With one of the leading candidates for MVP lining up under center, the Denver Broncos' offense doesn't look too fazed despite the loss of its top running back.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos can wrap up an AFC West title on Sunday with a home win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are trying to keep pace for an NFC wild-card spot.
A Denver victory would also give the team its first seven-game regular-season winning streak since 1998, when it won its second straight Super Bowl behind John Elway.
With last Sunday's 17-9 win at Kansas City, Manning broke a tie with Elway - his boss and Broncos vice president - with his 149th win as a starting quarterback, trailing only Brett Favre (186) for most in NFL history.
Manning was 22 of 37 for 285 yards with two touchdowns and an interception against the Chiefs. The victory helped the Broncos (8-3) open a four-game lead over second-place San Diego, but all the four-time MVP wanted to talk about was his running back.
"I've got to tip my hat to Knowshon Moreno," said Manning, whose 104.8 quarterback rating and 26 TDs thrown both rank third. "He stepped up and did a heck of a job. Really an impressive effort by him."
Moreno, filling in for Willis McGahee after he was lost for the season to a knee injury, ran for 85 yards on 20 carries in his first start since Oct. 30, 2011. He will start again against Tampa Bay for Denver, which can also clinch the division with a San Diego loss to Cincinnati.
"I thought he had a very good performance," coach John Fox said. "It's the way he's going about his business up to this point. Everybody had great confidence in him and he came through for us."
It was also the first time Moreno had been in uniform since losing a fumble in Week 2 against Atlanta. The No. 12 overall pick in 2009 was initially expected to be Denver's No. 3 option in a committee that also includes Ronnie Hillman and Lance Ball after McGahee's injury, but Fox elected to go with Moreno.
He ran for 947 yards as a rookie but has since toiled with inconsistency and injury, including a season-ending ACL tear last year.
"I never felt discouraged," Moreno said. "I knew what my abilities were. At the same time, I was just waiting for my opportunities to come, and that's what I think I did."
The Buccaneers (6-5) are looking to return to their winning ways after last Sunday's 24-23 home loss to Atlanta snapped a four-game run.
Tampa Bay still remained tied with Seattle and Minnesota, but the Seahawks own the tiebreaker for the NFC's second wild-card spot. The opportunity for the team's first playoff appearance since 2007 is there, but more hurdles at New Orleans and Atlanta still await.
"That's the way this league is," linebacker Adam Hayward said. "People who are supposed to win don't and that leaves the door open. We've just got to take care of our business, the next game coming up, and the ones after that."
Josh Freeman completed 19 of 30 passes for 256 yards and Doug Martin ran for two touchdowns to help the Bucs to a 23-17 fourth-quarter lead. But they gave up 353 passing yards to Matt Ryan, who engineered the Falcons' game-winning drive that ended with a Michael Turner touchdown run.
Moreno could run into trouble against the NFL's best run defense (81.5 yards a game), but Tampa Bay has struggled to stop the pass all season, giving up an NFL-worst 315.5 yards a game. A four-game suspension for cornerback Eric Wright after his violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances won't help. The Buccaneers already traded their best corner, Aqib Talib, to New England on Nov. 1.
E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson - who have a combined four seasons of NFL experience and 21 career starts - started against the Falcons.
"We're going to practice, meet, and prepare and then we're going to go out to Denver and the play the best game we've played all year," coach Greg Schiano said. "Where that stacks up against Denver and Peyton Manning, I only control half of that. We're going to do our best to make sure we do our best."
Manning was examined after having his head slammed to the turf on a play in the second quarter against the Chiefs, but Fox said he was cleared at halftime and reported no change Monday.
The Broncos are 5-2 all-time against the Buccaneers, winning the most recent meeting in 2008.
The Associated Press News Service
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