NFL Nation: Dmearyius Thomas

Peton ManningChris Humphreys/US PresswireThe Broncos, led by Peyton Manning, have clinched the AFC West for a second straight season.

DENVER -- This is why the Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning.

They want to storm into the playoffs.

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."
Melvin Ingram's hit on Drew Brees on Sunday night cost the San Diego Chargers.

On Friday, it cost Ingram. The NFL said it fined the rookie pass-rusher $15,750 for roughing the passer. He struck Brees in the head and neck area.

Ingram was penalized 15 yards on a play that wiped out an interception return for a touchdown that would have given the Chargers a 31-14 lead over the Saints in the second half. The Saints caught fire after the penalty and rallied to win, 31-24.

In other AFC West news:

Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel said Friday that safety Kendrick Lewis will play for the first time this season Sunday at Tampa Bay. He injured his shoulder in the preseason. Receiver Jon Baldwin (hamstring) is questionable. As expected, running back Peyton Hillis (ankle) and defensive end Glenn Dorsey (calf) will not play Sunday. They could return Oct. 28 at home against Oakland. The Chiefs have a bye next week.

Denver left tackle Ryan Clady tweaked his hamstring this week and he did not practice Thursday. He will be monitored going into Monday night’s game at San Diego. Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas (hip) and linebacker Keith Brooking (concussion) practiced fully Friday after they were both limited Thursday.

For San Diego, left tackle Jared Gaither (groin) did not practice for the second straight day with a groin injury. Receiver Eddie Royal (hamstring) did not practice Friday after being limited Thursday and receiver Malcom Floyd (groin) was limited.

For Oakland, tight end Richard Gordon (hamstring) has been ruled out of the game at Atlanta on Sunday and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (foot) is questionable.
The Denver Broncos received a dose of good news, according to general manager Brian Xanders.

He told media members Saturday that injured 2010 first-round pick Demaryius Thomas has been cleared to practice. Thomas ruptured his Achilles in February. This summer, Denver football leader John Elway said he thought Thomas would miss at least half the 2011 season.

“He’s cleared to practice; he’s ready to go,” Xanders said of Thomas. “We’re excited about him … DeMaryius worked really hard to get back, so he’ll be on the 53 [-man roster].”

Xanders declined to put a timeline as to when Thomas will be ready to play.

“Our coaches are obviously going to monitor him,” Xanders said. “He’s going to be running scout team cards eventually in full pads, and we’ll see how he is. We’ve got to get him in shape leg-wise, quadriceps, hamstrings and all of that has to be working well. We’ll see how he does. Hopefully it’s sooner than later.”

Getting Thomas back will be huge for Denver. He showed great flashes last season when he was healthy. He has a chance to be a good player if he can keep healthy.