ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When things weren’t clicking at the beginning of the season, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos spent most of their time looking at the film and working out the kinks on the practice field -- and very little time focusing on the standings.
The work is paying off, and if they bothered to look at those standings Monday, they would’ve liked what they saw.
After their runaway win over Baltimore and New England’s loss to San Francisco, the Broncos are the No. 2 seed in the AFC and only need victories at home over Cleveland and Kansas City, combined record 7-21, to wrap up a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Eight of the 10 AFC teams to make the Super Bowl under the current playoff format have had a first-round bye.
"I always thought if we kept getting better, there was no way we couldn’t be one of the top teams," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "It was just a matter of keeping your nose down, not worrying about your record, keep working and everything will take care of itself."
During their nine-game winning streak -- longest since they won the first 13 games of the 1998 Super Bowl season -- the Broncos (11-3) have steadily gotten better.
One of the issues was how they would fare against a winning team, the likes of which they faced only twice over the first eight wins of the streak. The trip to Baltimore, against a struggling Ravens team, but still a team that has qualified for the playoffs with a 9-5 record, was considered their biggest litmus test before the playoffs begin.
They passed it and didn’t even need Manning at his very best to do so.
The Broncos quarterback threw for 204 yards, his lowest output of the season.
But the Broncos were so good everywhere else -- rushing for 163 yards, creating two turnovers and returning one for a touchdown, milking the clock in the fourth quarter with a 9:59 drive -- they didn’t need Manning to do much more than hand off.
In fact, Manning handed the ball off 45 times Sunday, the most in his career.
"Our goal is to try to get better every week," he said. "I feel like we probably have in some areas. You’re still looking to play that perfect 60-minute game, and that’s your goal every week."