(The Sports Xchange) – 2015 Denver Broncos (Record: 7-1, first in AFC West)

Remaining games:

Week 10 Sun, Nov 15 vs Kansas City

Week 11 Sun, Nov 22 @ Chicago

Week 12 Sun, Nov 29 vs New England (SNF)

Week 13 Sun, Dec 6 @ San Diego

Week 14 Sun, Dec 13 vs Oakland

Week 15 Sun, Dec 20 @ Pittsburgh

Week 16 Mon, Dec 28 vs Cincinnati (MNF)

Week 17 Sun, Jan 3 vs San Diego

KEYS TO SECOND-HALF SUCCESS:

The Broncos have managed with the league’s best defense on a per-game and a per-play basis generating takeaways and sacks whenever needed most. Its work was enough to overcome an inefficient offense that at one point went eight-plus quarters without a touchdown.

But the Week 9 loss to the Colts exposed some flaws in the plan. The defense generated the same type of pressure on Andrew Luck that it did on other quarterbacks, but Luck remained patient in the pocket and absorbed hits as he threw. He successfully found receivers open on short and intermediate routes.

Meanwhile, the offense couldn’t pick up the defense as it struggled. It was shut out during the first half and again was responsible for multiple turnovers. Peyton Manning leads the league in interceptions and threw two more; both were costly.

KEY PLAYER FOR SECOND HALF: Quarterback Peyton Manning.

Manning isn’t the same quarterback he once was. But he’s back on a 4,000-yard pace, and is completing the deep passes that eluded him early in the season. Now he must figure out how to avoid interceptions oAndrewn the mid-range routes that have plagued him. If he can do that, he might just have enough to go out on top.

MVP IN FIRST HALF: Cornerback Aqib Talib.

Talib’s two pick-sixes proved crucial to wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, and his aggressive play on the outside helped set the tone for the entire defense. Talib’s style can cross a line, however, and his poke in the eye of TE Dwayne Allen in Week 9 cost the Broncos any chance of a comeback and doomed them to their first loss.

OFFENSIVE ROOKIE IN FIRST HALF: Left tackle Ty Sambrailo.

Sambrailo was the season-opening starter and showed incremental progress in the first three weeks before he tore his labrum. He went on injured reserve last week after attempting to practice through the injury, but still appears to be the team’s long-term option at left tackle after a trade for Joe Thomas collapsed at the last minute before the Nov. 3 deadline.

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE IN FIRST HALF: Outside linebacker Shane Ray.

Ray has seen limited work, but posted two sacks and showed speed off the edge in a rotational role behind DeMarcus Ware. An MCL sprain suffered against the Browns has caused him to miss two games, and he appears likely to miss more time, but the Broncos appear to have another keeper in their stable of pass rushers.

BRONCOS MIDSEASON REPORT CARD

–PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus. Recent improvement in the downfield passing game has helped the offense become more efficient, and the Broncos now rank 12th in net passing yardage per game and 13th on a per-play basis. Peyton Manning has been sacked just six times in the last six games after being sacked seven in the firs two. But interceptions continue to sink one possession after another — particularly on short routes. If he can’t rediscover his accuracy, the Broncos’ title hopes could crash.

–RUN OFFENSE: D-plus. Hope arose in October as Ronnie Hillman posted two 100-yard games, which was followed by C.J. Anderson’s return to form against Green Bay, which was made possible by the fact that he finally returned to health. But the running game struggled to find any traction against Indianapolis, and the Broncos now rank 26th in average per rush.

–PASS DEFENSE: A. No defense has attacked quarterbacks with more ferocity than the Broncos, with 30 sacks — an average of one every 10.3 pass plays. Although DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller have been the ringleaders on the edge, the pass rush is all-encompassing, with 10 other Broncos notching at least a half-sack so far this season.

–RUSH DEFENSE: A minus. The Broncos had trouble with scrambling quarterbacks, and Andrew Luck became the latest to exploit them with 34 yards on six carries in Week 9. But the defense ranks fifth in the league against the run and has allowed just one 100-yard rusher this year (Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles).

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B plus. New coordinator Joe DeCamillis has turned one of the league’s worst units into one of its best. Brandon McManus has blossomed and missed just one placekick in the first eight games. Britton Colquitt took a pay cut in the preseason and fought off competition from Karl Schmitz and Spencer Lanning. He kept the job and has improved his net average to 40.0 yards — not great, but not bad, placing him 17th in the league. Omar Bolden brought some explosive potential to kickoff returns and showed he could handle punts, as well, with an 83-yard runback against the Colts.

–COACHING: B plus. Although Gary Kubiak has a system he prefers to execute, he’s had to go away from it to try and rouse the offense from its bouts of inconsistency, using more pistol and shotgun formations and going away from the under-center formations he’s often used. He’s also turned Wade Phillips loose, making the blitzing Broncos the league’s most aggressive defense.

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