The surprising AFC West co-leaders attempt to deliver a sixth consecutive victory with Tim Tebow under center when they host a reeling Chicago Bears team that enters Sunday's critical interconference clash from Sports Authority Field at Mile High without both Cutler and standout running back Matt Forte.
The primary storyline for this Week 14 matchup was expected to be Cutler's return to Denver for the first time since the strong-armed signal-caller was dealt by the Broncos to the Bears in April of 2009 following a well-publicized personality clash with then-head coach Josh McDaniels. But with the former first-round draft pick to sit out a third straight week while recovering from surgery on a fractured right thumb, the focus has instead shifted to the remarkable run Cutler's ex-club has put together to vault itself into the thick of the AFC playoff mix.
Denver's turnaround has coincided with Tebow's insertion at quarterback in place of the since-released Kyle Orton, part of the blockbuster swap that sent Cutler to the Windy City. The Broncos are 6-1 since the switch and drawn even with Oakland for first place in the division standings heading into this season's final four weeks.
Four of those wins have come in games where Denver had trailed in the fourth quarter, including last week's thrilling 35-32 road triumph over Minnesota in which the never-say-die Broncos rallied from an eight-point second-half deficit and pulled ahead on two Matt Prater field goals inside the final two minutes. The final one, which came as time expired, was set up by an interception from cornerback Andre Goodman deep in Vikings territory with 1:25 to go.
Tebow has certainly done his part as well, with the polarizing young lefty having thrown five of his 10 touchdown passes and producing an impressive 109.7 quarterback rating in the fourth quarter. Of the season-high 202 passing yards he compiled against the Vikings, 94 of them came in the last 15 minutes.
"I've told you all along, he's a tremendous competitor," said head coach John Fox. "I think, if I can recollect saying [Sunday] that the guy wins, how can you not be a fan of that? He does it with his feet, with his arm, just with his competitive greatness, really. That's what you're looking for in a quarterback."
The Bears may be on the lookout for additional help at the position with Caleb Hanie having struggled mightily in the two games Cutler has missed. The Colorado State product has been intercepted six times in back-to-back losses to AFC West inhabitants Oakland and Kansas City that could potentially serve as significant blows to Chicago's playoff fortunes down the road.
The offense particularly stalled in last Sunday's 10-3 home upset by the Chiefs, mustering just 181 total yards and a mere 88 through the air. Hanie completed only 11 of his 24 attempts for 133 yards and was sacked seven times in addition to throwing three picks.
Chicago received a double whammy in the defeat, with the valuable Forte spraining the MCL in his right knee that could sideline him for the remainder of the regular season. The impending free agent has amassed 1,487 yards from scrimmage this year and accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Bears' offense.
Despite its current funk, Chicago remains in position to grab one of the NFC's two Wild Card spots at the moment. The Bears are tied with Atlanta and rival Detroit in the race and own a win over the Falcons as well as a better conference record than the Lions.
"We need to get a win [this] week," said Chicago head coach Lovie Smith. "We're still in good shape as far as I'm concerned. We're in great shape if we take care of business. If we make those necessary changes, adjustments and improvements we have to make, we'll be in great shape. We're one win away from feeling a lot better."
The Bears took a 7-6 lead in its overall series with Denver after posting a 37-34 overtime win in the teams' most recent matchup, which took place in Chicago in 2007. The Bears also came out on top in their last visit to Sports Authority Field, earning a 19-10 decision there in 2003. The Broncos' last triumph over Chicago occurred at home in 1996, a 17-12 verdict at the old Mile High Stadium.
Fox owns a 3-1 lifetime record against Chicago as a head coach, with all of those games coming during his time at the helm of the Carolina Panthers from 2002-10. Smith won his only previous encounter with the Broncos with the aforementioned 2007 result, but is just 1-2 when going against Fox head-to- head. That includes a 29-21 loss to Fox's Panthers in the 2005 NFC Divisional Playoffs.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
With Forte ruled out and Hanie (387 passing yards, 2 TD, 6 INT) having fared poorly standing in for Cutler thus far, expect veteran running back Marion Barber (281 rushing yards, 5 TD) to be the focal point of an offense that figures to go run-heavy this week. The ex-Dallas Cowboy is a proven performer between the tackles with a pair of 900-yard seasons to his credit, though he lacks Forte's explosiveness and pass-catching skills and is averaging a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry in spot duty this season. Seldom-used third- stringer Kahlil Bell (57 rushing yards) is expected to be worked in as a change-of-pace option in this week's game plan, with speedster Johnny Knox (33 receptions, 2 TD) and Earl Bennett (19 receptions, 1 TD) the two main receivers for a passing attack that will need to improve off last week's poor showing. Knox is the team's best deep threat who's averaging a splendid 20.5 yards per catch this year, and the third-year pro did bust out for a career-best 145 yards and a touchdown on just four catches in Hanie's first start back in Week 12. Chicago will also be seeking to upgrade its protection schemes after Hanie was overwhelmed by a usually spotty Kansas City pass rush last Sunday, which could be a tough assignment given the Broncos' strength in that area.
While Tebow has gotten the bulk of the attention for Denver's resurgence, the contributions that the defense has made to the team's reversal of fortune shouldn't be overlooked. The Broncos have held the opposition to 15 points or less four times during their 6-1 stretch and given enemy quarterbacks fits with persistent pressure, as 13 of the unit's 33 sacks have come over the past four games. The charge has been led by sensational rookie linebacker Von Miller (57 tackles, 10.5 sacks), who missed last week's test with a thumb injury that required surgery but is slated to return for Sunday's tilt, while disruptive end Elvis Dumervil (24 tackles, 6.5 sacks) has tallied 6 1/2 sacks in his last five appearances as an excellent complement to the 2011 No. 2 overall draft choice. Denver has also scored a touchdown on interception returns in two of its three most recent victories, with Goodman (40 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) coming up with a crucial return in a narrow win over the New York Jets in Week 11 and reserve linebacker Mario Haggan (18 tackles, 1 INT) accomplishing the feat while subbing for Miller against the Vikings. The group has displayed some areas of deficiency, however. The Broncos permitted 489 total yards and 360 through the air to Minnesota last Sunday, with rookie Christian Ponder throwing for three touchdowns on the afternoon, and gave up 185 rushing yards to San Diego the week prior.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Denver has found a winning formula in Tebow's ability to make good decisions in the pocket and utilizing the former Heisman Trophy recipient's outstanding talents as a runner to maximum effect. The Broncos have constructed an unorthodox offense that's more akin to the college game with its read-option looks and heavy emphasis on pounding the ball in a smash-mouth style, and it's worked for the most part. The team leads the NFL in rushing yards (158.9 ypg) and is averaging just under 200 yards per game on the ground in Tebow's seven starts, and the second-year quarterback has accounted for a sizeable chunk of that total on his own. The change has also been beneficial to lead running back Willis McGahee (886 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 5 total TD), as the revitalized veteran has recorded consecutive 100-yard outings and eclipsed the century mark six times this season in his workhorse role. Tebow (1054 passing yards, 10 TD, 468 rushing yards) still has plenty of room to grow as a passer, as his 47.5 percent completion rate will attest, but has been intercepted just once this season and shown he's making strides by hitting on 10-of-15 attempts for 202 yards against a porous Minnesota defense last week. Two of those throws went for long touchdowns to young wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (11 receptions, 3 TD), with the 2010 first-round selection finishing the game with a career-high 144 yards on just four catches, while fellow sophomore Eric Decker (39 receptions, 8 TD) has flashed big-play potential as well by emerging as the team's top receiver this year.
The Broncos' prolific ground game may face its greatest challenge to date in a seasoned Chicago defense that's been sensational in stopping the run as of late after having trouble early on. The Bears have limited five of their last seven foes to 80 yards or fewer on the ground to move up to ninth overall in run defense (99.8 ypg), and stoned a usually-formidable Oakland offense that managed just 73 rushing yards against them two weeks back. As usual, the accomplished linebacker tandem of perennial Pro Bowl honorees Brian Urlacher (72 tackles, 3 INT) and Lance Briggs (84 tackles, 1 INT) have spearheaded the cause, while incredibly-athletic end Julius Peppers (31 tackles, 8 sacks) has held his own at the point of attack in addition to continuing to be the team's most effective pass rusher. Chicago has also forced 17 turnovers over its past six games and amassed 12 interceptions over that span, though a secondary headlined by rock-solid cornerback Charles Tillman (81 tackles, 1 INT, 10 PD) may be minus starting safety Major Wright this week after he injured his shoulder against the Chiefs. Backup Craig Steltz (30 tackles) did step in to make 10 tackles and force a fumble, however, and the Bears held Kansas City to a scant 139 net passing yards while getting a sack from tackle Henry Melton (17 tackles, 6 sacks), his third in four games.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The battle at the line of scrimmage between the Denver offense and Chicago's defense will definitely have a say in the outcome of this game. It's a matchup of strength on strength, with the Broncos have rushed for 150 yards or more in seven of their last eight games and the Bears yielding a minuscule 74.3 yards on the ground over their past seven contests. Though Tebow's been terrific in terms of leadership and coming through in the clutch, he's still far from a polished passer who the Bears will try to make beat them with his arm.
While Chicago's defense is fully capable of keeping the Broncos' read-option scheme in check, the Bears aren't going to win this week without better play out of Hanie. Cutler's slumping understudy is going to need some make some throws and get his team into the end zone, and another multiple-turnover effort could spell doom against an opponent that's done a very good job of taking care of the ball.
Denver's calling card on defense is a knack for pressuring the quarterback, and how a Chicago front wall that surrendered seven sacks last week handles itself in protection will also go a long way in determining Sunday's victor. Running the ball efficiently would help to neutralize the Broncos' pass rush, meaning Barber and Bell must step up and provide a boost in Forte's absence.
The Broncos are starting to gain some believers, and it's hard not to be impressed with what they've done to stamp themselves as a serious contender for the AFC West crown, while plenty seem to jumping off the Bears' bandwagon based on the injuries to Cutler and Forte and Hanie's shaky play under center. Chicago shouldn't be counted out just yet, however, as its defense has been exceptionally stout and Hanie's certainly eligible for improvement in his third go-around as a starter. And Denver hasn't exactly been blowing teams out of the water during its surge, with all but one of its wins over the course of its present tear coming by seven points or less. The Broncos have been winning nonetheless, however, and until Hanie proves he can beat a team of some quality at the NFL level, they still rate as the choice.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 16, Bears 13