Extra Points: O-Line remains Broncos' Achilles' heel

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(SportsNetwork.com) - The quarterback is the epicenter in every NFL city, the first player commented on and evaluated, be it positive or negative.

And when that signal caller happens to be Peyton Manning, any blip, no matter how slight, in a career defined by consistency is going to be overblown.

To be fair to those currently questioning Manning, he is obviously far closer to the end of his brilliant career than the beginning with a medical record that includes four neck surgeries so it's not exactly out of bounds to be on the lookout for what is the inevitable decline for every player.

Manning has looked mortal in recent weeks, almost like an actual 38-year-old man with Monday's four-interception implosion in Cincinnati serving as the main course for the haters.

"Nobody's worried about him, he's fine," wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said of Manning. "If he wasn't fine, he wouldn't be playing."

Fine is a relative term in the NFL.

The 38-27 setback against the Bengals was Manning's first quadruple INT game since 2010 and helped assure that the road to AFC championship would go through Foxbrorough and not the Rocky Mountains, a potential death blow when it comes to the fairytale ending of Manning walking off stage left with the Lombardi Trophy.

Manning finished 28-for-44 for 311 yards and two touchdowns against Cincinnati, but his four picks resulted in a terribly poor and unManning-like 61.8 passer rating.

"We have to find a way to learn from this," a dejected Manning said.

All four of Denver's losses have come on the road this season and 11 of Manning's 15 interceptions have come away from Mile High. Meanwhile, six of those 11 picks came at the hands of the Bengals and Patriots, two teams the Broncos may have to beat if they plan on being in Glendale come February.

John Elway overhauled his defense following the Super Bowl XLVIII collapse against Seattle last season and bringing in players like DeMarcus Ware, Aquib Talib and T.J. Ward has certainly helped on that side of the ball as evidenced by Denver's current standing as the third-ranked stop unit in all of football.

What Elway didn't address, however, was the offensive line, the team's real Achilles' heel against both the Seahawks and Cincinnati on Monday night.

"We gave up two sacks and we lead the whole National Football League in sacks per pass (play)," Broncos coach John Fox said when discussing his much- maligned OL on Tuesday. "We did not coach well enough and we did not play well enough. They had a better night than we did."

The thought in Denver was the return of star left tackle Ryan Clady, who missed most of the '13 campaign with a Lisfranc injury would be enough. The plan was for Chris Clark, who replaced Clady at LT last season, to bump over to the right side with Orlando Franklin moving inside to left guard opposite solid right guard Louis Vasquez.

And if the '12 version of Clady, who allowed just one sack the entire season, showed up this time around all of that might have worked but the former All- Pro has been average at best this season despite the reputation-generated Pro Bowl nod he received on Tuesday night.

The '14 Clady has been playing at a level nowhere near the AFC's best left tackles -- Cleveland's Joe Thomas and the Bengals' Andrew Whitworth -- and one high-profile, scouting-based website has him rated as the 45th best tackle in the NFL.

Clark, meanwhile, couldn't carry his own water at right tackle before being replaced by Paul Cornick, who also faltered, leaving the Broncos to make wholesale changes, kicking Vasquez outside, moving Manny Ramirez from center to right guard and inserting veteran pivot Will Montgomery.

The lack of consistency has hurt but the bigger issue has been the athleticism or lack thereof, as the Denver O-Line has trouble getting to the second level in the running game, and Vasquez struggles mightily against speed on the outside as evidenced by Carlos Dunlap's big game on Monday night.

No one covers for a mediocre offense line better than Manning, a signal caller who possesses a lightning-quick release as well as a football IQ that is off the charts.

Manning can and does vary his snap count better than just about any other QB who has ever played the game but eventually a defense is going to get its chances against a stationary target and the lack of consistent pass protection has left Manning a battered and bruised mess with the playoffs looming.

Perhaps no team ticketed for the postseason needs a first-round bye more than the Broncos and they can lock that up with a Week 17 win as a two-touchdown favorite over 3-12 Oakland or a Bengals loss at Pittsburgh.

A rested and relatively healthy Manning is the difference between a deep playoff run and one-and-done.

"I learned a long time ago it doesn't matter how you start the race it's how you finish," said Fox. "We'll step back from (Monday night), we'll learn from it, we'll analyze and decipher went wrong and hopefully get it fixed."

WEEK 17 (All Times Eastern)

Cleveland (7-8) at Baltimore (9-6) (-9), Sunday, 1 p.m. - An awful Week 16 loss in Houston against a Texans team playing its fourth quarterback this season left the Ravens in desperate straits, needing a win along with a San Diego loss at Kansas City to reach the postseason. The Browns have shut down Johnny Manziel for the season due to a hamstring injury and could also be without Brian Hoyer (shoulder) leaving rookie Connor Shaw and the recently- signed Tyler Thigpen as the options at the QB position.

Ravens 23, Browns 10

Jacksonville (3-12) at Houston (8-7) (-10), Sunday, 1 p.m. - The Texans are still alive after upsetting Baltimore last week behind Case Keenum after the Texas native was brought back off the St. Louis Rams' practice squad when injuries befell Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Tom Savage. Houston needs to beat the Jags and hope the Chargers lose at Kansas City and the Ravens lose at home to Cleveland.

Texans 17, Jaguars 13

San Diego (9-6) at Kansas City (8-7) (-2 1/2), Sunday, 1 p.m. - Both the Chargers and Chiefs remain alive for the final playoff berth in the AFC. San Diego controls its own destiny and will advance to the postseason with a win, while Kansas City can qualify for the playoffs with a win along with losses by both Baltimore and Houston.

Chiefs 20, Chargers 17

Dallas (11-4) (-6 1/2) at Washington (4-11), Sunday, 1 p.m. - The Cowboys are the NFC East champions and will attempt to earn a first-round bye in Week 17. Dallas will secure the week off with a win combined with losses by both Seattle and Arizona.

Cowboys 31, Redskins 17

New York Jets (3-12) at Miami (8-7) (-6), Sunday, 1 p.m. - It was in Sun Life Stadium last December when Woody Johnson surprised most observers by giving Jets coach Rex Ryan a reprieve after a meaningless 20-7 Week 17 win over Miami. Fast forward one year and New York is 3-12 entering Week 17 and Ryan has already filed his change of address form and is deciding between Mayflower and Atlas. The Dolphins, meanwhile, haven't played postseason football since the 2008 season and last Sunday, on the day they were officially eliminated for the sixth straight season, Ross decided to bring back lame-duck coach Joe Philbin for another year despite a tenure that defines mediocrity.

Dolphins 24, Jets 14

Chicago (5-10) at Minnesota (6-9) (-6 1/2), Sunday, 1 p.m. - The two afterthoughts in the NFC North finish their seasons and a battle to avoid the cellar of the division. The Vikings can at least hang their hat on the development of rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater, who has an impressive 105.7 passer rating over his previous fours starts. The embattled Jay Cutler will be back under center for the Bears after a concussion ended Jimmy Clausen's one-game tenure. Despite all his troubles, Cutler always plays well against Minnesota, winning seven of his past eight starts against the Vikings with 20 TD passes in those games.

Vikings 20, Bears 17

Buffalo (8-7) at New England (12-3) (-4), Sunday, 1 p.m. - The Pats have already earned the No. 1 spot in the AFC but history says Bill Belichick will still use his starters at times in the regular-season finale. This is the fourth time under Belichick that the Pats' seed was set going into Week 17 and he has rested a few starters and taken others out early in the past.

Patriots 26, Bills 21

Philadelphia (9-6) at New York Giants (6-9) (-3), Sunday, 1 p.m. - The Eagles' December collapse was completed last weekend when a loss at Washington eliminated them from the NFC playoff picture. The Giants continue to enjoy the talents of star rookie wideout Odell Beckham, Jr., who has 79 catches, the most ever by a player in his first 11 NFL games. Despite missing four contests, OBJ leads all rookies with 1,120 receiving yards and is tied for the rookie lead with 11 receiving TDs.

Giants 30, Eagles 24

New Orleans (6-9) (-4) at Tampa Bay (2-13), Sunday, 1 p.m. - The biggest and perhaps only storyline here is the Bucs' ineptness. One more loss and Tampa Bay will secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Saints 24, Buccaneers 13

Indianapolis (10-5) (-7) at Tennessee (2-13), Sunday, 1 p.m. - The Colts are on the verge of finishing perfect in the AFC South for a second consecutive season and need to recapture a little mojo after a 42-7 drubbing at the hands of Dallas last weekend. Overall Indy has won six straight over the 2-13 Titans and both head coach Chuck Pagano and QB Andrew Luck have never lost to Tennessee.

Colts 27, Titans 14

St. Louis (6-9) at Seattle (11-4) (-13), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. - Seattle has the edge in the NFC with one week to play. With a win, the Seahawks will lock up the NFC West and a first-round bye. Meanwhile, as long as the Detroit-Green Bay game does not end in a tie, the Seahawks will secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs for the second year in a row.

Seahawks 20, Rams 13

Arizona (11-3) at San Francisco (7-8) (-6), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. - Arizona has secured a playoff berth and can still win the NFC West and earn a first-round bye with a win and a Seattle loss. If that scenario comes to fruition and Green Bay also loses, Arizona will be the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

49ers 23, Cardinals 10

Oakland (3-12) at Denver (11-4) (-14 1/2), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. - Denver has already clinched the AFC West and can earn a first-round bye with a win. The Broncos can also secure a first-round bye with a Cincinnati loss.

Broncos 30, Raiders 13

Carolina (6-8-1) at Atlanta (6-9) (-4), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. - The NFC South will be decided when the Falcons host the Panthers. The winner advances to the postseason, becoming only the second team to win a division with a record under .500 (Seattle, 2010), while the loser's season comes to an end. Carolina is attempting to become the first team to repeat as NFC South champions since the division was established in 2002.

"We have a game at home and if you win, you're in," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. "We are where we are and we're excited about our chances."

"We're prepared for this moment," Carolina quarterback Cam Newton countered, "and hopefully we'll seize it."

Falcons 24, Panthers 16

Detroit (11-4) at Green Bay (11-4) (-7 1/2), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. - The Lions and Packers are both in the postseason but the NFC North is still up for grabs. The winner here will claim the division title and also earn a first-round bye. The NFC North champion can also secure the No. 1 seed with some help -- Green Bay would need a Seattle loss, and Detroit would need both Seattle and Arizona to lose. This game will also mark the first time since the 1993 season in which two teams with at least 11 wins will play each other in the regular- season finale to determine a division champion (Dallas at New York Giants, January 2, 1994).

"I think playing in a playoff-type game is exactly how you want to go into the playoffs," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. "It's great that we're playing for the division title. I think this is exactly how you'd want it. I know this is the way I'd prefer it."

Packers 33, Lions 20

Cincinnat1 (10-4-1) at Pittsburgh (10-5) (-3 1/2), Sunday 8:30 p.m. - The final game of the 2014 regular season will decide the AFC North division. Both the Bengals and Steelers have already clinched a playoff berth but the division crown along with an all-important home playoff game are at stake.

"They know us and we know them," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "It's a big football game. It's going to be a good, classic AFC North football game. How else would you want it? I know our guys are excited."

Steelers 27, Bengals 21