At 2-3 through five games, the Denver Broncos do not appear on paper to be poised for a successful season thus far.
However, the Broncos have dealt with one of the league's toughest schedules, playing powerhouses Pittsburgh, Houston, Atlanta and New England all within the first five weeks. The latter three are a combined 13-2 on the season and the games against both Atlanta and New England were on the road. This has definitely been as daunting as it appeared when the schedule was released.
Although they've only gone 1-3 against the tougher challenges—while dismantling a vastly inferior Raiders team—they have shown quite a few bright spots throughout the beginning of the season.
First, the luring of Peyton Manning with a $95 million contract over five years appears to be a stroke of genius. Besides the first quarter of the Atlanta game in which he threw three interceptions, Manning has been nothing short of brilliant, throwing 11 touchdowns while completing 66 percent of his passes and posting a passer-rating of 101.2, good for forth in the league.
Despite reports surfacing on CBS about Peyton's zip (or lack thereof), the pure efficiency with which he operates this offense is brilliant.
Also, the play of Von Miller, especially against New England, makes it look like the second-year star has actually elevated his game even further. Miller's performance against the Patriots nearly single-handedly turned the game for the Broncos.
Von's stat-line for the game is astonishing—two sacks, eight tackles (including seven solo and five behind the line of scrimmage), plus two quarterback hits, a pass defensed and of course a forced fumble—and if he had managed to hold onto a surefire interception in the fourth quarter that he might have taken to the house, he would be polishing his NFL Defensive Player of the Week award right now.
Even so, he now has five sacks on the year and a league-leading 12 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, proving his value in both the run and pass games. If all of Denver's defense could play half as well as Von, they wouldn't give up so many third-down conversions.
Now that Denver has run through and survived the hardest part of the schedule, the Broncos can look forward to the next 11 games in which only four of the teams they face have winning records (including San Diego twice).
However, in order for the Broncos to advance to the playoffs, they must defeat divisional opponents. Monday night is their toughest test for a few reasons.
First, clearly the AFC West is a two-horse race, with Oakland and Kansas City appearing to remain lackluster opponents, the division should come down to San Diego and Denver, which means the two matchups between these teams are crucial.
Couple that with the fact that this game is on the road in San Diego, and you most likely have the most difficult divisional game of the season. Denver has to win this game.
A win in this game will not only catapult them to the top of the division standings, but set the tone for the rest of the season and the rest of the division. A loss would mean that they slip two games behind the hated Chargers and fall to a 2-4 record with 10 games to go.
This means that the third-down conversions must stop, the turnovers on offense must stop and the defense will have to start getting some takeaways themselves in order to emerge victorious. Granted, if the Broncos do lose, they can still have a very successful season, but a loss here will put them in a deep hole of desperation, making it all that more difficult down the road. A Broncos win will push them toward the elite status many of us predicted at the beginning of the season.