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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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5.24.18: Rick Horrow talks with Andy Bush, EVP Global Events Octagon Worldwide

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USA TODAY Sports

5.24.18: Rick Horrow talks with Andy Bush, EVP Global Events Octagon Worldwide

Sports professor Rick Horrow talks with Andy Bush, EVP Global Events at Octagon Worldwide and wraps around the world of sports business for this week.

By Rick Horrow

Podcast Editor: Tanner Simkins

LISTEN TO THE FULL PODCAST HERE.

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4 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning to win the Eastern Conference

4 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning to win the Eastern Conference

The Capitals dominated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Game 7 on Wednesday to claim the conference crown and a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. Washington took an early lead and never looked back.

Here is how they bucked their Game 7 history to win.

62 seconds

The last time these two teams met in Tampa, the Lightning struck just 19 seconds into the game and it set the tone for the entire contest. This time, it was the Caps who struck early.

A big hit by Tom Wilson in the neutral zone created a turnover that started the rush for the Caps. Evgeny Kuznetsov fed Ovechkin for the one-timer and he fired it past Vasilevskiy just 62 seconds into the game.

Andre Burakovsky’s big night

Injury limited Burakovsky to just 56 games this season. He suffered another injury in Game 2 of the first round and did not return until Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. He was a healthy scratch in Game 5 and was talking about talking to a sports psychologist over the summer. He had not recorded a point this postseason heading into Wednesday game.

And somehow, he rattled off two goals to lead the Capitals.

The start of the second period was all Tampa Bay. The Lightning were dictating the play and buzzing around Braden Holtby. They outshot the Caps 8-1 to start the frame, but Burakovsky got the momentum right back as he stole the puck away from Dan Girardi and fired a beautiful shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy. John Carlson sprung him on a breakaway later in the second period which he put through the five-hole of Vasilevskiy for his second goal of the game.

Braden Holtby is suddenly unbeatable

The last goal Holtby allowed was 33 seconds into the second period…of Game 5. After not recording a single shutout at all this season, he blanked the Lightning in both Game 6 and Game 7 for back-to-back shutouts.

The Lightning had their opportunities. They pushed and pushed hard all game long, especially in the second period as they recorded eight of the first nine shots on goal of the period.

It didn’t matter.

Holtby was up to the task as he dominated the Lightning yet again, even turning aside a breakaway from Alex Killorn to keep the clean sheet. He made 60 straight saves and did not allow a goal for 159:27. This is just the fifth time in NHL history a goalie recorded a shutout in both Game 6 and Game 7 of a playoff series.

Team defense

The Lightning had their chances, but they were frustrated all night long by the all-in defense the Caps played. As good as Holtby was, he let up a lot of juicy rebounds early on. But Tampa Bay could not get a stick to any of them because the Caps defense beat them to the puck all game long.

The Caps recorded 15 blocked shots in the game. Devante Smith-Pelly took a shot block off the back of the neck, T.J. Oshie took one off the boot.

This team was all-in all night long and it frustrated what was the league’s top offense.