Broncos thrive without Von Miller
Outside of a standout tight end's arrest on first-degree murder charges -- one of the most stunning offseason NFL developments ever -- the NFL's biggest summer story was Broncos linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy.
The Broncos have been impressive in their first two games -- a near NFL-record 90 points, an obscene nine touchdown passes from Peyton Manning, six interceptions of the last two Super Bowl MVPs. But this is Denver's most impressive feat: It has rendered Miller's six-game suspension virtually meaningless.
One of the NFL's best pass-rushers and top defensive players is banned for six games, and Denver hasn't missed him at all. The Broncos have beaten, handily, in back-to-back weeks, the last two Super Bowl champions, the Giants and Ravens. And now, even without Miller, the Broncos are well-positioned not only to win their division, but also to capture home-field advantage.
Check out Denver's next four Millerless games: Monday night against Oakland, Philadelphia, at Dallas, Jacksonville. It's hard to imagine Denver coming out of its six-game-Millerless stretch with anything worse than a 5-1 record. Then, once Miller returns to the lineup for an Oct. 20 game at Indianapolis, Denver can continue its dash to take care of last season's unfinished business.
Miller isn't the only player the Broncos haven't missed. Denver's Pro-Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, missed the first two games with a foot injury. Again, no matter. Chris Harris has filled in for Bailey and continued to make plays. Malik Jackson has helped relive Miller at defensive end while providing pressure on quarterbacks. Younger players have gained added experience.
But this team's strength is not defense, it's offense. A team that was good enough to secure home-field advantage in the AFC last season has added contributions from wide receiver Wes Welker, tight end Julius Thomas and running back Montee Ball. It's become the league's most explosive offense, on a near-record pace.
Now the Broncos will have to figure out a way to replace Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady, who's out for the season with a foot injury, with the same efficiency and productivity that they did with Miller and Bailey. Few doubt they can.
Denver's offense is so strong that the defense doesn't have to be dominant; it just has to keep up. So far it has. In beating the past two Super Bowl champions in back-to-back weeks, the Broncos have looked like a Super Bowl team themselves. At the same time, they have made one undeniable point clear.
Being Millerless should not be confused with being hopeless.
• St. Louis' Tavon Austin was the first wide receiver drafted in April, but Houston's DeAndre Hopkins is making the biggest impact so far. Through two games, Hopkins has 183 receiving yards, the most by a rookie at this time of year since Eddie Royal and DeSean Jackson in 2008. Hopkins has continued making the plays he made on a daily basis throughout training camp, when Houston knew it had connected on its first-round pick. Hopkins has been so impressive that Andre Johnson has told him that the rookie will be better than the veteran one day. While Johnson is nursing a concussion, the Texans might need that day to be Sunday, when Houston plays at Baltimore. Hopkins gives the Texans one more weapon who can benefit from the Texans' powerful ground game. The more Houston keeps running the football successfully, the more Hopkins will be set up to make catches off the play-action passes that are as acrobatic as they are dynamic. It's early in the season, but Hopkins is emerging as a favorite to win the NFL's offensive rookie of the year.
• Some players love the game so much they would play it for free. For the next two weeks, Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon will. When the NFL suspended Gordon in June for two games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, it also fined him two additional game checks. Thus, Gordon will be playing Cleveland's next two games, including his first one back this season Sunday against Minnesota, for free. But Gordon, who failed marijuana tests in college and violated the NFL's substance-abuse policy at least one other time before this suspension, now needs to be extra careful. Should he test positive again, Gordon would be facing a year-long banishment from the NFL.
The Schef's specialties
• Game of the week: Packers at Bengals -- Time to see whether the Bengals are ready to play with the league's elite.
• Upset of the week: Steelers over Bears -- As battered as they are, it's hard to imagine the Steelers falling to 0-3, at home, under the lights, on prime time.
• Player of the week: Giants QB Eli Manning -- If New York were consistent it would bench Manning the way it did running back David Wilson. But after throwing seven interceptions in the first two games, it's time for Manning to exploit the injured Panthers' secondary.