Broncos, Bengals, Saints are for real

BY foxsports • October 17, 2009

The 2008 version of the Denver Broncos lost their final three games, blew the AFC West title, and got their longtime coach canned. Last year's New Orleans Saints were wonderful to behold when they had the ball, hideous to watch on defense. And the '08 Cincinnati Bengals were like most previous incarnations: an also-ran almost from the get-go. Now, meet three true contenders for playoff berths. And maybe even success in January. Yep, the Broncos, Saints and Bengals are no flukes. They have one loss among them - when Cincinnati fell to Denver on a tipped pass for a TD in the dying seconds of the opener. "It's a different team, mindset and players," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said. "It's a more mature group. We play with a lot of fire and energy - not necessarily calm, but more professional and mature." So how did this happen so quickly? Let's look. Broncos The AFC West race was perceived as a runaway entering the season - with San Diego doing the romping. Denver? Too much turmoil. It started with a coaching change that saw the departure of Mike Shanahan, the only man to win Super Bowls in the Mile High City, and the arrival of untested Josh McDaniels. McDaniels then got off to a rocky start when he inquired about trading for former pupil Matt Cassel, who guided the Tom Brady-less Patriots to an 11-5 mark in 2008 when McDaniels was New England's offensive coordinator. That so ticked off incumbent Jay Cutler, Denver's best QB since some guy named Elway, that he forced a trade. Then there was a defense that was plain offensive, and not in a good way. And now the Broncos are 5-0, with impressive wins against Dallas and New England the last two weeks. The rebuilt defense, under new coordinator Mike Nolan, ranks second overall and has allowed 43 points. Next lowest is Atlanta at 63, and the Falcons have played one fewer game. "One thing about this locker room, we've got a bunch of guys who believe," star cornerback Champ Bailey said. "When you've got that kind of attitude, anything can happen." Wisely, McDaniels and Nolan rebuilt the secondary, keeping Bailey as the anchor. They've turned loose linebacker Elvis Dumervil and his eight sacks lead the league. Their deep rotation on the line has kept people fresh, and it's made Broncos' D dynamic in the second half. Denver leads the AFC with 12 takeaways. The offense, often spectacular but also inconsistent with Cutler, has been efficient under Kyle Orton. He's thrown for seven TDs and been picked only once, and the running game has been solid. Then there's the emotion the 33-year-old McDaniels brings to the job. He might be a Bill Belichick disciple, but you'll never see Belichick scampering over to the stands to salute the fans, or rushing around the field hugging players. "We work too hard not to enjoy the wins," McDaniels said. "We work too hard to try to minimize any success we might have on the weekend." They could be enjoying a lot more successful weekends this year. Bengals The AFC North has turned powerful thanks to Cincinnati's revival. Well, revival might not be quite correct because the Bengals have had all of one winning season since 1990. Criticism of the team's front office has been a theme in Cincy since Mike Brown replaced his father, Hall of Famer Paul Brown, at the top. When Brown stuck with Marvin Lewis as coach, it was considered a bottom-line decision: Brown refusing to eat a contract. Yet Brown's patience seems to be paying off. Lewis, a defensive mastermind who was at the core of the Baltimore unit that catapulted the Ravens to the 2000 championship, has put together an aggressive, big-play group that is relatively young. That defense has forced the strong attacks of Pittsburgh and Baltimore to falter later in games, and that has been decisive. When healthy, Palmer is among the league's best quarterbacks, just below the Brady-Manning-Roethlisberger level. In Cedric Benson, the Bengals have a workhorse running back to complement the passing game, and an offensive line expected to be a sieve has been staunch. Having proven they can compete with - and beat - the big boys of the division, the Bengals also have games with Oakland, Cleveland, Detroit and Kansas City remaining. If they don't get to 10 wins, it might be as stunning as the 4-1 record they currently own. SaintsDrew Brees was the NFL Offensive Player of the Year last season, and his collection of helpers has improved in 2009. So we know the Saints can score, whether Brees is throwing to Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Reggie Bush and, for once, a healthy Jeremy Shockey. They have a deep backfield, even with longtime star Deuce McAllister exiled. But what's new in Nawlins is a fast, physical and, at times, intimidating defense under coordinator Gregg Williams, who is doing exactly what coach Sean Payton hired him to accomplish. Payton and Williams shored up the secondary with big-play safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Jabari Greer as free agent signings, and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins in the first round of the draft. Sharper and top-notch linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who like Shockey is a difference maker when healthy, provides veteran leadership, too. The Saints have been good recently, going to the 2006 conference championship game. They have 16 players still around from that squad. And they have faith. "I would argue the past two years we had more talent than in '06, we just got off to bad starts," linebacker Scott Shanle said. "When you start tracking up a couple of wins back to back, it's amazing in this league what it does confidence-wise. ... When it comes time in the game that either team can make a play to change the outcome of the game, we're doing it." Expect them to continue doing it. ---



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