drive was highlighted by four fourth-down attempts, two challenges from the Ravens and a fumble recovery by nose tackle Michael Pierce on the final fourth down attempt at the six-yard line.

Not only was the 9:58 drive the longest opening drive by a team this season, it was the longest opening drive to result in zero points since the Browns' 9:59 opening drive Week 1 of 2015, per NFL research.

— Drew Brees continues making history during the 2018 season. The QB threw his 500th career touchdown to former Raven Ben Watson in the second quarter joining Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the prestigious club. Then when the clock hit zero and the Saints came away with the win, Brees also joined Manning and Favre as the third QB to beat all 32 NFL teams.

Prior to Sunday, Brees was 0-4 against the Ravens. He also became the NFL's all-time leading passer back in Week 5.

— It only took seven weeks, but rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson scored his first NFL touchdown with four seconds left in the first half. While it was only from one-yard out, it was nice to see Jackson kick it into gear with the clock ticking. He wasn't the only guy from the Ravens' 2018 draft class to make an impact. Tight end Mark Andrews scored an eight-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to put the team up 17-7 and left guard Bradley Bozeman and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. held down the O-line for much of the afternoon. 

— The Ravens' streak of not allowing a second-half touchdown in the 2018 season came to an end Sunday. Drew Brees gave the ball to running back Alvin Kamara at the top of the fourth quarter resulting in a two-yard touchdown. Kamara finished the day with 17 attempts for 64 yards and one touchdown. 

— Jimmy Smith's first start of 2018 didn't go quite as well as he'd like.

Smith was hit with two pass interference calls, with one of them coming in the end zone leading to a Saints touchdown and the other on one of many third downs. The cornerback had trouble covering wide receiver Michael Thomas, who heading into Week 7 was ranked fourth in the NFL,  all afternoon. One of their meetings resulted in a touchdown to put the Saints up 21-17.

— Then there was, of course, Justin Tuckers' first-ever PAT miss. After Joe Flacco hit John Brown in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown with 0:24 left on the clock, the Ravens were preparing to go into overtime until that wasn't necessary. Tucker, who is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, was on the wrong side of history when his kick went wide right.

From the field to the nosebleeds, M&T Bank Stadium was in shock as the clock expired and the final score was 24-23.

Postgame, Tucker took responsibility for the team's loss while his head coach and teammates all reiterated that a game never comes down to just one play.