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Broncos Are On a Roll (But It’s Still Early)

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After last week’s 35-21 thumping of archrival San Diego—a classic example of it-wasn’t-even-that-close—the Broncos sit at 6-1, tied for the best record in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, whom the Broncos beat by three touchdowns at home on October 5. When the season began, we outlined a checklist of things that had to go right for the team to land the championship trophy, and seven games in, things could hardly be going better.

We’ll start, as one must, with Peyton Manning. Number 18 is healthy, and the defending MVP is having an even better season than in 2013. (He’s on pace for slightly fewer yards and TD passes, but he’s markedly more efficient than he was last year.) He’s also continued his career-long trend of making decent receivers good and good receivers great. When the year began, we wondered who would fill the void left by the departure of Eric Decker and the injury and suspension woes of Wes Welker.

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We have our answer, and it’s Emmanuel Sanders. After last Thursday’s monster game—nine catches, 120 yards, three TDs—he’s on pace for more than 100 catches and almost 1,500 receiving yards. These Pro Bowl-worthy numbers likely won’t even lead the team, because Demaryius Thomas continues to be a flat-out badass. (Note to Mr. Elway that he probably doesn’t need: Whether it’s now or later, just re-sign him.) Combined with an improved running game—Ronnie Hillman had 109 yards and 5.5 yards per carry against San Diego, his best game yet as a pro—this offense appears to be every bit as unstoppable as last year’s record-setters.

(Check out 5280‘s Special Report, “Peyton’s Last Stand”)

But the main reason the Broncos have that championship look is their vastly improved defense. Last year’s unit was solid; this one is scary. Elway made adding speed a priority in the offseason, and it’s paying off big time. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are one and two in the league (respectively) in sacks, on pace for a combined total that most teams would envy. The unit is seventh overall after finishing 19th in 2013, primarily due to a rushing D that’s tops in the league. Part of this is because opponents have to pass a lot to keep pace with Manning and Co., but the Chargers tried to run early and often—and got nowhere. If you can’t run on the Broncos, it plays right into their plans to unleash Miller and Ware on the QB.

When the season began, we noted the team’s tough schedule and suggested that if they can emerge from their week 10 visit to Oakland with six or seven wins, it should set them up for a division title and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Well, they have six wins already, so ending up with 12 or 13 overall seems completely doable. This Sunday’s tilt at New England, the 16th time Manning will face archnemesis Tom Brady, will firmly establish the AFC pecking order for the rest of the season—and will whet our collective appetite for a likely showdown number 17 sometime in January.

Now, having said all that, this is the NFL, and there are nine games left. A key injury or two could derail everything; it happens almost weekly to some team or another. But for the moment, the Broncos are clearly the class of the league, and it’s not even all that close. On to the second half.

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Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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