- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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DENVER -- Can we see a wild comeback in the AFC West?
Well, yes -- a wild comeback earlier this season is what led to such a drastic separation in the division standings heading into the final six weeks of the season. That one great comeback will likely be enough to put to rest any drama in the division race this season.
Heading into Thanksgiving, there is very little intrigue in this division. It is Denver’s to lose. The Broncos put a stranglehold on their second straight division title Sunday with a 30-23 win over the visiting San Diego Chargers in a game the Broncos controlled much more than the scoreboard indicated.
It was the fifth straight victory for Denver, which is now 7-3. San Diego is in second place, but it is 4-6 after losing its fifth game in the past six. Denver essentially has a four-game lead with six weeks left in the season because it swept San Diego and owns the tiebreaker.
The Broncos can clinch the division title as soon as Dec. 2. While Denver has seven wins, the three other teams in the division have a combined eight wins.
Still, Denver is not taking anything for granted. It knows firsthand (albeit under different administrations) that big leads can be blown. Denver had a three-game lead with three games to go in 2008 and blew the division. The team was 6-0 in 2009 before finishing 8-8 and out of the playoffs. The Broncos have talked about those blown leads often in the past couple of weeks. It will continue to be a topic until the division is officially clinched. Denver coach John Fox was not celebrating Sunday.
“In this league, you are two weeks from a disaster,” Fox said.
Fox’s tack is predictable and understandable. NFL teams can’t take their foot off the pedal, and they never know what the future has in store.
But this can’t be denied: Denver is, by far, the superior team in the division. It is playing at a high level and no one is showing signs of being able to do anything about it. The Chargers are out of sync on offense and quarterback Philip Rivers is just making too many mistakes to allow the team to play winning football. Oakland is 3-7 and has allowed 135 points in the past three weeks and the Chiefs are 1-9 and leading the race for the No. 1 pick in the draft.
This is Denver’s division to lose barring an unforeseen comeback. But, of course, it was a miracle comeback that spurred Denver’s season and put the Chargers in a tailspin.
On “Monday Night Football” in October, everything in the AFC West changed when the Broncos turned a 24-0 halftime deficit into a 35-24 win at San Diego. The Chargers were 3-2 and the Broncos were 2-3 going into the game. Had San Diego not allowed one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, it would have been in control of the division. Instead, the Broncos left San Diego that night tied for first place.
Neither team has been the same since.
Since halftime of Week 6, Denver has outscored its opponents 166-74. The Broncos are playing at a high level in every phase of the game. They look like a team that is preparing for a long January run.
Denver quarterback Peyton Manning (who threw for another 270 yards and three touchdown Sunday) is playing at an MVP level, and second-year linebacker Von Miller is becoming a serious NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He had three sacks and two forced fumbles Sunday and has 13 sacks on the season. The Broncos’ defense, which has made impressive progress in the past month, forced San Diego to miss its first 12 third-down attempts. The Broncos had a streak in which it held opponents to 0-for-26 on third downs over a span of three games.
“Denver is an outstanding football team,” San Diego coach Norv Turner said. “[It is] probably as complete a team as we’ve played in terms of all three phases.”
While Denver is clicking, Turner’s team is clinging to faint playoff hopes and thus, Turner is clinging to faint hopes of keeping his job. The problem is not San Diego’s defense. It is playing well. Offensively, though, the team is out of sorts. The Chargers had two first downs in the first half, and the only reason the Chargers were in the game was the defense scored the team’s first nine points.
Rivers threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. He has committed 43 turnovers since the start of last season, which leads the NFL. He had two other fumbles that San Diego recovered.
In fairness to Rivers, his offensive line is in shambles and his skill position players did little to help. But that’s what happens when a team falls out of the race. Players don’t respond. Nearly every player on the Denver roster is responding, which is another reason the AFC West is all but won.
1hField Yates and Rich Cimini