The Denver Broncos' stunning comeback on Monday Night Football not only proved that Peyton Manning is back, but that the team is the one to beat in the AFC West.
Almost by default, the Broncos QB will also guide his team to a first-round bye in the playoffs while capturing the divisional crown.
The AFC is uncommonly weak in 2012, and the Broncos have arguably the best regular season quarterback of all-time under center to take advantage of the situation.
No one in the AFC West is a true threat, as San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers continues to accumulate turnovers after a 20-INT 2011 season. The Oakland Raiders and especially the Kansas City Chiefs have looked rather hapless for most of the season themselves.
Then there is the rest of the conference. Other than the Houston Texans—who just got blown out by the Green Bay Packers—no team has looked particularly impressive.
The AFC East is all knotted at 3-3, and Baltimore leads a lackluster AFC North division. Unfortunately for the Ravens, injuries to Lardarius Webb, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs likely won't allow them to continue their current 5-1 roll. It is not the typical stone wall Baltimore defense NFL fans have grown accustomed to for much of the past decade, either.
That leaves Manning and Co. to take control of their destiny. While the Denver defense isn't particularly dominant, it does have two of the game's best pass rushers in Elvis Dumervil and 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller. On Monday night, Dumervil's strip-sack of Rivers sparked the Denver comeback charge.
An improved secondary has translated to a top-10 pass defense, only helping the cause even further. Plus, it's not like Manning needs an elite defense to keep his team competitive.
Entering Week 6, though, the Bronco defense had forced just four turnovers all season and clearly needed to step up and begin making plays. It walked away with six takeaways in the San Diego game alone, an encouraging burst of playmaking that included two defensive touchdowns.
People typically want bad news before good news, so the bad news about this 2012 Broncos team is that it has failed to get off to a good start. That has put the team in a hole in which Manning has been counted on to dig them out of.
The very, very good news is that the toughest part of Denver's schedule is over, and they have emerged 3-3 from it.
From here, Manning does not face any elite defenses—or any elite teams for that matter.
The Ravens are the only team with a current winning record that Denver has left, and as mentioned, they are severely shorthanded on defense.
With an extra week to prepare for the horrendous New Orleans Saints secondary, expect Manning to continue picking apart opponents and only becoming more in sync with his top receiving targets.
The light schedule, Manning's MVP-caliber play, and continued improvement from the defense under new coordinator Jack Del Rio should translate to a first-round bye for Denver.
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