At least, for a brief period of time.
The final pre-season game does not feature the starting groups for a very extended period of time. One or two drives is usually the maximum for the top units on either side, and the fourth pre-season game is really just a venue for bubble players to make their final case for a roster spot.
That's why this game, and many others across the league, will have a regular season feel if you watch with the right perspective.
We all know the story of Terrell Davis. Davis was looking horrendous in training camp his rookie season, and was apparently close to being cut. When the Broncos played a pre-season game against the San Francisco 49ers, a young rookie made a play on special teams that any football fan would never get tired of seeing. Davis was in kickoff coverage, and he absolutely blasted the return man.
The play put Davis back in the eye of the coaching staff, and the rest is history. Some young Broncos and Vikings are looking to make a similar type of impact tomorrow night, one that will have a lasting impression on the coaching staff.
Tebow has had a very solid pre-season, throwing for 177 yards on 13 completions with one touchdown and one interception. He has also rushed for a touchdown.
Perhaps even a bigger storyline than Tim Tebow--dare I say it--is the potential return of not only running back Knowshon Moreno, but offensive tackle Ryan Clady. Clady suffered a partially torn patellar tendon prior to the draft, and Moreno tweaked his hamstring on the first day of training camp.
The Broncos, judging by some of their pre-season performance, are in desperate need of both players. Kyle Orton has been more nimble in the pocket than expected, but I'm sure he would appreciate an All-Pro left tackle. Clady is the best offensive tackle in the game, and is probably the best player on the Broncos' roster. He had a few slip-ups with the new power scheme, but he is still a dominant pass blocker, and he and Daniel Graham are deadly in the running game on the left side.
Denver is getting healthy, but they might be wise to hold some players out for the sake of potentially aggrivating an injury.
Since not many of you probably watch a lot of Vikings football (if you do, I apologize), here are some things you might like to know about their team.
The Vikings are quarterbacked by Brett Favre, not that that should come as a shock to anybody. He will see probably limited action in this pre-season game. Tarvaris Jackson is his primary backup. Jackson was in his second year in the league the last time he faced the Broncos, and he led the Vikings to a near come-from-behind victory in Denver on the final game of the 2007 season. Thankfully for me (I have to deal with Vikings fans on a daily basis), the Broncos emerged victorious in overtime.
Jackson has a very, very strong arm, and is a decent scrambler. He has good speed, but he is a pass-first quarterback. He's not overly accurate, but he's not really wild either. He's a servicable backup, and probably one of the better ones in the NFL.
Sage Rosenfels is the Vikings' third quarterback. He is likely auditioning for another team tonight. Rosenfels is becoming a journeyman backup quarterback. He's never been great, but he's stuck around long enough because he's a smart player. I would equate his effectiveness to that of Chris Simms, though he has a bit more of "it" than Chris does.
Joe Webb is a rookie from UAB who came to the team expecting to play wide receiver. They switched him back to quarterback early in the offseason. He has fantastic speed, and is very, very raw.
Adrian Peterson will carry the load this season for the Vikings, and he is arguably the game's best. He is much more humble than Chris Johnson, so I personally like him more. He's a powerful runner with fantastic speed, and he has gotten better in pass protection. His fatal flaw is his chronic fumbleitis.
Albert Young (Iowa alum) is the primary backup for the Vikings for now. He has been horrid running the ball in the pre-season, but has been great in pass protection.
Toby Gerhart needs little explanation around here, as many of us were hoping he would be drafted by the Broncos. He has been unable to win the backup job to Adrian Peterson thus far, but his day will come. He's a power back, no bones about it.
The Viking offensive line is stacked. Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson are the best left side in football. Phil Loadholt is enormous at the right tackle position, and had a great rookie season last year. Anthony Herrera might be moving to center with Chris DeGeare moving to right guard, giving the Vikings two more massive bodies up front.
Minnesota also owns one of the best groups of receivers in the NFL. Sidney Rice is not currently healthy, but he showed last year the kind of player he is becoming. Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian will likely be the starters, and both have unbelievable speed and quickness. Harvin is the better of the two, and has battled migraines in his career. He is what Eddie Royal should be in terms of his toughness and playmaking ability out of the slot.
Javon Walker was just signed by the Vikings, but is by no means a lock to make the final roster. Greg Camarillo was traded to the Dolphins for Benny Sapp, a trade that was absolute robbery for the Vikings. When Rice comes back, a corps featuring him, Berrian, Harvin, and Camarillo is going to be very potent. They also have Greg Lewis, who made the famous catch against the 49ers last season.
By the way, they have a Pro Bowl tight end as well. Visanthe Shiancoe is a great target at the TE position. Jim Kleinsasser is a blocking tight end who has been in this league seemingly forever, and Garrett Mills is another pass catching specialist on the depth chart.
This is, bar none, the best defensive line in the NFL. Jared Allen, Pat Williams, Kevin Williams, and Ray Edwards could all be Pro Bowlers this season. That's scary for the other teams in the NFC. Their defensive ends go two or three deep as well. So deep, in fact, that former USC stud Everson Griffen is currently the third string end.
The back seven are less than impressive, but feature a couple of big name players. E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway are good NFL players. Greenway should come as no surprise, as he was a former Iowa superstar. Ben Leber is replaceable, but he still makes plays.
In the secondary, rookie Chris Cook and starter Cedric Griffin are both going to be out for this game and then some, but we will likely see Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield for a brief time. Asher Allen and Lito Shepard are vying for playing time, but the Vikings might be keeping just as close an eye on our secondary reserves as they are their own, as they are a candidate to trade for depth.
Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson are both capable starters, but are nothing to write home about. We will see a lot of Husain Abdullah and Jamarca Sanford, a player many Vikings fans think can take over a starting position this season.
For the Broncos, here are some things to watch for:
1. Run Defense Improvement
The Broncos have had the worst run defense out of all 32 teams so far this pre-season. That includes the St. Louis Rams. The Broncos have to limit the big play against the Vikings. Albert Young and Toby Gerhart have not run well in the pre-season so far. If they run buck wild tonight, red flags should be raised. Denver signed three big defensive linemen to patch up their run defense this offseason, and along with their holdovers from last year, it's reasonable to expect solid improvement in this area. I will be keeping a close eye on Ronald Fields and Chris Baker.
The big play has been a serious problem in the running game. The Broncos need to finish plays better, or they are going to be in too deep when they take on a slew of fine running backs this year.
2. Pass Rush
I really enjoyed the pressure we applied to Pittsburgh quarterbacks. The Vikings have two quarterbacks that can move, and two that can't. We should see a good mix in that area. Jarvis Moss, Jason Hunter, and Robert Ayers are all players I'll be keeping an eye on. If they could all get a sack, I would feel content heading into the regular season. That might be wishful thinking, but who knows.
Moss and Hunter are trying to hold off Baraka Atkins for playing time. Atkins has a sack this pre-season, but I've not seen much else from him. Hunter appears to be the most capable against the run, but Jarvis has the edge in the pass defense department. I am really going to enjoy watching those two battle it out for regular season playing time.
3. Run, run, run
Lance Ball has quietly had a decent pre-season. He is averaging nearly six yards a carry. If Ball can break out this game, I think he will have definitely earned a roster spot in LenDale White's absense, and the Broncos could keep both afterward if Elvis Dumervil is not progressing.
LenDale White should see some playing time tonight as well, and if he can generate some solid numbers against this Viking run defense, I will be very, very impressed. They are an extremely tough unit. White could be a key reserve for the Broncos this season as a power back.
Bruce Hall had some nice runs in the Detroit game, but I don't expect him to make the final roster. I hope he runs hard against the Vikings and earns a practice squad spot. The Broncos could turn to him in case of a barrage of injuries.
4. Wide Receiver Battle
I don't know that Brandon Stokley will play tomorrow, but the team's second leading receiver so far this pre-season is the most impressive offseason player not named Orton--Matthew Willis. He has averaged over 17 yards per reception, and has shown great ability so far this pre-season. He can also play special teams, which is really important to this coaching staff. If he doesn't make the team, I will not only be shocked, I might be a little angry. Scratch that, I will be very angry. If he doesn't deserve to make the team, no bubble player does.
Brandon Lloyd is currently the starting receiver, and he's made some plays this pre-season. He and Stokley are probably the two receivers battling it out for the final receiver spot. If Stokley doesn't play tonight, I don't see how you could keep him on the team based on the performances of Lloyd and Willis.
This situation has a similar feel as the receiver situation. A good player is going to be let go. Alphonso Smith has been the whipping boy, and despite the fact that some people might think he's on the bubble, I feel otherwise. He has not yet developed, and has shown some flashes of the ability the Broncos saw in him this pre-season. Syd'Quan Thompson would not clear waivers at this point, so I think that leaves Nate Jones. He is going to need a big game against the Vikings. His biggest asset is his versatility, as he can play both safety and corner. I think he is a candidate to be traded right now, and the Broncos could possibly get their sixth round pick back that they traded for Brady Quinn.
Cassius Vaughn is also a player that has been discussed, and I think he will be a special teams candidate and potentially a roster player for next season. He has blazing speed and has done well on coverage units.
I could not be more excited for this game. Perhaps it's just a hangover from the Pittsburgh game, but I don't care what anyone says--the pre-season is meaningful. The wins don't count, but they sure as heck matter. The Broncos, who are expected to be led by Tebow for a good majority of this game, will be in this game to win it.
Hopefully, someone stands out like T.D. did once upon a time. Their NFL career might depend upon it.