The Denver Broncos are officially the AFC West champions for the second consecutive year. Late-season stumbles at the hands of Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton are a thing of the past in Denver, and you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from fans who now know they don't have to worry about a late-season dive out of playoff contention.
Quite the contrary; not only do the Broncos have a playoff berth and their division locked up, they appear to be hitting their stride, with more on John Elway's to-do list.
With four games still left on the schedule, Denver has a chance to play for more than just stats. Sitting at 9-3, they're within striking distance of the two teams ahead of them in the AFC. Both the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens are also at 9-3, though with much tougher schedules bearing down on them.
At this point, it's even feasible (if not improbable) that the Broncos could take the first seed in the AFC away from the Houston Texans. While this isn't a likely scenario, it's a possibility all the same, and serves to remind us that there's plenty more football to be played, and plenty for the Broncos to be playing for.
It seems like not too long ago we were hearing and entertaining talk of Peyton Manning's arm strength just not being up to snuff; now we're hearing just a shade below chants for MVP.
If Manning is in fact hitting his stride (and I believe he is), the Broncos should be a better team now then they have been at any point in the season, which should be a scary reality for the rest of the AFC.
Manning looks to be better than ever, and if that's the case, there's no reason the Broncos can't take down three bottom-feeder teams and the 25th-ranked Baltimore defense they have remaining on their schedule.
Unless you consider the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs or Cleveland Browns a sustainable threat to take down the Manning-led Broncos, than you have to look at their schedule as at least marginally accommodating.
The only game where Denver won't be obvious favorites will be against the Ravens in Baltimore for Week 15. Even in that case, as I've already mentioned, the Ravens defense is weaker than history would suggest, falling to 25th in the league at this point in the season.
Anything can happen in any football game, but if strength of schedule means anything, the Broncos' itinerary is presenting them with an incredible opportunity to gain ground in the conference.
The Broncos haven't seen the 10-win mark since 2005, when Jake Plummer took the team to an AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Considering the rest of Denver's schedule, anything less than an 11-win season would have to be considered disappointing on some levels.
Even if the Broncos don't get the first-round bye, double-digits in the win column is a morale boost whether or not the players and coaches would ever admit it. Expect Denver to push for that 10 or 11-win mark, regardless of the availability of a first round bye.
Elway knows he has about a three or four-year window to win a Super Bowl with Manning. After that, it's back to the drawing board with either Caleb Hanie (doubt it) or the guy from Twilight (Brock Osweiler).
By my own argument, a first-round bye might not be the best thing for Manning, who seems to just now be hitting his stride and gaining back his arm strength. However, judging by Elway's aggressiveness in pursuing a quarterback who made them a contender right away, I wouldn't expect his team to take their foot off the gas and wait for the playoffs.
Denver will be gunning for Baltimore and New England in these last few weeks, and the Broncos certainly have the upper hand in terms of their schedule. If the Broncos go into Baltimore at 10-3 and beat the Ravens, they'll in all likelihood leapfrog both teams and hold the second seed in the AFC.
All told, there's still plenty of Broncos football to be played.