We're eight weeks into the 2015 season, and one thing has become crystal clear as we look towards January and the looming anticipation of Super Bowl 50: the Denver Broncos defense is the only thing preventing the Patriots from reaching Santa Clara.
That's it. No one in the AFC East is going to challenge the Pats for the top spot between now and December. The Baltimore Ravens, New England's biggest nuisance the past few postseasons, are 2-6 and will need a miracle to climb back into the playoff picture. The Pittsburgh Steelers always seem to hang around, but after treading water without Ben Roethlisberger the last few weeks, they saw their All-Pro back in Le'Veon Bell lost for the season with a torn MCL on Sunday.
The Cincinnati Bengals are undefeated at 7-0, and QB Andy Dalton has shown some growth this season in coming up in big spots where he often crumbles, but you could play the game under water and the Patriots would still be heavily favored and likely huge winners against Dalton and Marvin Lewis. Until the Bengals prove they can hang when it matters most, they won't be taken as a legitimate threat.
And the AFC South? Please. Moving on.
That leaves the Denver Broncos, and more specifically, the Broncos defense. It is 100% legit, and it is the only thing (besides health) preventing Tom Brady and the Patriots from making their seventh trip to the Super Bowl in 15 years.
With Peyton Manning putting up pedestrian numbers out of the pocket, it's the defense that's driven Denver to a 7-0 record. Their latest showing came on Sunday night when they battered Aaron Rodgers and held him to a career-low 77 passing yards.
Denver's D ranks first in yards per game (261.1), passing yards allowed (171.9), yards per play (4.1) and sacks (29). They have playmakers at each level of the defense. The defensive line can get to the quarterback without help, the linebackers can blitz, run in space and cover, and the secondary can provide blanket coverage. Von Miller is a beast, and DeMarcus Ware is still playing at a high level. The two-man corner tandem of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. is the best 1-2 punch in the NFL, and throw in safety T.J. Ward and it might just be the best defensive backfield in the game.
With a unit like that, Manning doesn't have to throw for 250 or 300 yards and three touchdowns. He simply has to (incoming football cliche) manage the game, not make mistakes and let the defense suffocate the opposition and award him the ball back. The team can survive with Manning throwing a a bucket of interceptions and stalling out on drives because the other team isn't going to gain much traction the other way.
|"I'm about to throw another pick, aren't I?"|
Now, the Broncos have a few underlying issues when it comes to relying on a super-charged defense and a below-average offense. We all know of Talib's injury history, and if he goes down like he has in years prior, it would be a huge blow to their ability to cover. And for Manning, we've also seen that as the weather gets colder into December and January, his arm strength is lost almost entirely. If it gets to the point of where it was in last year's Divisional Round matchup against the Colts, it doesn't matter how good the defense is, the Broncos won't be able to survive.
And where Denver's defense is playing at an all-time level, so is New England's offense. Rob Gronkowski is the greatest force in football. The three-headed monster of Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola can all move the chains. Dion Lewis is a matchup nightmare out of the backfield. And Tom Brady is Tom Brady.
The Week 10 matchup in Denver on November 29 is shaping up to be the game of the year. It's very likely both teams will be 10-0 going into the game, and whoever comes out on top will have the inside track towards home-field in the playoffs.
The Patriots want the Title Game at Gillette. The Broncos want it at Mile High.
The Broncos defense will give Brady and Co. their most difficult challenge in 2015 without question. If the Patriots can conquer it, at least once and possibly twice, they'll be in San Francisco playing for back-to-back world titles.
It's that simple.