By EDDIE PELLS
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Before the season begins, almost every team puts these words near the top of a long list of goals: “Win the division.”
That’s all but a foregone conclusion in Denver, though when the Broncos wrap up the AFC West, there won’t be much of a celebration. They didn’t bring Peyton Manning to town just to win division titles and, given their six-game winning streak and the soft schedule ahead, this is a team that has every right to be thinking about bigger goals.
“Our goals are still alive … and that is, win our division and get into the tournament,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “That’s still our goal, and to us, the best formula is one game at a time and put all our focus and energy into that particular opponent. You guys can keep asking and I keep telling you the same thing, but that’s the truth.”
A win over the Buccaneers (6-5) on Sunday or a San Diego loss to Cincinnati will wrap up the division for Denver (8-3), but the real race for the Broncos involves the rest of the AFC division leaders.
The Broncos have lost to two of them — Houston (10-1) and New England (8-3) — and have a Dec. 16 meeting against Baltimore (9-2).
A key advantage for Denver against the rest of those teams is the strength of their remaining schedules. Even with Baltimore and the Buccaneers, Denver’s remaining opponents have a .400 winning percentage, easiest schedule of any team still in the playoff hunt. Houston’s last five opponents are a cumulative .582. The Patriots’ are .555 and the Ravens’ are .582.
All of which means the No. 1 or 2 seed and a first-round bye remain very realistic possibilities for the Broncos.
Their thoughts on that?
Well, not much.
“What’s important for us is to play better and try to win this game,” Manning said, sticking to the rather dull, rather consistent party line pounded home by Fox at the start of pretty much every week. “That’s all we’re focusing on.”
Since Manning brought it up, there is, in fact, plenty for the Broncos offense to work on.
Odd as it may seem for an offense ranked fourth in the league and averaging nearly 29 points a game, Manning and Co. have not looked sharp for an entire game since their 34-14 victory over New Orleans, on Oct. 28.
Denver’s first three drives in last week’s 17-9 victory over Kansas City resulted in a punt, a missed field goal and an interception. The Broncos didn’t score until 18 seconds were left in the first half.
In the 30-23 win over San Diego the week before, Manning threw an interception that got returned for a touchdown and also got sacked for a safety. The Broncos settled for a field goal after getting a turnover at the San Diego 8.
Hovering over it all: Turnovers. Denver has committed at least one in its past 18 games, dating to the 11th game of last season, and have lost 13 fumbles this year, third most in the league.
Asked about the deficiencies in his postgame news conferences, Manning tends to bristle a little, stating, correctly, that any win in the NFL is a pretty one.
He also concedes there’s a benefit to winning ugly — namely, that the good feeling of getting a ‘W’ is tempered by the reality that there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“The coaches challenge us to improve and we have the kind of players to challenge each other to improve and get better,” Manning said. “You’re always trying to play that perfect game. Whether you can or you can’t, you still strive for that. We still feel like we can improve as a team and we need to improve.”
As for what seems like the inevitable milestone of winning the division, not all the Broncos will completely overlook it.
“It’s great for me,” said safety Mike Adams, who spent his first eight seasons with San Francisco and Cleveland and has been on only one team that finished with a winning record. “I’ve never been to the playoffs before.”
Dozens of the other Broncos have.
Last year, Denver lost its last three regular-season games, finished 8-8 and backed into the playoffs after getting help from several other teams. The Broncos won their first playoff game, then lost 45-10 to New England in the divisional round.
“It’s a celebration, same as if you get a ‘W,’” defensive end Elvis Dumervil said of the division title. “But not much beyond that. Because we did that last year and didn’t get much from it. It gives you the right to get in the playoffs. That’s an accomplishment. But clearly, there’s more football after that.”