Peyton Manning and the Broncos, who extended their winning streak to eight games Thursday night against the Raiders, haven’t lost since they played the Patriots in Foxborough in Week Five, a 31-21 defeat that started as a 31-7 deficit. Two weeks earlier, Denver suffered its only home loss of the season to the Texans, falling 31-25 after spotting Houston a 31-11 lead. And just a week before that, Denver fell in Atlanta 27-21 on Monday night after surrendering the first 20 points of the game.
Few would disagree that the Broncos have improved steadily since their 2-3 start that included losses to perhaps the league’s three best teams. But how much better are today’s Broncos than the team that fell behind early and couldn’t rally against Super Bowl-contending squads?
In the time since, the Broncos have dispatched talented underachievers such as San Diego and New Orleans, and they’ve taken down peripheral playoff contenders like the Bengals and Buccaneers without much of a hiccup. But these victories haven’t really taught us much about how Manning and Co. would handle a true contender if they were to encounter one today.
Week 15’s trip to Baltimore should be the Broncos’ closest thing to a mid-term exam before the playoffs, playing in a place where they’ve never beaten the Ravens, losing five contests (including playoffs) by an average margin of 17.2 points. But would a breakthrough victory on the Ravens’ turf really speak volumes about the Broncos after Charlie Batch (just days before his 38th birthday) and a wounded Steelers squad managed a victory there last week?
It’s not Denver’s fault that its three toughest opponents were front-loaded on the docket, but it sure makes it tougher to gauge how dangerous Manning’s team might be come January. No team goes on an eight-game winning streak by accident, and the Broncos’ defense and pass game have really been humming since early lapses, but the team still has holes.
For one thing, the turnover issues that plagued their three losses (minus-5 in those games) haven’t completely subsided. They have yet to go turnover-less in any of their 13 games and have coughed it up at least twice in six of those games. Denver (minus-2) is one of only three teams with a winning record who have a negative turnover ratio, joining the Steelers (minus-11 and Colts (minus-16), and is tied for third-most in the NFL with 13 lost fumbles. Considering rematches with New England (plus-24) and/or Houston (plus-14) could arise just a month from now, hanging onto the football is still a major concern.
Which is why, contrary to Manning’s history with the Colts, Denver shouldn’t rest its starters down the stretch. Yes, you can bet John Fox is planning on fighting for a first-round bye, but even if the Broncos get locked into a playoff slot with a week or two remaining, he shouldn’t take his foot off the gas.
After last year’s Tim Tebow experiment, Fox should know, perhaps better than anyone, the value of using every possible opportunity to improve in a game situation. And it’s hard to remember another team that relied more on midseason development than this year’s Broncos squad, which has waited on Manning’s arm to return to full strength (which it may never do) and on developing chemistry between Manning and his receivers.
Next week’s clash with the Ravens might give us a glimpse of the daily improvement about which Manning and Fox constantly preach. But we still won’t have any idea what might happen if and when the Broncos clash with AFC heavyweights down the road. In any case, if Denver wants to continue its weekly improvement, playing its starters through Week 17 should go a long way.