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The Broncos are stampeding. They’ve won five straight games fairly easily, and their three losses this season came to teams—Houston, New England, and Atlanta—that many agree are the three best in the league.
The national sportsyak narrative is that Denver owes its resurgence to Peyton Manning’s spectacular comeback, and he’s definitely been even better than anyone could have hoped or projected: At 36, following a severe neck injury, he’s on pace to have one of the best statistical seasons of his remarkable career.
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Manning’s return to form has elevated a mediocre Broncos team into serious playoff contention. (Yes, even though they made the playoffs last year, they still were 8-8 and scared no one.) But to figure out what’s made the Broncos the topic of serious Super Bowl discussions, the focus should be on what’s happening on the other side of the ball.
Since 2006, the team has generally finished in the bottom half of the NFL’s defensive statistical rankings, and it was only two years ago that they were dead last. After Sunday’s 30-23 win over the Chargers—a game that was never as in doubt as the score indicates—the Broncos are now sixth in the league in total defense and first in sacks.
That last stat is key, because Von Miller is having at least as big an impact on defense as Manning is on offense. Miller leads the league with 13 sacks. His 24.5 in 25 pro games overall, along with his havoc-wreaking presence all over the field, suddenly have people mentioning him alongside a guy named Lawrence Taylor.
There are worse things than being compared, in your second season, to the greatest linebacker who ever lived. (Miller himself might actually prefer being measured against his idol, Derrick Thomas, the longtime Bronco nemesis who’s the reason Miller wears number 58.) And by all accounts, Miller is exactly the type of sincere, hard-working kid who won’t let such hyperbolic assessments affect his game.
So feel free to shower the resurgent Manning with all his deserved accolades; after all, it’s safe to say the team wouldn’t have generated this kind of roll with Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow under center, no matter how stout the defense was. But if the Broncos make any noise in the playoffs this year, that defense will likely be the reason, and it’s time for us fans to realize and appreciate that—in Miller—we might just be watching a once-in-a-generation talent who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to transform an entire franchise.