Sunday, the Broncos clinched the AFC West championship for the second straight season. It is the first time since the 1986-87 seasons that Denver has won back-to-back division crowns.
But this division championship feels so much different than the 2011 title. The Broncos didn’t celebrate much after either title. But it was for different reasons.
This year, they have bigger designs than simply winning the AFC West. In fact, Denver coach John Fox -- who is 2-for-2 in division championships in his Denver tenure -- said the team didn’t dwell on clinching the AFC West title after a 31-23 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday because it has bigger goals.
“This is step one,” Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil said. “There’s more.”
This Denver team, led by the brilliant Manning, has to be considered a Super Bowl contender. That’s exactly why the Broncos made such a hard push for Manning last year despite being led to the playoffs by Tim Tebow.
The Broncos knew last year’s playoff experience was a lark and it would be difficult to duplicate unless a major change was made at the central position of the team.
Last year, Tebow and the Broncos backed into the playoffs with three straight losses. This year, Manning and crew made sure there would be no late-season breath holding. The Broncos continued their stunning run by thumping a solid Tampa Bay team that made the final score look interesting with some late points.
The Broncos showed they were all business in the third quarter when they turned a 10-7 halftime deficit into a 28-10 blowout just more than 11 minutes into the second half. Manning threw two touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas (who is becoming a big league weapon), and linebacker Von Miller (who is a serious NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate) had an interception return for a touchdown.
Denver has now won seven straight games after starting 2-3. It is the longest current winning streak in the NFL. Denver has not lost since coming back from a 24-0 halftime deficit at San Diego to win 35-24 in Week 6. The seven-game winning streak is the longest in Denver since the 1997-98 seasons. Of course, those were the franchise’s two Super Bowl-winning seasons.
Make no mistake, the Broncos are going to try to add a third world championship this season.
With the division wrapped with four games to go, don’t expect Denver to relax. The Broncos are tied with Baltimore and New England at 9-3 for the second-best record in the AFC behind 11-1 Houston. The Broncos, Ravens and Patriots will all be vying for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.
Thus, there were no celebrations Sunday. The Broncos remained focused.
“Coach Fox has preached all along that he wants us to be playing our best football in the month of December and on,” Manning said. “We are guaranteed a playoff spot, and that's all [the division title] means. But hopefully we can keep getting better.”
There is no doubt Denver is playing some of the best football in the NFL after the first Sunday in December. Teams don’t win seven consecutive games in the NFL by accident.
A win over Tampa Bay is impressive. The Buccaneers have a lot of weapons and are a good team in the NFC, which is the stronger conference.
Yes, Denver struggled some in the first half. But it corrected its problems and started to take the game over late in the second quarter. That’s what good teams do. They adjust and then overpower the opponent.
The third quarter was a microcosm of what these Broncos are: Big plays on offense and a dominant, timely defense have carried this team. That will be the formula for the rest of the season.
However, Denver is not a team without flaws. It does have some concerns. It has started slowly the past two games, repeating an early-season trend. The run game is decent but not great without the injured Willis McGahee, and kicker Matt Prater has missed five field goal attempts in the past four games.
But those are correctable flaws as Denver tries to stay hot down the stretch. Fox hopes this is just the beginning of a long run now that the West has been won.
“Everybody is looking for that world championship,” Fox said. “We still have a whole quarter of the season left. We’ll see what happens."