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Truths Evident at Midway Point

Posted Oct 31, 2013

Analyst Andrew Mason explains what jumps out from the first eight games of 2013.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the season began, there were a few truths that appeared likely to remain so through the first eight games: Peyton Manning would throw touchdown passes by the bushel; the Broncos would have up-tempo capability, but wouldn't always move at warp speed; the AFC West would not be among the elite divisions.

Two out of three isn't bad, especially when the only one of those three that didn't come out as expected is the one that least revolves around the Broncos' performance.

Manning has been at least as prolific as expected, and hits the halfway point on pace for league records in touchdown passes and completions. That's the dominant storyline of not only the Broncos, but perhaps the entire league itself; that helps explain why seven of the Broncos' eight games to date have been in prime time and/or have featured a network's No. 1 broadcast crew, a trend that will continue after the bye, when Jim Nantz and Phil Simms call the Broncos-Chargers game for CBS.

SETTING THE PACE

It's not the fastest in the league in terms of the number of seconds of clock time required to run a play, but that's because the Broncos have fewer clock-stopping incompletions than anyone else who has thrown at least 280 passes, thus allowing seconds and minutes to continue draining away. Thus, the Broncos are the only team among the 10 to average at least one play every 27.0 seconds to have a completion percentage at or above 60 percent.

Nevertheless, the offense's search for ideal tempo is ongoing.

“I think since the beginning we’ve done a good job of mixing personnel, mixing the paces we go at," said wide receiver Eric Decker. "I think especially when we’re at home and we have the crowd to our advantage you can communicate a lot faster and move a lot faster. On the road, it gets a little bit harder but I still think we’ve done a good job of executing at a higher pace, and that’s something we’ll keep working at."
 
Denver's average through eight games is one play every 25.25 seconds. Last year, the team averaged one play every 27.54 seconds. As a result, the offense has averaged 4.50 more plays per game than it did last year, which would translate to 72 more snaps over the course of the season -- roughly an extra game's worth of work.

The Broncos lead the league with 72.625 offensive snaps per game. That's 7.375 plays above the league average, which translates to 118 more snaps over a full 16-game season than the average team receives.

This is how you involve four elite-level downfield targets and give them enough chances to flourish. Even if the Broncos' pass-play frequency drops in the same rate as it did in last year's second half -- last year, the Broncos passed 6.16 percent less often in the last eight games than the first eight -- then the Broncos would still run 672 pass plays, 63 more than they did in 2012.

The Broncos aren't passing at a ridiculous rate; with pass plays on 59.72 percent of their snaps, they are 18th in the league and just 0.50 percent above the league average. That's where pace comes back into play to making sure Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas continue to post substantial numbers.

“I’m sure it doesn’t hurt," Welker said. "The more plays we get, the more opportunities guys get.”

THE RACE TO COME

No division has a better collective record than the AFC West, whose members are a combined 22-8. Most of this is due to the Chiefs and Broncos, of course; they're a combined 15-1. But the third and fourth-place Chargers and Raiders are a collective 7-7. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then no division is better right now than the AFC West, as the Raiders are the best fourth-place team in the NFL by virtue of both record and point differential, and the third-place Chargers would be the No. 2 wild card if the season ended today.

The AFC West had the league's worst collective record last year; its members went 26-38, five games worse than the next divisions (the AFC East and South). Worse, the AFC West had not posted a collective winning record for its members since 2006.

But what does it mean going forward -- besides the obvious, a tough collection of games that includes the next four against foes that are a combined 26-5 (counting Kansas City twice for the two games the Broncos and Chiefs will play)?

First of all, it means accepting the Chiefs as a potent challenge to the Broncos' consecutive division titles. The pure strength-of-schedule argument for the Chiefs relative to the Broncos is close to null. Five of the teams' wins are against common opponents: Dallas, Philadelphia, Oakland, Jacksonville and the New York Giants, and only a game and a half separates their opponents' collective record (Denver: 22-38; Kansas City: 20-39). If you're going to impugn the quality of the Chiefs' foes, you must do the same with Denver's.

That brings us to point differential. The Broncos, with one loss, are at plus-125 for the season, which makes them one of 25 teams in the Super Bowl era (not including strike seasons) to hit this mark after eight games. Of the previous 24, 15 made the Super Bowl, and eight won it. Six of the eight 8-0 teams that were plus-125 or better after eight games made the Super Bowl, a percentage of 66.7. That drops a bit for the 7-1 teams that were plus-125 or better, like the Broncos are now; 56.3 percent of those teams won their conference (or league, in the case of Super Bowls I-IV).

Kansas City, meanwhile, has a lower point differential: plus-94. Teams that were 8-0 but were at less than plus-125 after eight games made the Super Bowl slightly less often than the 7-1 teams who were plus-125; for teams in the Chiefs' category, it's a 50-50 shot.

There will come a time when much more can be made of the matchups between these two contenders. But underestimate the Chiefs at your own peril: this is a legitimate championship contender in a deep division without a straggler. Virtually overnight, it's become a new division of teams led by adaptive coaches who play to their respective side's strengths. With half of the Broncos' AFC West games coming in the quarter of the season after the bye, it's the most important stretch of the regular season, and most likely to have the greatest impact on their postseason hopes.

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