Nationals

Broncos stay bland but focused

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Broncos stay bland but focused

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) They are 16-point favorites against a team tied for the worst record in the league. With each and every victory over the span of a 10-game winning streak, their once-narrow path to the Super Bowl has grown as wide as an eight-lane highway.

But think you'll catch the Denver Broncos looking past the Kansas City Chiefs this week? Don't bet on it.

If the Broncos have taken even a moment to think ``big picture'' this season - or think about anything beyond their next opponent - they've done a great job hiding it.

``As soon as you start thinking about the Super Bowl, you get beat so fast and you're going to be back at home before you know it,'' free safety Rahim Moore said.

From the free safety to the head coach to Peyton Manning to the 53rd man on the roster, this has been the theme all year - think about next Sunday, think about getting better every week, and let the future take care of itself.

Boring? Yes.

Predictable? Absolutely.

Effective? You bet.

And nobody has stuck to the script better in 2012 than the Denver Broncos.

``We're focused on trying to get better,'' Manning said. ``I think we've done a good job with that all season, just taking it one week at a time. I know it's a boring cliche, but I think coach (John) Fox has preached it. I think our team has bought into it, and I feel like we'll do the same this week.''

Whether they acknowledge it or not, the playoff picture has been looking prettier every week for the Broncos (12-3). By topping Kansas City and extending their winning streak to 11, which would be the second longest in franchise history, they would wrap up a first-round bye. If they win and the Houston Texans lose to Indianapolis, the Broncos would be the top-seeded team in the AFC.

The experts in Las Vegas aren't even waiting for Sunday's game to express their feelings.

The Broncos, at 4-1, are now the favorite to win the Super Bowl, followed by New England at 5-1 and Green Bay at 6-1.

They have come by that status honestly, winning their last 10 games by an average score of 31-17 and making most of those wins as predictable as the well-worn quotes about taking things one game at a time that they serve up on a daily basis.

``I grew up around San Diego and went to the horse track a lot,'' Fox said. ``There were a lot of favorites and it didn't work out that way a lot of times. You've got to earn this between the lines and it won't affect our attitude or mindset moving forward.''

Now, just because they don't get ahead of themselves this isn't to say the Broncos are completely devoid of personality.

Manning has a wry sense of humor and, when he's up to it, can be introspective; last Sunday he spoke in depth about his comeback road this season, insisting that despite the year he's having, he is not the same as he was in his prime.

Von Miller likes to dance after his sacks - all 17 1/2 of them.

Champ Bailey is almost always as thoughtful during an interview as he is good in one-on-one coverage.

Maybe it's because of well-respected, focused leaders such as Manning and Bailey that there are no troublemakers in the locker room, nobody serving up bulletin-board material and, for the most part, no complainers, save cornerback Tracy Porter, whose tweets about lack of playing time earlier this month were quickly and quietly tamped down by the team.

All of which keeps the focus on football, and the Broncos are perfecting the art of the easy win.

Home or road, tough opponent or not, Denver's wins have looked very similar week after week: They take a two- or three-touchdown lead and coast to a relatively easy win, yet still sprinkle in enough mistakes to keep the day-after film session interesting.

Bugaboos from last week's 34-12 win over Cleveland: Penalties. The Broncos committed 11 of them, a season high. Ball security. Broncos punt returners Trindon Holliday and Jim Leonhard bobbled one ball apiece but didn't lose either. Interceptions. Bad communication between Manning and Knowshon Moreno caused a second-quarter turnover against Cleveland - Denver's first inside the opponent's 10-yard line this season.

``You get concerned with everything,'' Fox said. ``The bottom line, as I mentioned yesterday, it's all about winning. You strive for perfection but they're never perfect.''

Even while he's having what will, statistically, wind up as one of his top three seasons as a pro - 103.7 passer rating, 34 touchdown passes and 4,355 yards - Manning never walks off the field satisfied. That sets the tone for the entire team.

``I think we've made some strides each week,'' he said. ``I still have to admit that it's not going to be an offense that's been together for five years. It's not going to look like that because we haven't. We've only been together for however many weeks, so we've tried to improve each week, but a lot of things just take time. We're trying to do the best we can in this limited amount of time.''

So far, that's been very good.

Lest the Broncos get complacent, especially with what looks like an overmatched opponent coming into Denver on Sunday, Fox can always pull out a number of well-worn bromides to keep his players' attention.

-''On any given Sunday.'' (Yes, he really says that.)

-''The other team gets paid, too.'' (A ready-made answer for any of Denver's shortcomings, which were more pronounced when the Broncos were 2-3 earlier this season.)

-''We don't look at the record, we look at the tape.'' (An easy one this week, because Kansas City's 2-13 record looks much less impressive than its toughly fought 17-9 loss to Denver did last month.)

``Does that translate to wins?'' Fox said of his way of keeping the players focused on the task at hand. ``Well, it has for us lately, and we'll see next week.''

NOTES: KR Holliday (ankle), CB Porter and OL Chris Kuper (ankle, headaches) all missed practice Wednesday. ... Fox is going for his 100th win as a head coach in what will be his 500th overall game as a college and NFL coach. ... RB Knowshon Moreno is averaging 3.9 yards a carry on 124 carries this season and the Broncos are ranked 25th in the league in average yards per rushing attempt.

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2019 MLB Postseason Predictions: Where the Nationals stand

2019 MLB Postseason Predictions: Where the Nationals stand

A week after the Midsummer Classic, the Nationals' comeback June looks less and less like a fluke as Washington continues its push to the postseason and the NL East Wild Card race.

In the 2019 MLB Postseason fight, the Dodgers (62-33) of the NL West are predicted to finish the regular season as the top team in the league, while each wild card race remains fairly close. Right now, the NL Central Cubs (50-43) and NL East Braves (57-37) round out the current National League leaders, while the Nationals (49-43) and Phillies (48-45) are the two wild card teams. 

Washington, 1.5 games ahead in the wild card race, revived its playoff chances after a slow start to the season. The Nationals' comeback June propelled them back into a wild card position. But the NL wild card race is far from set, as the Brewers (48-46) are 0.5 games back from the Phillies (and the Cardinals (46-45) are 1.0 games behind). 

 Here are the MLB playoff standings if the season ended Monday:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Division Leaders
Houston Astros (West)
New York Yankees (East)
Minnesota Twins (Central)

Wild Card
Tampa Bay Rays (55-40, +1.5 Wild Card Games Behind)
Oakland A's (53-41, - WCGB)

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Division Leaders
Chicago Cubs (Central)
Los Angeles Dodgers (West)
Atlanta Braves (East)

Wild Card
Washington Nationals (49-43, +1.5 WCGB)
Philadelphia Phillies (48-45, - WCGB)

2019 MLB POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS
(As of July 15)

All three projections for the playoffs have the Dodgers finishing at the top of the league, though Baseball Reference has Los Angeles winning a whopping 110 games––at least seven more wins than either FiveThirtyEight or FanGraphs projects. 

Baseball Reference predicts the Nationals and Diamondbacks will be the NL Wild Cards, with the Athletics and the Rays as the AL Wild Cards. FanGraphs also has the Nationals making the playoffs as a wild card, while FiveThirtyEight lists the Nationals as having a 56% chance of making the playoffs at all. 

FanGraphs is the only site that lists the Nationals' chance at winning the World Series as above 2.5% (5.8%), while it also gives Washington an 82% shot at making the playoffs overall (and a 63.7% chance to win the wild card). 

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10 Questions for training camp: Can the Redskins count on Montae Nicholson?

10 Questions for training camp: Can the Redskins count on Montae Nicholson?

The Redskins report to training camp on July 24th, and for the next 10 days, JP Finlay will count down the 10 biggest questions the Redskins face going into the 2019 season.

10) Will the Redskins develop depth on the D-line?

The Redskins spent a ton of money to fix their safety position this offseason, shelling out $45 million guaranteed for Landon Collins.

There's only one problem, however, as a modern NFL defense requires two safeties.

Assuming health, Collins will undoubtedly start at safety. What player lines up next to him will bring concerns regardless of the direction the Washington coaching staff leans.

The leading contender for the job is Montae Nicholson, a third-year pro out of Michigan State. As a rookie, Nicholson looked like a potential draft steal, especially early in the season when he showed speed, pop and a nose for the football. His rookie season ended after just eight games though due to injuries and a concussion.

Going into this second year in 2019, Jay Gruden heaped significant praise on Nicholson, and compared his importance to the defense as Jordan Reed was to the Redskins offense.

Things didn't go well.

Nicholson never seemed to understand the new scheme in place, where he and DJ Swearinger occupied sides of the field instead of a more traditional strong and free safety role. Nicholson has the track background to play a real center field, and seemed bewildered at times playing close to the line of scrimmage.

As the 2018 campaign staggered along, Redskins team president Bruce Allen traded with Green Bay for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, effectively benching Nicholson. Clinton-Dix wasn't much better in D.C., and eventually he signed with the Bears as a free agent this offseason.

There was also a late-season arrest for Nicholson outside of a Loudon County bar. While charges eventually got dropped, the Redskins suspended Nicholson for the final few games of 2018.

Add all of that up, and it's hard to believe Redskins' brass when they speak about how much they trust Nicholson and expect great things from him. Still, the NFL is no place for hurt feelings, and both the franchise and the safety need to turn the page from an ugly 2018 and hope 2019 fares better.

The reality is the Redskins don't have many options if Nicholson can't reclaim his starting role. Troy Apke showed next to nothing in an injury-plagued rookie season last year. Deshazor Everett has been with the Redskins for four seasons and has been a valuable special teams player, yet, when the team has needed somebody to fill a revolving door at either safety spot, he rarely gets a chance.

Odds are there isn't more help coming.

The draft came and went without Washington adding a safety. Same with the second wave of free agency.

Maybe a veteran safety with legit speed emerges on the marketplace - an unexpected training camp cut - but the Burgundy and Gold can't count on that. It's also possible veteran defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can make the Redskins 53-man roster and help at safety in passing situations.

Remember, however, that DRC retired from football last year halfway through the season. Let's see him get through the grind of two-a-days in Richmond before considering the 33-year-old part of the solution.

Add all of that up and it's very clear the Redskins need a lot from Nicholson.

Collins should help Washington immediately, as a leader and as a sure tackler. He's had some elite seasons in the NFL, but that last happened in 2016.

Collins on his own as the last line of defense will help the Redskins, but not to the tune of an average salary of $15 million.

Collins paired with a healthy and fully engaged Nicholson could be special. But that requires Nicholson to be both healthy and fully engaged. Time will tell on that.

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