With a definitive 34-14 victory that featured highlights on both offense and defense, Denver proved to the rest of the league on Sunday night it is a legitimate contender in the AFC.
Despite losses this season to the Houston Texans, New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, Denver has consistently improved as a football team that featured many personnel changes this offseason and finally looks like a unit familiar with one another.
Offensively, Peyton Manning looks as familiar in orange as he did in Indianapolis blue, and when you watch the passes he is making to his wide receivers, it's obvious that Peyton Manning has jelled in Denver and is enjoying his new role. Demaryius Thomas is his favorite long-ball target, and Eric Decker appears to be his red zone favorite. Decker caught a pair of touchdown passes on Sunday night, and Thomas caught seven balls for 137 yards and a touchdown.
Peyton's offensive wingman seems to be veteran running back Willis McGahee, who looks as good at 31 as he ever has and represents one of the more senior members on the offense. McGahee and Manning clearly have a rapport, as McGahee is always right next to Manning when he audibles and assists in informing the offensive line of the play change. He's also running with a ferociousness that would make one doubt, completely, that McGahee snapped his leg over 10 years ago while at University of Miami.
Credit of course must go to the offensive linemen. They have made Manning's transition to Denver as seamless as they possibly could, and they have done this amid adversity. Guard Chris Kuper, the de facto leader on the offensive line, was out for the first four games of the season with a broken forearm and was replaced by Manny Ramirez, who proved ineffective. Nonetheless, Denver battled through Kuper's absence but then lost center J.D. Walton for the season. Dan Koppen was brought in to replace Walton, and watching him play now, you would think he's been a Bronco for years. Orlando Franklin and Ryan Clady have been rock-solid in the tackle slots, and Zane Beadles continues to be one of the best run-blocking guards in the game.
Defensively, where Denver has struggled the most this season, the unit appears to be coming together. Like the offensive line, the defense has also experienced and dealt with adversity. Cornerback Tracy Porter was brought in to be Champ Bailey's right-hand man, yet he began to falter after starting strong and is now out indefinitely, dealing with some health issues. Young corners Chris Harris and Tony Carter have stepped up, however, and coupled with Rahim Moore and Mike Adams at safety, Denver's backfield is getting tighter by the day.
Denver's pass-rushing was strong last season with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, yet the team struggled with defensive tackles. Rookie Derek Wolfe and veteran Kevin Vickerson, who is enjoying his third year in Denver, have stepped up to fill this void.
The breakout player, however, on defense this year is Wesley Woodyard. He was Denver's leading tackler last season with 97 tackles and is on track to better that this year. Woodyard is no longer considered a fill-in for D.J. Williams, but one of the most versatile linebackers in the league. He may not be a household name yet, but Woodyard can be found all over the field.
Denver has gotten hot at the perfect time. The Broncos face an extremely easy schedule throughout the rest of the season, including two games against division foe Kansas City, which seems unable to beat anyone.
The Broncos were tested early with a tough schedule while they were still growing as a football team, but one has to believe that these tough matchups made them stronger. They can now enjoy playing as a cohesive unit against an easier schedule, and in a division that is not too threatening.
It's not time to drop the confetti yet in Denver, yet it is time to acknowledge a team that has grown into a new squad and is a legitimate contender to make a Super Bowl trip in 2012.