Broncos' less-visible factors 

You would think, after writing about the Denver Broncos for portions of four decades, one might be able to anticipate what's coming next.

You'd also think, after covering Denver's greatest years and some of the franchise's worst nightmares one might know by each November which way any given team might be headed.

Yet, obviously, experience in following the Broncos has no value whatsoever in analyzing this season.

Back on Nov. 6, after Denver's third straight loss (including two in a row at home) dropped the team to 4-4, my first impulse was to start preparing the Broncos' obituary for 2008 and to wonder if head coach Mike Shanahan might be tumbling toward an embarrassing exit. Instead, my decision was to stop short, saying simply that this Denver team "might not be fixable."

The only reason for that hesitation: San Diego, the defending AFC West champion and preseason favorite, had crashed out of the gate with an even worse start. But surely the Chargers would awaken at some point and reclaim the division, and the Broncos would slide out of playoff contention.

Instead, the opposite has happened. San Diego continued to self-destruct, and even after whipping Oakland last week, still stands 5-8. Denver, somehow, has won four out of five three on the road in moving to 8-5 and just one last step (another Denver win, a San Diego loss or a tie by either) from wrapping up the division title.

Some readers have enjoyed force-feeding me large servings of crow, along with such pleasant messages as "You're still an idiot" and "Go find a new job." Not one, though, has bragged about knowing in advance what this Denver team would do in any game.

How could the Broncos, after winning at Cleveland and Atlanta, endure a 31-10 spanking at home from Oakland, then punish the New York Jets, 34-17, at the Meadowlands? To be honest, I've watched the Denver media lately, hoping for some kind of explanation from someone covering the team every day. But there have been no revelations, other than some players feeling embarrassed after the Oakland game when injured cornerback Champ Bailey bluntly questioned the team's heart.

So, without help from more of an inside perspective, here are several ideas (not counting the obvious, which would be quarterback Jay Cutler) that might explain how the Broncos have surged from 4-4 to 8-5:

Offensive line. This has been a patchwork group from the start, shaped by injuries and newcomers. But rookie left tackle Ryan Clady has continued to improve, the overall pass protection has been much better, and the running game has slowly come along despite the loss of so many runners to injuries. (Peyton Hillis is only the latest to go on injured reserve; whatever happened to Mike Anderson?) Veteran center Casey Wiegmann also has appeared more comfortable in the offense.

Tight ends. This is a huge factor. During that slump, Denver was getting little, if any, production from its tight ends, normally a vital part of Shanahan's offenses. Over the past five games, Tony Scheffler has 17 catches for 255 yards and Daniel Graham has 13 receptions for 150 yards. That's a huge turnaround. And by the way, the tight ends' only off week in November came in that loss to Oakland, in which they totaled exactly one catch for 12 yards.

Overall defense. Yes, some linebackers, such as Nate Webster and D.J. Williams, are getting healthier now, and Bailey is coming back. But perhaps most importantly, first-year defensive coordinator Bob Slowik finally appears to have the linebackers and secondary on the same page. The pass rush still is lacking, and the run defense still can be far too porous. But shutting out Kansas City over the final 2 quarters Sunday was the latest positive sign.

Despite all that, don't be surprised if Denver loses this week at Carolina (the Panthers are 7-0 in Charlotte this season). But Buffalo comes to Invesco Field on Dec. 21, and the Bills are sinking fast. That same night, San Diego plays at Tampa Bay, a very difficult place to pull off a road victory.

No, the West isn't won yet. But the pressure is on the Chargers, not the Broncos.



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