- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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DENVER -- In the world of 20/20, crystal-clear, told-you-so hindsight, it seems fitting the biggest headline, by far, of the Denver Broncos’ workweek in the days leading up to their game against the Washington Redskins had to do with one player who did not practice Wednesday.
Peyton Manning’s ankles were the story as Sunday’s kickoff approached, easily overshadowing Mike Shanahan’s first game as a visiting coach in Denver since the Broncos fired him following the 2008 season. And after a 31-point fourth quarter fueled 45-21 victory at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the Broncos limped into their bye week with a long list of battered players, a pile of staggering offensive numbers and seven wins.
Yes, here they are at the season’s halfway point with their 37-year-old quarterback’s highly scrutinized medical report in hand, a bruised offensive line, the second-best record in the NFL behind Kansas City's 8-0 and the prevailing wisdom that what they did in the first half was good, but that they will need more to power their way into the first weekend in February.
"I just look at it like, like on defense, we have too much talent in this room to be ranked at the bottom against the pass," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said. “We have confidence in who we are all around the locker room, we look around at Peyton and the offense and what we think we can do on defense, we can do a lot more. We know we can."
Start with Manning, whose every throw, wobble, tipped pass or interception is treated by many as an indictment of his current physical condition. His mere stepping aside in Wednesday’s practice, by protest he said, was cause for breaking news updates up and down the Front Range.
And however the ball came out, he finished with 354 yards passing and four touchdowns. It was his seventh 300-yard game of the season and the sixth time he threw at least three touchdown passes in a game. But he has also thrown six interceptions in the past four games, including three on Sunday, as the number of hits he has taken has gone up significantly behind an offensive line dealing with a variety of injuries.
Manning doesn’t figure to do much during two Broncos practices during the bye week, but he said Sunday he feels ready for the second-half push.
"I’m going to go down on the injury report, starting now, under 'body,' just keep me there, that’s what I’m going under," Manning said. "I actually felt pretty good out there, felt like I was moving around, felt like I was able to move in the pocket a little bit and see some things and felt good out there. The bye week is coming at a good time for a lot of people physically, me as well."
Overall, the Broncos have put up 343 points in eight games -- a league-leading 42.9 points per game -- and total that includes 40 offensive touchdowns. If the Broncos didn’t score another point for the remainder of 2013, this season would be 22nd on the team’s scoring list, outdistancing 33 others.
Yet, there are some worry lines -- shallow ones, but there nonetheless. After rampaging through the first month of the season, the Broncos needed a late interception to be in position to win in Dallas; were pushed hard, at home, by the winless Jaguars; got bullied a bit in a loss to the Colts; and Sunday were down 21-7 to the Redskins righting themselves.
And if you start the clock at a huge shot Manning took to the ribs against the Jaguars, he has seen the punishment increase each week as the Broncos try to hold things together up front. Left tackle Ryan Clady is already on injured reserve, and right tackle Orlando Franklin limped through Sunday’s game after being limited all week in practice. As a result, opposing rushers are starting to force turnovers. Manning has lost fumbles on sacks in back-to-back games and been harassed into interceptions as well.
And waiting in the season’s second half is the bulk of their division schedule; the Broncos have played just one AFC West game so far, a Week 3 win over the Raiders. On that division schedule are two games against the Chiefs, with the league’s No. 1 defense, one that is on pace to threaten the league’s single-season record for sacks.
Asked for his report card Sunday, Manning said: "I don’t really have one. Think we’ve had eight physical games we’ve got a tough second half of the season coming up."
The Broncos had two more players limp off Sunday and not return: safety Duke Ihenacho and tight end Julius Thomas. Cornerback Champ Bailey has played just one full game because of a left foot injury that had him on the sideline again Sunday.
Holding Robert Griffin III to 7 yards rushing and 139 total yards, to go with three sacks and four interceptions, made for the Broncos’ best defensive effort of a season when defense has rarely -- OK, never -- been the story on the field in the season's first half. Bailey’s injury affected the group, as did Von Miller’s suspension. But they haven’t shown their form, despite a depth chart they have repeatedly said is improved from 2012, when the Broncos were among the league leaders in all of the must-see defensive categories.
Still, just before Sunday’s game, Shanahan spoke of the Broncos’ speed on defense, and afterward he said, "People will find out Denver’s defense is better than people think they are they’re a better [defense] than they are statistically right now."
So, there it is. They’re 7-1, they score a lot, they like what they’ve done and they believe it can all be better in the coming weeks. That’s good, because it will have to be.
"We’ve been under fire," Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "And the thing is it shows if we put our mind to it, we can come out and dominate."
1dEric D. Williams
2dEric D. Williams