The Denver Broncos have arrived to the halfway point of their season with Super Bowl aspirations still in tow and having put their collective nose to the grindstone with a schedule unlike any of the league’s other front-runners.
The Broncos have wins over two division leaders in the Arizona Cardinals (7-1) and the Indianapolis Colts (5-3) to go with wins over the San Francisco 49ers (4-4), San Diego Chargers (5-4) and Kansas City Chiefs (5-3).
Of the Broncos' six victories, the only one that has come against a team with a losing record at the halfway point was the New York Jets. But the Broncos have also lost to the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots, meaning they are 1-2 on the road this season.
As linebacker Von Miller put it: "We been good, and we've been not as good, and we need to be better. That's where we're at: We need to be better, I need to be better, we all need to be better."
Midseason MVP: The Broncos have many, with Miller playing at the level of a Defensive Player of the Year candidate not named J.J. Watt to go with Chris Harris Jr., Demaryius Thomas and linebacker Brandon Marshall, who is the team’s leading tackler, filling in for the injured Danny Trevathan.
But in the end, you can’t get past what Peyton Manning is doing at age 38 -- a tough Sunday night against the Patriots notwithstanding. He has 24 touchdown passes after eight games and is on pace for his third season with at least 48 TD passes. He has a completion percentage of 67.3 and had five games with at least three touchdown passes.
Biggest disappointment: The Broncos have shown plenty of precision and explosiveness on offense to go with high-end team speed and aggressiveness on defense. But there are a couple of things that still need attention.
The team has had little impact in the return game on special teams, especially on punt returns, and has left some potential quality field position on the table. But the biggest question mark when it comes to how things will go in the biggest games is in the offensive line.
Opposing personnel executives say an offense that is among the league’s best and highest-scoring might not have a Pro Bowl selection up front. The Broncos have already made a switch at right tackle, guard Louis Vasquez, an All-Pro last season, is playing like he’s hurting (he’s had back and rib issues this year), while Orlando Franklin has battled hard, but the switch to guard might have been more difficult than the Broncos expected. The Broncos have surrendered two sacks to the Jets and one to the Patriots on three-man rushes.
Best moment: The Broncos have piled up some double-take plays on both sides of the ball, but only one sent the football to the Hall of Fame: an 8-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Thomas on Oct. 19. The pass gave Manning 509 career touchdown passes, surpassing Brett Favre's mark for career TD passes.
It was one of four touchdown passes Manning threw in the Broncos’ 42-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Manning achieved that piece of league history in his 246th career start, while Favre threw his 508 touchdown passes in 302 career starts.
Worst moment: On the second Broncos defensive play in the Oct. 12 game against the Jets, linebacker Trevathan suffered the second fracture in his left leg of the season.
Trevathan suffered what Broncos coach John Fox called “a crack," just above his left knee. It has been a star-crossed season for Trevathan, who was the Broncos’ leading tackler last season, since he suffered a crack at the top of his left tibia in a training camp practice Aug. 12.
Trevathan has returned to the practice field, on a limited basis, on the sixth week of his recovery. He returned in the fourth game of the season to play 55 of the defense’s 58 snaps in the 41-20 victory over the Cardinals.
Key to the second half: In the Super Bowl conversation for the third consecutive season, the Broncos have to find a way to walk the line between keeping their edge and maintaining at least some looseness.
This team has played tight at times in the past two postseasons, as it exited each without a title. It showed a little more of that big-game tightness in Sunday's loss to the Patriots when a Manning interception turned into a full-scale cave-in that resulted in a 24-point second quarter for New England. This Broncos team has more talent, top to bottom, than either of the previous two, so if they maintain their momentum and find a way to enjoy the ride, this season offers a quality chance at the title. But they can't keep making mistakes at the toughest times in the biggest games.