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Broncos riding high but have some blemishes, too

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Broncos riding high but have some blemishes, too

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) The Denver Broncos are as complete a team as the NFL has to offer, with Peyton Manning's pinpoint passes and Von Miller's sack-strips setting the tone for a squad that hasn't lost in two months.

Still, there are blemishes for these Broncos (10-3), whose quest for that proverbial complete game marches on through maladies - red zone stalls, pass protection pitfalls, coverage blunders - that could derail their dreams.

As coach John Fox said Friday following his team's latest win, a methodical 26-13 beatdown of the Oakland Raiders: ``We still need to get better.''

Even though they've won eight straight, they have a lengthy to-do list.

``Each week, there are little things we can tweak and fix,'' linebacker D.J. Williams said.

To still be searching for that all-around game this time of year is actually a good thing, Manning insists. After all, what good does it do to peak before the playoffs?

``We're still looking for that perfect four-quarter game, 60-minute game. I'm not sure if you want to play it early in the season. I think you hopefully want to find it somewhere in the month of December, maybe going into January,'' Manning said.

The Broncos really haven't been threatened in any game since their 35-point second-half onslaught at San Diego on Oct. 15 that thrust them into this prolonged tear. They nonetheless keep finding enough flaws to prevent them from getting big-headed.

``It's hard for any team to run on all cylinders,'' Fox said. ``Everybody looks for that perfect game. You prepare for that perfect game no matter what phase. Very seldom do you reach that. We still need to get better. Guys have that mindset. We as a staff have that mindset. And we'll see where it takes us.

``I know coming back after this little break we're playing a very good team in Baltimore. So, it'll be a good measuring stick of where we are.''

Even though the Broncos found a ground game to complement their passing prowess - Knowshon Moreno had a career-high 32 carries for 119 yards against the Raiders - there were enough problems popping up to keep the coaching staff busy over the long weekend as they prepare for their biggest game of the season Dec. 16 against the Ravens (9-3).

After scoring a touchdown on their opening drive, the Broncos offense sputtered, turning the ball over at the goal line once and settling for field goals four other times while also scoring a TD on a 2-yard drive following Miller's fifth forced fumble in five weeks.

``Kicking a field goal is not the worst thing ever,'' tight end Jacob Tamme said, ``but there are going to be some times with those drives when we get great field position on offense, we need to score touchdowns.''

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas bemoaned the Broncos' inability to finish off drives, which is becoming a nasty habit.

``We've got some things to work on,'' Thomas said. ``We've got a great team coming up, and we've got to work on them a lot, because we need touchdowns, not three points.''

The Broncos' final trip into the red zone didn't produce a touchdown, either, but they didn't mind as Manning took three kneel-downs after Moreno carried eight times from midfield to the Raiders 8, forcing Oakland to use all three of its timeouts.

``I was really proud of that last drive,'' Manning said. ``I thought that was really something special. Probably more of a line coach's dream. Probably not exciting for anybody doing fantasy (football).''

The Broncos have been emphasizing a better ground game for December, when weather becomes more of a factor but also because it will keep Manning's play-action effective and his jersey clean.

Moreno has made the most of his promotion from the scout team to the starting lineup these last three weeks following Willis McGahee's knee injury that landed him on IR. The Broncos are averaging more carries (31 to 27) and more yards (109 to 105) and their first downs rushing per game (6.3) are exactly the same as when McGahee was in the lineup.

It doesn't always look pretty, though. Plenty of times, Manning has to tell Moreno where to line up - or even grab him by the jersey and shove him from one side to the other.

``I've got to give him a lot of credit. He's been running the service team, scout team, for the majority of the season. All of a sudden he steps right in, our offense is evolving each week, we're putting new stuff in, changing things and he's virtually had to learn on the run,'' Manning said. ``So, when you're in the no-huddle, you can tell him what to do, he's not sure. I just say, `Knowshon, ask me, make sure we're on the same page.'''

Denver's defense has had its issues, too. The Broncos gave up pass plays of 58 and 56 yards Thursday night, the latter one for a catch-and-run touchdown toss from Carson Palmer to Darrius Heyward-Bey. This after allowing Tampa Bay to score 10 fourth-quarter points to turn a 31-13 lead into a ballgame.

``We'd like to put together four perfect quarters, but we've got some fighters in this room,'' cornerback Champ Bailey said. ``I'm proud of what we've done up to this point but we obviously have to look back and see how much better we can be. When we do that as a group, the sky's the limit for us.''

Players had Friday off after two physical games four days apart. Some came in for treatment like Thomas, who caught five passes for 83 yards despite jamming his right shoulder just before halftime.

``He's being evaluated. It doesn't appear to be anything real serious. Hopefully, he'll be ready Monday when we reconvene,'' Fox said.

The Broncos have their share of thirty-something veterans who can sure use the extra rest, Manning said.

``I think the guys are tired. You use these next three days to get your mental rest, your physical rest and to get recharged,'' he said. ``We've been on a pretty good run. We have some guys pretty beat up and mentally drained, as well.''

Notes: The Broncos' winning streak is the fourth-longest in franchise history. ... Miller is one sack shy of Elvis Dumervil's club single-season record of 17 set in 2009. ... Miller and Dumervil each have forced six fumbles, tying Dennis Smith's club record set in 1989.

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NHL Playoffs 2019 Roundup: Hurricanes tie series with Caps, Blues take series lead, Sharks avoid elimination

NHL Playoffs 2019 Roundup: Hurricanes tie series with Caps, Blues take series lead, Sharks avoid elimination

As the first-round starts to head into the final games, each matchup is getting more and more critical, as was evident Thursday. Not only did the Carolina Hurricanes have the chance to even up the series with the Washington Capitals in Game 4, but the St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets were playing for the 3-2 series lead and the San Jose Sharks found themselves in a must-win situation in order to avoid elimination against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Thursday's slate of games proved to be crucial and ultimately, played out well for the Hurricanes, Blues and Sharks. Here's how each series stacked up Thursday.

Hurricanes tie series against Caps with narrow 2-1 win

It was a close matchup between Washington and Carolina Thursday, but thanks to a couple of key goals and a big night for Petr Mrazek between the pipes, the Hurricanes were able to take Game 4 with a 2-1 victory.

Warren Foegele opened the scoring for Carolina just 17 seconds in, crashing the net and scoring on a lay-up that beat Braden Holtby. It was his third goal of the playoffs and the fastest playoff goal for Carolina in franchise history.

Alex Ovechkin was able to even the score in the second period with a one-timer on the man advantage, putting an end to 11 straight penalty kills for the Canes. The goal was Ovechkin's second of the playoffs, with both tallies coming on the power play. However, just before the second period came to a close, Teuvo Teravainen returned the lead for Carolina to make it 2-1.

Petr Mrazek made 30 saves on the night, including eight in the third period to guarantee the victory for the Hurricanes, while Holtby made 22 saves on 24 shots. Washington also lost T.J. Oshie to injury late in the game after he was hit from behind by Warren Foegele. The series is now tied 2-2.

Blues edge Jets with comeback victory, take series lead

Although the Jets were up 2-0 over the Blues heading into the third period, Winnipeg surrendered three unanswered goals as St. Louis took a 3-2 victory.

Adam Lowry scored just 12 seconds into the opening frame for the Jets' fastest playoff goal in franchise history to make it 1-0, and Kevin Hayes added a goal a little over halfway through the first to make it 2-0.

The lead would carry over until the final 20 minutes of regulation, where the Blues kicked it into full gear. Ryan O'Reilly beat Connor Hellebuyck on the power play a little over a minute into the third to pull the Blues within one. With about seven minutes to go, Brayden Schenn would tie the game at 2 with his first goal of the playoffs.

With the final minute winding down, it appeared that the game would be headed to overtime; however, Tyler Bozak was able to knock the puck loose and find a wide-open Jaden Schwartz in front, who fired the puck past Hellebuyck with just 15 seconds remaining to make it 3-2.

With the victory, the Blues now hold a 3-2 series lead and can eliminate Winnipeg in Game 6 Saturday.

Sharks stay alive with statement 5-2 win over Golden Knights

Thursday's game was a must-win for the Sharks, and thanks mainly to the effort of Tomas Hertl, they were able to dominate on home ice with an impressive win over Vegas.

A little over a minute in, Tomas Hertl jumped on a pass from Erik Karlsson and scored his third of the playoffs to make it 1-0 early. Later in the period, Logan Couture would beat Marc-Andre Fleury to put the Sharks up by two, but with 30 seconds to go in the opening frame, Reilly Smith was able to pull Vegas within one with his first of the postseason.

While it looked like Vegas would be able to shift the momentum with their end to the first, Barclay Goodrow redirected a Justin Braun shot past Fleury and the Sharks regained their two-goal lead.

Jonathan Marchessault would strike for the Golden Knights on the power play over halfway into the third to cut the lead to one, but Hertl soon after scored his second of the night on the rebound of a Joe Pavelski shot to make it 4-2. With less than two minutes to go in regulation, Pavelski scored on the empty net for his second point of the game, which ultimately sealed the deal for the Sharks.

Martin Jones, who had been struggling but was given the start regardless, proved his worth with 30 saves on 32 shots, and Erik Karlsson also put up a multi-point performance for San Jose in the win.

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Why Daron Payne switched to No. 94 as soon as it was available

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Why Daron Payne switched to No. 94 as soon as it was available

Redskins' defensive lineman Daron Payne will be sporting a new number in his second season, reverting back to No. 94 after playing his rookie season in the Burgundy and Gold at No. 95.

Payne, who had preferred No. 94 through his days in high school as well as while down in Tuscaloosa as a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide, didn't have the option to choose it after being selected 13th by the Redskins in the 1st Round of the 2018 NFL Draft, as the number was already claimed by then-Redskin Preston Smith, who had chosen it three years earlier.

With Smith off to Green Bay, Payne pounced on the opportunity to shift back to the jersey number that he'd gone with for so long before coming to the nation's capital. 

Payne performed admirably in his inaugural season with Washington, recording 35 solo tackles, five sacks, and one forced fumble, while suiting up in all 16 games and receiving praise for his outstanding play from the Pro Football Writers Association as one of the premier up-and-coming interior linemen in the NFL.

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