ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The Denver Broncos are in contention at the halfway point of the season thanks to a middling AFC West and a return to health.
In their 38-24 win at Oakland on Sunday, the Broncos got key contributions from four players who had been sidelined for a combined nine games earlier this season: Eddie Royal, Willis McGahee, Elvis Dumervil and Champ Bailey.
Royal, who missed three games with a strained groin, caught his first touchdown pass of the year and returned his first punt 85 yards for another score.
McGahee returned from a one-week absence and ran for 163 yards and two TDs less than 10 days after undergoing surgery on his broken right hand.
Dumervil, dogged by a bum shoulder and high right ankle sprain, picked up his first sacks since 2009 and Bailey, who had been bothered by a hamstring injury, picked off his first two passes.
The foursome’s return to health is giving the Broncos hope they can make a second-half run and end their five-year playoff drought.
“I don’t know what it is,” Royal said, “but I’m happy it’s coming along right now at the right moment, and we just need to keep it going, stay focused and come out and get a win against Kansas City. We’ll see where we’re at after that.”
The Broncos’ win gives them a 3-5 mark, just a game back of the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers, and they’re 2-1 since the unpolished but oddly effective Tim Tebow supplanted Kyle Orton at quarterback.
Tebow has yet to complete even half of his passes in any of his starts, but his frozen-rope TD tosses to Royal and Eric Decker on Sunday showed he’s making progress as a passer.
“The touchdowns kind of stick out in my mind,” coach John Fox said. “All in all, I think he progressed. I think, by far, it was his best game to date.”
Tebow, who ran the read-option for 117 yards, also was sacked just twice Sunday after going down 13 times in his first two starts — a comeback win at Miami and a mauling by the Detroit Lions.
“Tim understood better where to go with the ball faster,” Fox said. “I think the threat of the run we kept alive for four quarters, which I didn’t think was the case two weeks ago. Being down 24-3 against a very good defense two weeks ago isn’t an envied position, I don’t care who the quarterback is or the offensive line is.”
When the Broncos stormed back from a 10-point deficit in the second half, Dumervil and rookie Von Miller were able to finally unleash their 1-2 punch that Miller has dubbed “Batman and Robin.”
With Miller coming through the middle rather than around the edge and Dumervil finally playing like he did two years ago, the duo shared a sack and got to Carson Palmer five times combined.
“It was good to get Bruce Wayne back,” Miller said. “It was kind of weird. I was getting ready to get a sack, and I had slipped for a second, and Elvis got the sack. I wasn’t expecting it because he had been hampered with all these injuries, but it felt great to get Elvis back.
“He’s still the same guy that we had in practice; he’s still the same guy we had in two-a-days, and it feels like he’s coming into a little rhythm. Sacks, they just don’t come one at a time; they come in bunches. Hopefully this week Elvis can get three or four.”
Just three weeks ago, the Broncos were stumbling at 1-4 and in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. Now, they’re talking about how lucky they are to be in contention.
“I was telling the guys it’s crazy because if we were in the AFC North, none of this would be going on and we wouldn’t be having a discussion about being one game out,” McGahee said. “The thing about it is, we’re in the AFC West, and the tables can turn either way.”
The road ahead is a rough one, though. They play three of their next four on the road with a home game against the New York Jets and then finish up against Chicago, New England, Buffalo and Kansas City.
“It beats the alternative, and we’ve kind of fought our way back into it,” Fox said. “We’re not exactly where we want to be. We’re halfway through the season at this point, and we still have a whole half left, so much like a game, it’s important how you finish.”
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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