ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Two stories stand tallest of all for the Broncos this week.
The first is the surgery Von Miller underwent Tuesday to repair torn ligaments in his thumb; he has yet to practice this week, but will be re-evaluated before Friday.
The second is the one that will stand whether Miller plays or not: how will the Broncos handle the role of being the hunted, rather than the hunter?
They haven’t been in this situation since Week 15 of the 2009 season, when they had an 8-5 record heading into a home game against the Oakland Raiders and control of their own playoff fate. But they lost that game to a JaMarcus Russell-led comeback for their second successive defeat; by the time they stopped tumbling 12 months later, they’d lost 15 of 18 games.
Two weeks after that loss, the 8-7 Broncos were drilled 44-24 by the 3-12 Chiefs. In the 27 games that followed, the Broncos had the better record going into just three of them — and never had more than a one-game advantage.
They have a four-game advantage on the 2-9 Vikings. Of course, the Vikings also have a 1-6 record in games decided by a touchdown or less; even a 4-3 mark in those games would place them at 5-6, and not even the most optimistic Broncos fan would consider Sunday’s game a slam dunk. Further, the Vikings’ home defeats are by a combined 19 points.
Minnesota’s record would indicate they’re miles from contention; their play through most of the season doesn’t reflect that notion — and the Broncos know it.
“Oh, man, it’s the NFL. Every week there’s a battle,” said linebacker Mario Haggan. “You’ve got a guy with the name of Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, you’ve got an up-and-coming guy, Chrstian Ponder. Those guys can make plays. Jared Allen is (second) in the league in sacks. Those guys will be ready.”
The last two years, opponents with realistic playoff aspirations uttered the same types of comments about the Broncos, who were nationally unheralded — and deservedly so, thanks to their poor record from the end of 2009 through the first five weeks of this season.
But within the Broncos’ locker room, their perception of themselves earlier this year wasn’t entirely different than it is now.
“We expected to win earlier. I know other people didn’t expect us to win, but we expected to win, so when those things don’t happen, you get upset,” safety Brian Dawkins said.
“I think the thing that we did as a team is we continued to come together in the midst of all that turmoil, so now we are continuing to lean on one another. We’re not leaning on the outside or what other people are saying about us. When the times were down, they were saying down things about us, and now the times are good.”
But with that comes another set of perils.
“Coach always told me to be careful of the smoke when you’re on fire, so we’re not worried about the smoke,” Dawkins said. “The smoke does not drive us. We’re going to continue to go out and play for one another.”