ENGLEWOOD, Colorado — Tight end has gone from a position of weakness to one of strength for the Denver Broncos. Credit the addition of Vernon Davis and the promotion of Brock Osweiler.
The tight ends were an afterthought for much of the season as they had to stay in to help a battered offensive line protect a scuffling Peyton Manning.
At one point the Broncos (8-2) were down to just one healthy man at the position. Now they have four.
Over the last month, they've become an increasingly bigger part of the Broncos' offense, beginning with their rout of the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 1, when Owen Daniels and Virgil Green combined for 105 yards on six catches.
The next day, GM John Elway acquired Davis from San Francisco in a low-risk trade that's already paying big dividends.
Aaron Rodgers wasn't the only quarterback casualty of that Sunday night smack-down. Although Rodgers left Denver bruised and battered, Manning, who threw for a season-high 340 yards that night, injured his left foot. He would aggravate it the next week on the turf in Indianapolis, eventually leading to a switch a QB in Denver. He's now in a walking cast and out at least until mid-December and maybe longer.
Although the Broncos lost their next two games, their tight ends continued an upward climb with Daniels catching six passes for 102 yards against the Colts and Davis beginning to make his move against Kansas City on Nov. 15.
The breakout came last week when Osweiler won his starting debut at Chicago when 11 of his 20 completions went to his tight ends, accounting for 146 of his 250 yards.
Davis led the Broncos with six grabs for 68 yards and Daniels had 69 yards on four catches.
Davis gives Denver the speedy threat over the middle that can stretch a defense, free up wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and give running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson more room to roam.
"He's an explosive player. When you get the ball in his hands, he can do a lot of damage in a hurry," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
Over the first six games of the season, Denver's tight end corps averaged a mere three catches for 20 yards. That production has ballooned over the last month to an average of seven grabs for 101 yards per game.
"We went through a month there where we were a three-wide football team, a four-wide football team because we had Virgil and O.D. — and O.D. was banged up," coach Gary Kubiak said. "So, now we've settled down. We have three active guys each and every week. We have the ability to possibly have four. So, that's got us back to some of our base offensive type stuff."
Just in time for the Broncos' showdown against the unbeaten Patriots (10-0).
The addition of Davis has been exactly the boon Owens expected. Then again, so has the addition of the much less-heralded Richard Gordon, a 265-pound bruising blocker who has four career catches in five NFL seasons and has been active just one game for Denver.
"Before, it was kind of just me and Virg," Daniels said. "It's hard to run two-tight end (sets) all game when you only have two tight ends. As in shape as we think we are, it's tough on us. Having an extra guy, you can kind of rotate."
Green said the key is versatility — "having all of us being able to play — and being able to play at different positions, where not everything always looks the same."
"We can run our whole offense, there's so many different things we can do, so many different formations we can line up in to confuse the defense," Green said.
Throw in Osweiler, the 25-year-old QB who can run Kubiak's trademark bootlegs and rollouts and the Broncos have a much more diversified offense now.
"Yeah, having Brock out there does help us get the edge on the boot. Even in drop-back, you've got to prepare for Brock to scramble because he's not afraid to move," Green said. "Having him back there does open up a lot of different things. We're just really clicking."
Notes: OLB DeMarcus Ware figures his lower back injury will keep him out for a third straight week Sunday. ... Sanders (ankle) practiced for a second straight day Thursday when the Broncos were forced to go inside because of an overnight ice storm that coated their outdoor fields.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton