KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Denver Broncos offense has been rolling so strong — and for so long — that its greatness sometimes becomes easy to take for granted. On Sunday, wide receiver Eric Decker provided a reminder of why that unit really is so special. Everybody knows a Hall of Fame quarterback like Peyton Manning makes a world of difference, as does an assortment of gifted weapons. But when you see how dangerous the supposed weakest link is on that offense, you start wondering how much damage Denver will do once the postseason arrives.
Decker didn’t merely deliver a timely performance in Denver’s 35-28 win over Kansas City. He dominated a game that gave the Broncos a critical one-game lead in the fight for the AFC West. The box score will say Decker had eight receptions for career highs in yards (174) and touchdowns (four). What’s harder to track is how many times he broke the Chiefs’ spirits with game-turning plays on a day when his team needed them most.
Just as important, Decker stepped his game up after barely making an impact in recent weeks. He had 170 total receiving yards in Denver’s last four contests prior to Sunday’s win, including a one-catch, 5-yard effort in a loss to New England last Sunday. “To be honest, I had a tough month,” Decker said. “It was kind of a struggle for me. But it makes it a lot easier when you have some of the best receivers — like [Wes] Welker and D.T. [Demaryius Thomas] — on your side. They cover a lot of ground, and today we had an opportunity to make some plays.”
The key thing to remember about Decker is that he’s a victim of circumstance. He’d easily be the first or second option on most teams, but he’s been running a distant fourth in the Broncos’ system for good reason. Thomas is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent, Welker has 836 career receptions, and tight end Julius Thomas is a budding star. Somebody in the Denver offense was going to get shortchanged as this season played out, and Decker — who had a breakout season with 85 catches and 1,064 yards in 2012 — ultimately suffered that fate.
The Chiefs surely treated him as a player they were willing to challenge Sunday. Kansas City routinely shifted most of its defensive attention to Thomas and Welker, believing that shutting them down meant stifling Manning’s playmaking potential. What the Chiefs weren’t counting on was Decker, who had three touchdowns coming into this game, taking that opportunity and running wild with it. The minute Manning realized that Thomas had sustained a shoulder injury early in the game, the star quarterback went to Decker relentlessly.
Decker already had 103 receiving yards in the first half, when Denver trailed 21-14. He went on to score the Broncos’ next three touchdowns — coming on long (37 yards), intermediate (15) and short (1) plays. The easy assumption was that Manning was terrorizing Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper, but Decker torched Kansas City’s best cover man, Brandon Flowers, as well. As Manning said, “If you run good routes and you have time to throw, it’s tough to defend that.”
The tough question for Denver opponents going forward is how they will adjust to Decker’s revival. It’s a stretch to say he was in a slump — he is well on his way to another 1,000-yard season — but it’s also apparent that defenses had found ways to effectively attack the Broncos offense in recent weeks. The Patriots knocked the ball out and tackled well. The Colts beat up the Denver receivers and pressured Manning all day. The Chiefs also slowed the Broncos before Denver pulled away in a 27-17 win on Nov. 17.
Decker’s performance makes it impossible to think more teams will be able to control this attack going forward. The more Decker went off, the more other weapons sprang up in the Broncos’ offense. Thomas shook off his bum shoulder to break free for a 77-yard catch. Rookie running back Montee Ball rambled for 117 on 13 carries. Let’s also not forget that another runner, Knowshon Moreno, is having the best season of his four-year career, even if he didn’t do much Sunday.
This is important to note because the Broncos are looking very much like a team that will have to ride that offense as far as it can go. Their defense is battered and bruised, with three starters out for Sunday’s game and cornerback Champ Bailey still hobbled by a lingering foot injury.
“This win is huge,” Decker said. “We knew coming in that this game was for control of our division. When you get to the end of the season, winning your division is huge — setting yourself up and taking care of business. We have four weeks left and a lot can happen.”
What isn’t likely to happen is the Broncos giving up the division lead Decker just helped them snare. Most people who follow the AFC West knew this division would be decided by the two games Denver just played against Kansas City over the past three weeks. The first contest told us that the Chiefs weren’t ready to deal with the Broncos in Denver. The second one reminded us that the Broncos, now 10-2, have another gear they can reach when they really want to showcase their high-octane attack.
Right now, that gear happens to be a fourth-year receiver who was getting lost in the mix of an offense brimming with talent. Given the way he performed, Decker isn’t likely to disappear for such a long stretch in the coming weeks. The Broncos are reaching the point in the season where they need all their weapons focused and at full strength. And Decker just proved that teams better not forget what he can do when his time to shine arrives.