- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos reached the halfway mark of their season 7-1, happy with what they’ve done for the most part and still hoping there’s plenty more on the way.
"We’ve got to just to keep plugging away and keep finding ways to win games," Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker said.
But with eight games down and eight to go, the Broncos have already had some moments to remember, some they’d like to forget in all that’s been good, bad and in between.
First half MVP: Quarterback Peyton Manning, who is on pace to not just break most single-season passing records, but push the new marks into the places many believed they couldn't, or wouldn't, go.
Manning is either tied or leads the league in completions (237), yards passing (2,919), yards per attempt (8.8), passing touchdowns (29), total touchdowns (30) and passer rating (119.4). His touchdown total is just one off the record at a season’s halfway point -- Tom Brady’s 30 after eight games in 2007 -- and his yardage total is the highest ever after eight games.
Consider the 3,000-yard passing season was only born in 1960 -- Johnny Unitas threw for 3,099 yards in the NFL that year, the Broncos’ Frank Tripucka threw for 3,038 yards in the AFL’s inaugural season -- the fact Manning almost hit the milestone after eight games is staggering. He also sat out an entire quarter against the Eagles.
Best new addition, draft edition: The Broncos, if they really want to be good over the long haul rather than some all-in, one-and-done salary cap disaster, are always going to have to walk the line between trying to keep the roster young and the siren song of bringing in veteran players as one-year rentals.
The Broncos are still waiting for the impact they expected when they led their draft class with first-round pick Sylvester Williams and second-round pick Montee Ball, but cornerback Kayvon Webster has quickly risen to the head of April’s group.
Webster played more press coverage than most college defensive backs during his career at South Florida. And that has certainly helped his transition to the NFL game. He's shown speed, the willingness to play physical in the run game and is already a front-line special teams player. In all, he’s played 34 percent of the snaps on defense this season, with games like Dallas and Indianapolis where he played 85 and 72 percent of the snaps on defense, respectively.
"I’m not surprised," said cornerback Champ Bailey. "You knew right away he had that confidence, that he felt like he belonged, but that he also has done the work. He studied, he’s learned and that’s the difference."
Best new addition, free-agency edition: This is likely a tie between Welker and guard Louis Vasquez. Welker has already tied a single-season career-best with his nine touchdown catches over the first eight games and is already a Manning favorite when things get tight.
And as defensive backs have increasingly played the Broncos receivers with more of a physical edge, Welker has been the most proficient of the group in freeing himself to play the ball.
For his part, Broncos coach John Fox said Vasquez has played at a Pro Bowl level and there are plenty of personnel folks around the league who agree. He was the Broncos’ first target in free agency last March and he has shown why thus far, even moving to tackle when needed. Albeit he had somewhat mixed results on the outside, but his willingness to make the move and battle got the Broncos through a rough spot.
Best quote, opponents’ edition: "No, probably (Jim) Plunkett is probably the best. Go with that." Colts quarterback Andrew Luck when told his answer to the question if he was the best Stanford quarterback would be forwarded to John Elway, another former Stanford quarterback.
Best play: When a team has scored a league-leading 44 touchdowns overall, 40 of those on offense, there are plenty of highlights to be found. But comb through all of them and the surprise element is worth a look. Manning’s 1-yard touchdown run against the Cowboys -- he ran a bootleg after not telling anyone on the offense he planned to do it -- is the choice. It was Manning’s first rushing touchdown in five years or as he put it; "If you do it every five years, it’s a good tendency breaker."
Two biggest reasons to hang on to the worry beads: Start with the ability to protect Manning, especially in the team’s preferred three-wide set. Manning took far too much punishment in the three games before the bye and the best pass-rush teams the Broncos will face this season still remain on the schedule. Defensively, whether it be injuries or other reasons, the Broncos have only sporadically reached playoff level so far this season. Many folks in and around the league also believe linebacker Von Miller’s weight gain has not helped his play in his first two games back, that the added upper-body bulk has robbed him of some of the fast-twitch quickness off the ball and flexibility to bend that has made him a special pass-rusher in his first two seasons. The Broncos need that guy.
Two biggest reasons to believe: The offense has shown it can score on anybody, anywhere at any time. The Broncos are on pace to be the league’s first 600-point team, a pace they aren’t expected to hold, but add in their ability to score on special teams and you have a team whose lowest output this season was 33 points. Defensively, they have yet to play the 11 starters they expected to have in any game this season, whether it be because of injuries or Miller’s off-the-field troubles. The Broncos flashed their defensive potential against the Redskins just before the bye, and if they get that kind of effort in the games that really count in the coming weeks, they would be a significant title threat.
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1dEric D. Williams