DENVER (AP) – The Denver Broncos are running away with the AFC West again. Only, this time, they’re doing it with takeaways, not touchdowns.
Denver’s defense is carrying Peyton Manning, who’s still trying to find a comfort level with new coach Gary Kubiak. Thanks to some great support and clutch drives, the Broncos are 7-1 despite his league-high 13 interceptions.
The rest of the division is topsy-turvy.
There’s a Raiders Renaissance going on in Oakland (4-4) led by Jack Del Rio, Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and the ageless Charles Woodson that has the Black Hole talking – gulp! – playoffs.
The Chiefs (3-5) are trying to bounce back after losing their leader, Jamaal Charles, to a season-ending knee injury, and the collapsing Chargers (2-7) are talking about playing for pride – and wondering where they’ll call home next year.
Only a poke in the eye prevented the Broncos from getting the chance to pull off even more last-minute magic last weekend at Indianapolis and keep up with the unbeaten Bengals and Patriots, two teams that will visit Denver later this season.
The Broncos lost to the Colts 27-24 after losing their cool in the closing minutes, keeping Manning on the sideline where he never got the chance to eclipse two of the NFL’s most hallowed records: most passing yards and most victories by a QB, marks held by Brett Favre.
Poking Colts tight end Dwayne Allen in his right eye also cost cornerback Aqib Talib a one-game suspension and a $323,529 paycheck. He’s the third Denver defender to get suspended this season, joining Derek Wolfe and T.J. Ward.
Here are things to know about the AFC West for the second half of the season:
BRONCOS BULLIES: Denver’s dominant defense leads the NFL in several categories including sacks (30), total yards, passing yards and points. They also lead the league with 17 personal fouls.
“I’m very concerned,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “Statistically, we have the No. 1 defense in football, but we’re also the most penalized. We’ve got a great thing going on. We’ve got something that needs to get corrected. We have to find a way in the second half of the season to turn that around.”
RAIDERS REBIRTH: Woodson is tired of being the perennial underdog in Oakland, where the Raiders haven’t had a winning season or made the playoffs since 2002.
“I want to be expected to win games,” Woodson said. “I want these guys to go out there and be expected to win games. Yeah, it’s a little premature to be thinking that far ahead, playoff-wise, but there’s no reason you can’t think of yourself as. a playoff team.”
CHIEFS RECHARGE: Back-to-back impressive wins over the Steelers and Lions by double digits have the Chiefs believing they’ve finally gotten over their hangover from their Denver debacle two months ago. The Broncos sent the Chiefs’ season spiraling perilously out of control by scoring twice in a span of 27 seconds in the closing minute for a 31-24 victory in Kansas City.
Charcandrick West has replaced Charles and he’s rushed for two TDs and a 4.6-yard average on 63 carries.
CHARGERS COLLAPSE: San Diego has dropped five straight, the longest losing streak of Mike McCoy’s three-year tenure, leading Philip Rivers to say, “At this point, I think you play for respect … of the other guys in the locker room.”
Playing for pride and not the playoffs is a new notion for the Chargers.
“This is a very uncommon situation for us to be sitting at 2-7,” Antonio Gates said. “I think your character normally shows up when you’re in a situation like this.”
HIGH FIVE: The Broncos have built a big enough cushion in the division they’ve owned since Tim Tebow was under center that they should cruise to their fifth straight title. But will they get home-field advantage in the postseason? A first-round bye? Will it matter?
Kubiak has given Manning most Wednesdays off to keep him fresh down the stretch, but that has come at a price: Manning’s in the midst of his worst season since his rookie year.
The five-time MVP is a creature of habit who hates taking any snaps off at practice because he’s a rhythm QB who likes as much work as possible, especially post-neck surgery, which left him without some feeling in the fingertips of his throwing hand.
His receivers have dropped 17 passes, a sign that they’re not always in sync.
“Some of those plays would have been great plays, but we wouldn’t have won seven games if we didn’t make great plays,” Kubiak said. “We expect to make great plays, too, not just the average plays.”
Predicted order of finish: Broncos, Raiders, Chiefs, Chargers.
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
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