By Rich Kurtzman
Everyone, from laymen to die-hard NFL fans, know who Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck are. But, have you heard of Dan Herron or C.J. Anderson?
Manning and Luck will forever be intertwined, their individual successes not necessarily dependent on one another, but it can't be missed that each great gunslinger has worn the Colts' blue and white. If Luck continues his meteoric rise, he'll join the ranks of Manning and fellow Colts quarterbacking great, Johnny Unitas, as some of the best to ever take a snap under center.
Still, even Luck wouldn't have pushed his Indianapolis team to victory Sunday without the running and receiving of third-year running back Dan Herron. The stocky back showed an ability to make defenders miss, running for 56 yards on a mere 12 carries. That 4.7 yards per rush average is even better than his 4.5 per during the regular season, where he really turned it on down the stretch run.
So did C.J. Anderson, a bowling ball of a back who, save the fanatic fantasy football owners outside of Denver, no one has likely heard of. Anderson started the year as a change of pace back, used sparingly to give a rest to starter Montee Ball. Then Ball was injured, and so was his backup, Ronnie Hillman, giving Anderson his chance to shine. From Week 10 forward, Anderson gained the great bulk of his 849 yards and all eight rushing touchdowns, simultaneously becoming a vital piece to the Denver offensive attack. His lack of hesitation and burst through the line of scrimmage gives him and the Broncos' offensive line an advantage, because hitting the hole so quickly leaves the defense unable to react quickly enough to stop him.
What makes both backs deadly is their versatility, their “do whatever it takes to win” mentality. Anderson's proven his ability to catch the football out of the backfield, with 324 yards and two more scores through the air. And Herron caught a game-high 10 passes for 85 yards in the playoff win over Cincinnati on Sunday.
Both Anderson and Herron are youthful playmakers, each have relatively fresh legs considering the time in the year due to expanding roles late in the regular season, and each will be relied on heavily to run the ball and run the clock.
As is the case when two very good teams meet head-to-head, this game will be won on the line of scrimmage. Working in Denver's favor is their beastly and deep defensive line. Playmakers Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Terrance Knighton and Malik Jackson will all be important and that No. 2 rush defense will be tested with the relative unknown in Herron. They'll be facing two, massive 6'7” tackles on the Colts' offensive line, a group whose lightest player weighs in at 308 pounds. It will be strength versus strength when Indy has the ball and who wins the LOS will go far in determining the winner.
Conversely, the Broncos offensive line has been mauling opponents in the run game since Anderson started taking a majority of the handoffs, and they'll have to physically dominate the Colts' D-line to sustain long drives this Sunday. How important has running the ball effectively been for Denver down the stretch? With Anderson, the offense has rushed for 100-plus yards in six of the last eight games. The Broncos won every game they went over 100 yards rushing – giving their offense a balanced attack – and lost the two, to St. Louis and Cincinnati, they couldn't hit the century mark.
So, while everyone will be focusing on Luck and Manning, the intelligent fan will be watching both teams' starting running back, as they could be the deciding factors during the Divisional Round.
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Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Rich is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.
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