DENVER — For all the cruddy football that helped turn the AFC West into a one-horse race, there is one matchup we should petition the NFL to see.
"Our offense against our defense?” cornerback Chris Harris said in the Denver locker room after Sunday’s 31-23 win against Tampa Bay.
That's the one. Line ’em up: Von Miller vs. Ryan Clady, Peyton Manning vs. Wesley Woodyard and those savvy linebackers, Champ vs. Demaryius Thomas.
The AFC West's best offense vs. the AFC West's best defense.
The rest of the division — go ahead and call it Denver’s Division for as long as Manning wears a Broncos uniform — can buy a ticket and take notes on how it's done.
"I think it would definitely be a battle,” Harris said, his eyes lighting up, giving some credibility to my question.
“With Peyton, it would be kind of hard going against a quarterback that knows everything we'd be running. But it would be interesting. In practice, we have our good plays and they have their good plays."
We’ve known since the comeback in San Diego that Denver is the class of the AFC West. Second-best isn't clear, or close. The Broncos clinched consecutive division titles for the first time since 1986-87. Both of those teams advanced to the Super Bowl.
What we don't know is whether these high-scoring (on offense), hard-hitting (on defense) Broncos should be known for offense or defense. There's only one way to settle it.
"That's just the definition of a good team,” Champ Bailey said.
Who else can boast of this balance? Brian Burke is a stats guru who runs the website AdvancedNFLstats.com. He said the Broncos have ranked in the top three of his efficiency ratings — accounting for offense and defense — since Week 3.
Denver’s rank entering Sunday: No. 1. No team has been more balanced.
Denver’s offense in the first half Sunday sputtered like an ol’ pickup that didn’t visit John Elway’s dealership for a timely oil change. The Broncos had almost as many penalties (six) as points (seven). So the defense and special teams stuffed the Buccaneers until Manning’s offense kicked into gear like a runaway semi.
Manning hit Thomas for a touchdown.
“We’ve been on the same page and it’s showing on the field,” Thomas said.
Manning hit Thomas for another touchdown. Perhaps worried the offense was outplaying his defense, linebacker Von Miller followed with a touchdown on an interception.
Denver’s 10-7 deficit ballooned to a 28-10 lead and further confused the answer to this question: Is Denver better on offense or on defense?
Truth is, the Broncos defense has been more reliable than the offense. That's not something imagined when Manning signed as a free agent on March 20.
“Coach (John) Fox has preached to us all year he wants us to be playing our best football in December,” said Manning.
This seven-game winning streak is the NFL’s longest. Since 1998, it is Denver’s longest.
"I feel like we've scratched the surface of the team we know we can be,” Miller said.
Denver has so much balance it turns defensive linemen into offensive options. One Bronco made a tackle on defense and scored a touchdown on offense.
“I’ve never had a touchdown catch in my life,” defensive tackle Mitch Unrein said after scoring his first, from Manning, in the first quarter.
“I have two left feet, as they say,” the lineman from Eaton added.
Denver’s best foot going forward might be its offense. Or it might be its defense. Special teams, which put three punts inside the 10-yard line and has Trindon Holliday inching toward another touchdown return, might be the correct answer.
The only way to know for certain: Line 'em up.
Paul Klee is the Denver sports columnist for The Gazette. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter (@Klee_Gazette).
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