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Broncos' difference-makers 

End Zone

By now, columnists and observers from Colorado to every corner of America have anointed the Denver Broncos the biggest surprise of this NFL season.

Those pundits suddenly are falling over themselves praising Denver quarterback Kyle Orton and head coach Josh McDaniels. Those two are getting the credit for the Broncos' 5-0 start, and McDaniels and Orton have been worthy of some accolades.

But after making the trek Sunday to Invesco Field for Denver's 20-17 overtime victory against New England, I differ a bit from the hordes. Sure, McDaniels prepared his team and staff superbly, and Orton did lead the Broncos on drives of 90 and 98 yards, completing all kinds of short but precise passes for first downs and two touchdowns.

But as Denver gears up for its prime-time date Monday at San Diego (6:30 p.m., ESPN), with all the pressure now on the 2-2 Chargers, let's take a closer look at others who have had just as much to do with the Broncos' early success.

Knowshon Moreno. Sometimes you can't fully appreciate a top-caliber running back until seeing him in person, and that's the case here. The rookie had shown flashes of potential in earlier games, combining his speed and power. But you see the running instincts better inside the stadium.

From the start Sunday, when Moreno took direct snaps in Denver's version of the "wildcat" formation, it was obvious the first-round draft pick was comfortable and confident. The offense revolves around him now, and against the Patriots he was ready for the role, whether lowering a shoulder and driving for 8, 10 or 12 yards, taking passes in the flat and darting through defensive openings, or heading outside and accelerating through the kind of cuts that can't be coached.

Lost amid the game's final stats were these: Moreno had 25 touches — 21 carries for 88 yards, four receptions for 36 yards, totaling 124 yards. He still had a lot in his tank at the end, with a 27-yard catch and run on Denver's 98-yard drive that made it 17-17 in the fourth quarter, then runs of 9 and 11 yards on the overtime drive to the game-winning field goal.

And if you want to compare Moreno to another Georgia runner who made a name for himself in Denver, something tells me Terrell Davis wouldn't mind.

Mike Nolan. Not since the Orange Crush in 1977 has Denver's defense put up numbers like this, allowing an NFL-best 43 points in five games. Nolan, as defensive coordinator, has installed Denver's new 3-4 alignment and put people in the right places, but his mid-game revisions have been equally important. Not only did the Broncos shut out New England and Tom Brady after halftime, the Patriots also were 0-for-6 on third downs in the final two quarters.

That's four consecutive games in which Denver's defense hasn't allowed a point after halftime, and three in a row when the Broncos' opponents have not converted a third down after intermission. (Dallas was 0-for-7; Oakland was 0-for-5.) Cincinnati's last-minute touchdown in the season opener still stands as the only time a Denver opponent has put points on the board beyond halftime.

That's not just good players making plays. It's a coordinator with the right schemes, knowing when to be more aggressive and when not to be.

Brian Dawkins and Vonnie Holliday. Dawkins, the safety who turned 36 on Tuesday, is in his 14th pro season. Holliday is 33, playing his 12th year as an NFL defensive lineman. But both are newcomers to Denver, and they bring the kind of on-field leadership, character and perseverance that the Broncos haven't had since their Super Bowl-winning teams of the late 1990s.

They're also making plays, such as Holliday knocking the ball loose from Brady to stop the Patriots at midfield late in regulation.

You see that leadership much more from the stands, because TV cameras are always bouncing elsewhere. But watching how those veterans are taking charge, you know that has something to do with the defense playing as well as it has.

No, the Broncos won't go 16-0. They probably won't win at San Diego, but they'll still be leading the AFC West going into their open date next week. And not just because of Josh McDaniels and Kyle Orton.

routon@csindy.com

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