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Can enigmatic Broncos buck their own trend?

Go ahead. Try and make sense of the Denver Broncos.

Explain how they can win at the Georgia Dome against the red-hot Falcons one week, lose at home to the woeful Raiders the next, and then travel to the Meadowlands, in all of that wind and rain and biting cold, and pound the Jets.

Better yet, explain how they can do this up-and-down routine all year and still find themselves sitting atop the AFC West with a 7-5 record.

Granted, the Broncos play in a terrible division. But that still doesn't explain how they can win three straight road games (the last two against strong teams) while dealing with a rash of injuries that have forced them to start a rookie fullback at tailback and four different free safeties in five games.

Carucci's rankings

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I've tried. I couldn't come up with a sufficient answer.

So I sought some help from within the Broncos' locker room, from one of their more experienced players -- 10th-year veteran defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban.

"First of all, the coaches put us in position to win every Sunday," he said. "Now, (as far as) the players executing? That's another story. But every week the motto is, 'Let's have (fewer) turnovers than the other team and let's have more yards rushing than the other team, and we can win.'"

The formula worked to perfection against the Jets, who had entered the game with a five-game winning streak and were widely viewed as the AFC's best team after putting the first blemish on the mighty Titans' record.

Well, it didn't quite work to perfection. The Broncos did have one turnover to the Jets' two, but the Jets ended up with more rushing yards.

Still, Peyton Hillis, Denver's rookie fullback-turned-tailback, ran for 129 yards. It was an inspiring performance, along with veteran free safety Vernon Fox returning a fumble caused by rookie linebacker Wesley Woodyard 23 yards for a touchdown. Three unheralded players, three big accomplishments.

Here's another reason the Broncos, despite all of the factors that might suggest they have no business being in the playoffs, are on a fast track to the postseason: When quarterback Jay Cutler has a hot hand, he's virtually unbeatable. He had a hot hand against the Jets, throwing for 357 yards and two touchdowns. And he has been getting tremendous protection. Cutler wasn't sacked against the Jets. Allowing only eight sacks in 461 pass plays, the Broncos are on pace to rank third all-time in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play, behind the 1988 and 1989 Dolphins.

"When Jay's on, it's a sight to see," Ekuban said. "Just seeing the kind of throws he made on Sunday, in bitter cold weather with the winds swirling in Giants Stadium, and still making pinpoint throws to his targets. We're only as good as Jay is. We feed off the energy that he brings."

As for the Broncos' inconsistency, Ekuban thinks the main reason is the team's youthful nucleus. On the one hand, it makes them a bit too immature to know how to handle prosperity. On the other hand, it allows them to stay just carefree enough to not be devastated by defeat.

"We're just going through the growing pains of being a young team," said Ekuban, who played for the Cowboys and Browns before joining the Broncos in 2005. "I've been on veteran squads before where everything is just so serious, and one loss and everything's just so tight. But with so many young guys in the locker room, it's kind of refreshing to see guys that are still loose and still bringing that energy every week.

"When everyone says we're not going to win or that it's going to be a lopsided loss for the Broncos, we take it as motivation to try to prove people wrong. Our biggest test is when everyone says that we're supposed to win a game."

A game like their Week 14 divisional clash against the 2-10 Chiefs at INVESCO Field at Mile High.

"We have to keep that same high we had against the Jets; that's going to be our biggest hurdle," Ekuban said. "And, believe me, it's going to be emphasized a lot more (by the veterans). When we first played Kansas City this season, we were 3-0 and we stressed that week, 'Do not rest on your laurels, don't believe the hype, this is going to be our hardest game.' And we went into Kansas City and got our butts kicked. We stressed the same thing against the Raiders, who were 2-8 and we were coming off a big win against Atlanta, and we got our butts kicked against the Raiders.

"Hopefully, it'll sink in to these young minds that maybe the veterans are actually saying something that's actually true."

Two-week trip no guarantee for Pats' rebound

The Patriots are packing for a two-week trip to the West Coast with a fair amount of frustration and perhaps even a little panic in their luggage.

A dose of reality


Matt Cassel was riding high as the first quarterback in Patriots history to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back games. Then he ran into Pittsburgh's No. 1 defense on Sunday:

Cassel in Weeks 11-12 ...

  » Comp. pct.: 63.8

  » Yards per game: 407.5

  » TDs/INTs: 6/1

... in Week 13 vs. the Steelers

  » Comp. pct.: 48.7

  » Yards: 169

  » TDs/INTs: 0/2

Before falling to 7-5, this team had convinced itself that it could press on successfully without Tom Brady and several key defensive players also lost to season-ending injuries. Matt Cassel's 400-yard passing performances supplied most of that defiant sense of confidence, but so did the fact that, well, these are the Patriots and overcoming obstacles is their trademark.

But Sunday's 33-10 loss to the Steelers appeared to deliver a harsh jolt of reality that the Pats might not have the necessary ingredients to make yet another run to the postseason. As tight as the competition might be in the AFC East, there were aspects to New England's performance that don't bode well even for the near future, which calls for seemingly winnable games at 2-10 Seattle and 3-9 Oakland.

The most shocking was the 1-for-13 futility on third down. I realize that the Steelers' defensive dominance had something to do with that. Still, even without Brady, the Patriots had presumably figured out how to keep the chains moving with short and intermediate pass plays that Cassel was executing with efficiency that was strikingly similar to that of his predecessor.

Another surprise was the Pats' second-half collapse, fueled by five turnovers (including two fumbles and two interceptions by Cassel), after they mounted a long drive just before halftime that ended with a missed field goal.

"We drove down and missed a field goal, but at least we drove down," guard Logan Mankins said. "We came back out (for the third quarter), we're driving the ball and it was second-and-one, sack; third-and-long, punt. That stuff kills you. Right after that, we have the fumbled kickoff return, two strip sacks and an interception. You can't beat Pop Warner teams doing that."

Translation: The Patriots had better clean up their act before heading West or they won't make the playoffs. As poorly as the Seahawks and Raiders have played, they're more than capable of being spoilers, particularly as players deal with the potential disruption of two weeks away from home.

Don't expect Jauron to be dumped

Media and fans in Buffalo are howling for the Bills to fire Dick Jauron.

Their biggest criticism is poor game management. They also perceive Jauron as being overly cautious and more concerned with coaching not to lose rather than being aggressive with his approach.

The points are valid, but it seems unlikely that owner Ralph Wilson is ready to send Jauron packing. He likes his Ivy League smarts and classy demeanor, which reminds Wilson of his all-time favorite coach, Marv Levy. Wilson also recognizes that Jauron still commands a great deal of respect within the locker room. His players, and especially young quarterback Trent Edwards, want to win for him and play hard even if they don't always play well.

It remains unclear whether media reports in late October that Wilson already had given Jauron a three-year contract extension are accurate. If they are, Wilson's financial commitment makes any talk of Jauron being fired moot. It has never been the owner's style to pay a coach or general manager to do nothing. The fact the team has not commented on the reports is somewhat awkward, but is probably more a reflection of timing than anything else. Since the reports surfaced, the Bills have gone 1-5.

Another factor in the discussion is what the Bills would do for a replacement. Neither Wilson nor anyone else in the franchise's hierarchy believes in pursuing high-profile coaching candidates, such as a Bill Cowher, who would command upwards of $8 million per year and total control of the football operation. Nor do the Bills have a great history of tracking rising young stars from the assistant or college ranks.

Unless the team were to suffer lopsided losses in all or most of its remaining games (and especially Sunday's divisional clash with Miami at Toronto), you can expect Jauron to be around for at least another season ... and probably longer.

Raheem to the rescue in Tampa?

I'm going to assume the rampant speculation that defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is going to leave the Buccaneers after the season to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee is true.

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In the past, the Bucs have been able to pay big bucks to keep Kiffin from departing for other jobs in the NFL or the college ranks. Earning a reported $2 million per year, he is at or very near the top of the league's salary list for defensive coordinators. He would not receive nearly as much to perform the same duties for the Volunteers, but this move is obviously not about the money. It's about a chance for a father to work with his son in what likely would be dad's final coaching position, and the Bucs aren't likely to have anything to top that.

Kiffin's defenses in Tampa Bay have consistently ranked among the NFL's best, but his departure would not necessarily result in any sort of drop-off. The Bucs already have an extremely strong replacement in defensive backs coach Raheem Morris.

Although Morris is only 32 years old, he is exceptionally talented and already commands a great deal of respect from members of Tampa Bay's defense, including a pair who are older than him (linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber). Morris' contract reportedly is due to expire after the season, and, if Kiffin does leave, it just wouldn't make sense to allow a rising star to follow him out the door.

Monday night musing

I don't want to rain on the Texans' parade. They've won two games in a row, which, given the inconsistency that even some so-called elite teams have displayed this season, is a significant accomplishment.

However, beating the Browns and Jaguars in back-to-back games probably says less about the Texans' strength than it does about the ineptitude of their last two opponents.

As I discussed in this space after Jacksonville's Week 11 loss to the Titans, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio -- who shifted radically to being more of a disciplinarian with his players at midseason -- was in danger of having his team quit on him for the balance of the schedule. And that is what appears to have happened.

In suffering their third loss in a row and allowing 30 points for a second straight game, the Jags did not seem to play with a sufficient amount of interest or focus. After two first-quarter turnovers quickly put them in a 10-0 hole, they had nothing to bring to the table in any phase of the game.

They missed tackles. They were repeatedly penalized. And the Texans, who actually blundered enough to keep themselves from building more than a 10-0 advantage at halftime, eventually were able to run away with the game in the second half.

If nothing else, a prime-time appearance figured to serve as at least a tiny bit of motivation for the Jaguars to try and put forth a credible effort. It didn't, leaving Del Rio with a steep challenge to figure out how to reconnect with his players (if that's even possible) through what is left of the season to at least establish some sort of workable foundation for next year.

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