The Denver Broncos enter their bye week in Week 9 at a record of 7-1.
If the season ended today, the Broncos would enter the postseason as a wild-card team as the No. 5 seed. Despite their 7-1 record, Denver does not even have the best record in its own division—that distinction belongs to the 8-0 Kansas City Chiefs.
In spite of that, the Broncos rest comfortably entering their bye. Entering Week 10, the Broncos have a tough, four-game stretch in which the Broncos will have every opportunity to surpass their AFC West rivals, as they visit San Diego after the bye, play the Chiefs twice and visit New England to play the Patriots in Foxboro.
As key players such as Peyton Manning, Julius Thomas and Champ Bailey rest nagging injuries, what are five things to look out for as the Broncos take a week off?
Montee Ball received his most significant action of the season in the 45-21 victory over the Washington Redskins, as he carried the football 12 times for 38 yards and scored the first touchdown of his NFL career late in the third quarter in the win. Ball had 30 snaps in the game, trailing starting running back Knowshon Moreno by just eight snaps.
Fellow rookie running back C.J. Anderson received the first action of his NFL career in Week 8. He carried four times for 22 yards and received 10 offensive snaps as Denver's third running back.
Both running backs' increased playing time came at the expense of second-year runner Ronnie Hillman. Hillman, who has had fumbling issues since entering the NFL last season, was benched and declared inactive days before the Broncos' game even took place.
Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase had this to say on Hillman's (and the rest of the Broncos) fumbling issues prior to the Redskins game:
You just keep working him at practice and probably have a lot of guys going after it, especially on defense … And we’ve got to keep working on it. The way that we’re fumbling, it’s just unacceptable. We’ve got to get this fixed and that’s been a big focus for us again this week. Hopefully we can restart everything; we’ve got a fresh week to get to zero turnovers.
How the Broncos' running back situation pans out over the second half of the regular season could play a pivotal role as the Broncos enter the postseason.
As I mentioned following the Broncos' victory over the Redskins, Denver's victory over Washington was spearheaded by the defense's excellent performance.
In watching the film of the game, it was amazing how well Denver's defensive backs played—yes, the pass rush was good for most of the game—for many of Washington's passing plays, as Robert Griffin III had at least four or five seconds to throw the ball but either tucked and ran or threw incomplete passes because the backfield literally blanketed the Redskins' receivers.
This was in spite of Champ Bailey missing yet another game with a foot injury.
The Broncos have the top run defense in the NFL, and although their pass defense ranking (30th in yards allowed) doesn't show how stout the backfield really is, the pass defense is what won the game for the Broncos in Week 8.
Although the offense will always be the focal point of this squad, the defense will need to continue to force turnovers and to wreak havoc on quarterbacks in order for the Broncos to win the Lombardi Trophy this season.
Von Miller missed the first six games of the season due to suspension. Champ Bailey has missed the first six of eight games due to a nagging foot injury.
Both of the Broncos' best players on defense have played just two games each, and the Broncos have been able to withstand those injuries by starting out 7-1.
With both guys getting acclimated again as the season reaches its midway point, the Broncos will be at their healthiest as they enter a key four-game stretch that will likely dictate their seeding in the AFC playoffs.
In spite of playing just 132 snaps through two games, Miller ranks as Denver's best defensive player according to Pro Football Focus (via Kyle Montgomery of SB Nation's Mile High Report) with a 10.7 rating.
With the Broncos reaching full strength for the first time all season long, the defense should further improve its play as the season wears on.
Peyton Manning has played with two bad ankles over the past few weeks. It would go a long way toward describing Manning's declining play over the past three games.
Since the Broncos' 35-19 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 6, Manning has regressed over the last couple of games—from Week 1-6, Manning committed just three turnovers. In Weeks 7 and 8, Manning threw four interceptions with two fumbles.
Due to Manning's ankle sprains and declining play, the Broncos struggled in a 39-33 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7, while continuing to struggle on offense in the victory over the Redskins in Week 8. It wasn't until late in the third quarter that the Broncos posted their second touchdown of the game and finally got things rolling as they cruised to a 45-21 victory.
With two weeks off to rest his ankle sprains, it remains to be seen if the four-time NFL MVP can regain his early-season form versus the San Diego Chargers when the Broncos visit San Diego.
The AFC West is the NFL's most competitive division. If the season ended today, the West would have three teams that clinched a playoff spot—the Kansas City Chiefs, the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers.
With a winning percentage of 0.733 percent of their games played, no division comes close—the NFC West ranks second with a 0.625 winning percentage.
The AFC West may have two of the best teams in the NFL, the Chiefs and the Broncos.
The 8-0 Chiefs and the 7-1 Broncos have yet to meet this season, but that will change over the next four games as they play each other twice—Week 11 in Denver and Week 13 in Kansas City.
Almost by default, the Chiefs are considered the best team in the NFL as they stand as the only undefeated team remaining. They look to enter their bye week in Week 10 undefeated, as they face backup quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and the Buffalo Bills (3-5) before their bye.
Although the debate as to who is the better team between the Chiefs and the Broncos are intense now, come Week 14, both teams will have a chance to quiet the debate over the next month.