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Broncos clinch AFC West for fourth straight year

The Denver Broncos clinched first place in the AFC West with a 22-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. Our takeaways:

  1. Whether it's by design or necessity, the Broncos have had more rushing attempts than pass attempts in three consecutive games. Per NFL Media's research department, it's only the second time in Peyton Manning's career in which that has happened. Since the Week 11 loss to the Rams, the coaching staff has made a concerted effort to protect Manning and keep opposing defenses from bringing too much pressure. We have also noticed a loss of accuracy and arm strength from Manning, who has struggled on deep balls the past two weeks. This 33-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders encapsulates the state of Manning's arm: It got the job done, even if it lacks style points.
  1. The run-heavy attack has had a symbiotic effect on Denver's defense, as they have held three consecutive opponents under 20 points after allowing an average of 29.5 in the four previous games. The Broncos entered the game with one of the 10 best run defense metrics of the past 25 years, per Football Outsiders. Jack Del Rio's defense is one of the five best in the NFL this year.
  1. Ryan Mathews' absence was felt in the Chargers' offense. Coach Mike McCoy bypassed the run on several short-yardage opportunities, and nine of Philip Rivers' 11 drives ended with a punt, missed field goal or interception. Falling a game behind the Steelers and Ravensin the wild-card hunt, the Bolts will have to win at San Francisco and Kansas City in the final two games to remain in contention.
  1. Demaryius Thomas won the battle versus cornerback Brandon Flowers, who had been enjoying a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Thomas reeled in passes of 28, 29 and 36 yards with Flowers in coverage, en route to joining Rod Smith as the only players in franchise history with eight 100-yard games in a single season. Thomas remains third in the NFL in receiving yards, trailing only Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.
  1. This was a costly win for the Broncos. Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady (thigh) and Brandon Marshall (foot), a breakout star at weakside linebacker, were both forced out of action by injuries. Fortunately, middle linebacker Danny Trevathan returned after hobbling off with an injury in the fourth quarter. This was his first game back from a knee injury that sidelined him for two months.
  1. Denver has dominated the AFC West the past two years, sporting a 15-1 mark against divisional opponents. Barring a collapse at Cincinnati and versus Oakland the next two weeks, the Broncoswill earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Sunday game from Week 15 and discusses all the playoff implications. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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