Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson
Power Rankings: Preseason: 27. This week: 7.
Where they stand: The last two games certainly take some of the shine away, but it has been a very successful first half of the season for Josh McDaniels’ team. The Broncos lead the AFC West by a game over heavy favorite San Diego, and the Broncos have been one of the stories of the league. However, the Broncos have not played well in their past two games, as they have been outscored by a combined 58-17 against top AFC competition in the form of Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Overall, the Broncos have been a success story, but there is reason for concern moving into the second half.
Disappointments: It has to be the last two weeks. In the first six games, Denver did little wrong in every phase. But since the bye, Denver has fallen apart, especially on offense. You would think the unit would continue to improve under McDaniels, but it has started to sputter. Quarterback Kyle Orton resembles the player he was in Chicago and not the MVP candidate of the early season. The running game is also struggling. The defense has not been as good as it was early in the season, but it hasn’t been as bad as the offense over the past two games.
Surprises: We have to start with the defense. Not much was expected from this unit going into the season. Denver’s defense had been bad for the past two-plus seasons and the front three (Denver has transitioned to a 3-4 defense under coordinator Mike Nolan) was very inexperienced. Yet, the unit has been very good for most of the season, setting the tone for the team. Orton deserves credit for his strong play during the first six games. He made people forget about the man he replaced, Jay Cutler, with his timely and careful game managing before his recent swoon.
Outlook: Not all is lost for this team, although the Broncos are staggering into the second half. Denver still is in control of the AFC West and has a terrific chance of making the playoffs for the first time in four years. The Broncos have games remaining against Washington, Kansas City (twice) and Oakland. If the Broncos can sweep those four games and split games against Indianapolis and Philadelphia on the road and the Giants and Chargers at home, they will go 12-4. San Diego would have to go 7-1 down the stretch to tie the Broncos. Denver has to focus on dispatching the Redskins this weekend and then sweeping the Chargers in Denver on Nov. 22. If that happens, the Broncos will be in fine shape again. Yes, there is reason for concern, but the season is far from lost.