David vs. Goliath: Underdog Jags meet high-powered Broncos

(SportsNetwork.com) - Gentlemen, start your survivor pools.

When the unbeaten Denver Broncos host the winless Jacksonville Jaguars this weekend in Colorado, it'll be more than just a matchup of a pair of early season 0s.

While the Broncos have approached historic league levels of elite play through a 5-0 start, the Jaguars have been forced to read commentary in which they've been compared to all-time lowly squads, including their own 4-12 expansion version from 1995.

The contrast prompted odds-makers to install Denver as a 28-point favorite, a number that ties the recognized mark for highest spread -- initially reached when the Baltimore Colts were a four-touchdown pick to defeat Atlanta in 1966.

The Falcons covered, and no game since the merger in 1970 has featured so high a number.

But there are plenty of numbers in 2013 to warrant the gap.

Denver is first in the league in scoring offense, averaging 46 points per game and coming off a 51-point effort last week at Dallas. Jacksonville is second- to-last in scoring defense, has allowed 32.6 points per game and has kept only one foe -- Oakland in Week 2 -- below 28 points.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars have scored only 51 points in five weeks, including three games in single digits.

The Broncos' average of 489.8 total yards per week is also first in the league, while Jacksonville's per-week clip of 379.8 yards allowed per game is 22nd-best among 32 teams.

Oh, and Denver has won 16 consecutive regular-season games, while the Jaguars have dropped 10 straight, 19 of their last 21 over two seasons and haven't won two in a row since weeks 13 and 14 of 2010.

After winning their first four games by margins of 22, 18, 16 and 32 points, the Broncos were forced to compete for four quarters last week in Dallas and finally won, 51-48, when Matt Prater hit on a 28-yard field goal as time expired.

"We don't go into each game trying to see how close we can make it," coach John Fox said. "If you fall asleep at the wheel, you wreck. Sometimes dealing with prosperity is more difficult than the adversity. Our guys understand that. They understand it's more about the process than the results. They understand it's more about the preparation work which will relate to the performance."

Quarterback Peyton Manning was 33-of-42 against the Cowboys and finished with 414 yards and four TDs. He leads the league with 20 scoring passes and threw just his first interception of the season.

The Broncos did look vulnerable on defense, where Dallas QB Tony Romo was able to exploit them for more than 500 yards and five touchdowns through the air. Denver is last in the league against the pass with opponents averaging 347 yards per game and 29th in total yardage defense at 416.6 per week.

Defensive back Champ Bailey hasn't played after injuring his left foot in the preseason, but he's been upgraded to questionable this week and could return. Meanwhile, linebacker Von Miller will sit out the sixth and final game of a suspension connected to the league's substance-abuse policy.

"No team is invincible," Denver safety Rahim Moore said. "It's the NFL. It's hard to win in this league."

Jacksonville will once again start Chad Henne at quarterback in place of anointed No. 1 Blaine Gabbert, who's been riddled by injuries for the last two seasons. Gabbert completed 9-of-19 passes, including a 67-yard scoring strike to Justin Blackmon, before leaving a loss to St. Louis last week with a hamstring problem.

Henne, who'll make his third start of 2013, completed 7-of-13 attempts in the relief role and has connected on 53-of-95 throws for the season, compiling 601 yards, two TDs and two interceptions.

Gabbert is last in the league with a 36.0 passer rating and is 5-22 in his career as a starter. Henne was 13-18 in three years of starts with the Miami Dolphins and was 1-5 as a starter for an injured Gabbert last season.

"With (playing quarterback) comes the responsibility of being a leader," Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. "Our guys are working toward that, but they need to step it up. We feel strongly about both of them, we're going to challenge both of them and they're going to need to step up."

Blackmon's TD from Gabbert was his first of the season after a four-game suspension to begin the year. He caught five balls for 136 yards and can give Henne a second viable option beyond Cecil Shorts, who has 31 catches for 411 yards through five games.

On the ground, Jacksonville is 30th of 32 teams with an anemic 58.8-yard average per game. Veteran Maurice Jones-Drew is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. And the offensive line took a hit when left tackle Luke Joeckel broke his ankle against the Rams.

Denver is tops in the league against the run, allowing 69.6 yards per game on 21.2 carries per week, which is second-lowest in the NFL. The more the Jaguars can hold onto the ball against whatever shortcomings the Broncos' defense has, the less time they'll spend contending with Manning.

"He's the best that I've ever encountered," said Bradley, an assistant in Seattle for four seasons before taking the Jacksonville job. "How he manages the game, it appears like he never puts the team into a bad call. He knows everything about you on defense. He studies. He controls the whole offense. He's very talented."


Any measure of success the Jaguars have had on offense this season has gone through Shorts, or his recently returned colleague, Blackmon. Having both of them together for the second time this season can't help by help Henne, who's not been able to get much from a running game.

The Broncos could have both starting cornerbacks, Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, playing together for the first time in 2013, which also helps what's been one of the league's leakiest pass defenses through five games.

As for the Broncos' offense, well, good luck Jacksonville. Manning has played the best football of his career through the first five games, which is saying a lot considering the success he's had since 1998. But seriously, a Jaguars defense that has surrendered more than 400 total yards this season to youngsters Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson seems impossibly overmatched with Manning and his band of scoreboard-torchers.


It really doesn't seem fair, right? You get the feeling in Manning wanted to score 100 points this weekend, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to think he actually could.

Of course he won't, and he'll more likely be on the bench in the third quarter, but it'll probably look pretty ugly as long as it lasts. A moral victory for Jacksonville? It says here Denver won't cover the spread.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Broncos 42, Jaguars 19