As the Denver Broncos get ready to face the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday, there's no mistaking the fact that the team |(and QB Peyton Manning in particular) are off to one of the hottest starts in NFL history. They've scored 179 points over four wins (or 44.8 points per game), the most since the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970. On top of that, Manning has thrown for sixteen touchdowns, better than any quarterback through the first four games of a season -- ever. But beyond stats, what have we learned about this year's Broncos squad? Count down our top ten below. Number 10: Adam Gase is a perfect fit as new offensive coordinator
That Gase is one of the NFL's five youngest offensive coordinators should be more exciting than it is worrisome. An understudy of Mike Martz, who was the coordinator during the St. Louis Rams's 1999 Super Bowl-winning "Greatest Show on Turf" season, Gase is comfortable with the type of aggressive play-calling required to close out resilient opponents and win late-season games.
"You have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time," Gase told the Denver Post shortly after being promoted last January. "I'm excited. I'm thrilled to be able to have that opportunity. We're looking to go pedal to the metal, and play as fast as possible and be aggressive."
Now that's the spirit. It's about time this guy had his turn at being something other than a position coach.
Number 9: Champ Bailey is replaceable
I love Champ. You probably love him, too. Still, that doesn't mean he should be an automatic for starting cornerback once he's healthy enough to play.
After fourteen seasons as one of the best in the league, Champ finally showed signs of slowing down late last year. The degeneration of Bailey's ability was most apparent in his playoff match-up against Raven's wide receiver Torrey Smith, whose 98 yards and two touchdown receptions helped put an end to the Broncos' Super Bowl hopes.
Bailey's replacement, Chris Harris, has had as many interceptions (two) through three games as Champ did over fifteen games in 2012. Harris has also defended one-third as many passes, and it's barely October. It's unpleasant to admit, but the Broncos may be better off with Champ on the sidelines even after he's ready to play again.
It's easy to forget that the NFL Network's ninth-best player of 2013, Von Miller, is only 24 years old. But if there's one thing we learned this preseason, it's that Miller -- despite becoming one of the league's most dominant defensive players over the course of his first two years with the Broncos -- can't help acting his age.
Aside from the urine test debacle that cost Miller the first six games of this season, he's had a warrant issued for his arrest after failing to appear in court and been cited for driving on a suspended license.
Miller's current status as a member of the NFL's drug-testing program only raises the stakes for potential failure of future tests. One more mishap and he'll be suspended an entire year. As Broncos fans, the best we can do is hope that Miller's off-field maturity catches up to that which he's shown on Sundays.
Number 7: Matt Prater is Mr. Reliable
He may not be the team's most exciting player -- and so far he hasn't been needed to win any games -- but so far, Prater's field-goal success rate is 100 percent through the first four games , including two for two from beyond fifty yards.
Thanks to these performances, Prater has reminded fans why we shouldn't take him for granted. Just because the Broncos haven't dealt with any fourth-quarter nail-biters thus far doesn't mean they won't have to late in the season, when it matters most.
For a team that shows little weakness in any area, the Broncos pass defense is still their biggest soft spot. Of the 1,561 total yards allowed this season (compared with 1,232 through four games last year), 1,265, or 81 percent, have been through the air (compared with 72 percent from last year).
In what is quickly becoming a more pass-centric league, Denver will have to tighten its pass coverage in order to be considered a complete, well-balanced team. While the Broncos' rush defense -- currently ranked third-best in the league -- is surprisingly satisfactory, a focus on patching up holes in the secondary is necessary if the team hopes to succeed against skilled receivers like the Dallas Cowboy's Dez Bryant, the Kansas City Chief's Dwayne Bowe and New England Patriot's Danny Amendola.
Number 5: Peyton Manning does his homework
Earlier this week on ESPN's NFL Live, former center Jeff Saturday discussed Manning's weekly audible-preparation routine.
"He's got a different set of code words for each position group, codes that he teaches to the entire offensive unit every week," Saturday said. "He's got one for the receivers, one for the backs and one for the offensive line. He also changes the code words before each game, so opponents can't pick up on them or learn his system."
For every unorthodox formation a defense throws his way, Manning has an answer in the form of yet another carefully designed audible. The stats reflect this level of hyper-preparedness, too: Manning currently ranks first overall in completions, but his number of attempts don't even crack the top ten. He's thrown for 1,470 yards, sixteen touchdowns, and, most impressively, zero interceptions. With a 75 percent completion rate, it's no wonder ESPN's Trent Dilfer referred to Peyton as "some kind of Rain Man."
When Denver secures a comfortable lead, it's nearly impossible for opponents to play catch-up. That's why a strong start is so important for this Broncos team -- and will be particularly so during some of the tougher-looking contests down the road.
Through the first four games of the season, 60 percent of Denver's 179 total points have come in the second half. A considerable improvement over last year's 69 percent, it's still not enough to erase doubts that surround the team's slow-starting tendencies. Going into half-time of the Raiders' game with a twenty-point lead was a welcome relief.
Number 3: The Broncos' punter is getting lonely, and that's a good thing
The intensity with which the Broncos offense batters its opponents can be judged as roughly equivalent to punter Britton Colquitt's loneliness. And right now, he's very lonely.
While NFL teams have averaged 5.2 punts per game this season, Colquitt booted the ball just once during each of the team's past two games.
Only four games in, it's hard to tell who's for real and who's not in the NFL. The Patriots and Chiefs are undefeated, but their lack of depth opens room for doubt regarding how they'd stack up against the league's best. The Saints and Seahawks look formidable, but neither team is slated to play the Broncos in the regular season.
Whether analyzing a mountain of statistical data or conducting an eyeball test from the comfort of one's couch, it's hard to ignore the separation the Broncos have created thus far between themselves and the majority of the league. Their points-per-game average is more than a touchdown ahead of the undefeated Patriots of 2007 and the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings of 1998.
It's safe to say that Denver has a real chance of finishing the regular season without having suffered a single loss.
Number 1: The 2013 regular season is just a preseason for January
Sure, the Broncos could go 16-0 this year. Yes, they have potential to break every regular-season record currently in the books. Of course, Peyton just completed one of the finest months of quarterbacking this league has ever seen. But none of that matters if Denver ends up 16-1. Nothing can erase the pain of last January's bone-chilling loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Except, perhaps, another Lombardi Trophy.
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"When you lose that [Ravens] game the way they lost it," former Denver Pro-Bowler Brian Dawkins told ESPN, "there should be a fire burning within every one of these guys."
I couldn't agree more, especially because that same fire burns deep within me as a fan. And the Broncos' players are the only ones capable of putting it out.
More from our Sports archive: "Photos: Ten most unusual Denver Broncos tattoos, 2013 edition."