Broncos temporarily push turbulent offseason aside

The outcome will be remembered for a crazy tipped pass that Brandon Stokley -- by being in the right place at the right time -- turned into the winning touchdown.

As the 2009 season progresses, it could very well end up meaning so much more.

Not only did the Denver Broncos' 12-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals allow them to put aside, at least temporarily, all of the turmoil that filled their offseason, it also revealed a good portion of what could very well define their season.

Rather than discussing all that has gone wrong since Josh McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan as the Broncos' coach -- beginning with the trade that sent pouting quarterback Jay Cutler to the Chicago Bears -- the Broncos and their fans can talk about an unforgettable road win. Never mind all of the shaking up and feather-ruffling that McDaniels has done. The Broncos, picked by many to be a disaster, are 1-0.

"It was definitely a must-win for us," second-year linebacker Wesley Woodyard said.

Besides its impact on the team's collective psyche, this was a game in which the Broncos showed they might very well have something that could carry them to much more success this season and beyond -- a tough, hard-hitting, playmaking defense.

Not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of McDaniels, who made his mark with the New England Patriots as one of the NFL's top offensive coordinators. But it was his clear recognition of the vital importance of defensive strength that helped convince the Broncos to hire McDaniels.

And in his first regular-season game as a head coach, the unit that he hired renowned defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to convert from a 4-3 to a 3-4 held the explosive Bengals scoreless for all but one minute. The Broncos twice intercepted Carson Palmer, sacked him three times, and held Cedric Benson to 76 rushing yards. Nolan prepared a superb game plan, but McDaniels had a big hand in the way his defenders performed as well.

"I think we actually have a bigger advantage of having (McDaniels) being such a good offensive coach and coming from the Patriots and having a lot of (offensive) success," said Woodyard, who had an interception against Cincinnati. "He relays a lot of stuff to us that we, as defensive players, probably would never even pick up -- certain schemes, certain plays. The biggest thing is how most quarterbacks think. If you allow a defense to get a good insight on that, you'll have some success."

Mario Haggan, another Broncos' linebacker, isn't naïve enough to think that one win will make the turbulent offseason disappear from everyone's memory. He knows that a loss, and certainly a string of losses, could quickly bring storm clouds over the team's practice facility.

"I definitely think it'll be a very opinioned season inside (the building on) Broncos Parkway at Dove Valley (Business Park)," said Haggan, who had a sack against the Bengals.

Yet, in Haggan's view, the problems of the offseason resulted mostly from the focus that tends to be placed on the "negative instead of the positive" when change occurs.

"And we have a lot of positive things going with this team," Haggan said. "The work ethic, the time that the coaches put in, the leadership of (safety) Brian Dawkins and (cornerback) Champ Bailey on the defensive side of the ball. (Starting quarterback) Kyle Orton is a very business-like guy, (as is backup) Chris Simms. (Tight end) Daniel Graham and (running back) Correll Buckhalter ... they're all holding this team together."

That's one reason that there was a growing sense of optimism at Broncos headquarters on Monday as players reviewed videotape of Sunday's game.

"We have a lot of veteran guys that worked very hard in this offseason," Haggan said. "And I definitely think that we will be a team that people will be looking at and saying, 'Wow! I didn't think they'd be here.'"

Weekly Top 20

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Observation points

» Among the many striking developments from the tremendous scare that the Bills gave the Patriots on Monday night -- the game that defied everyone's expectations because it was actually worth watching until the final seconds -- was the way the Bills' offensive line often manhandled the Patriots' defensive front. Since the start of the offseason, so much was made about the Bills' remade offensive line, which included two rookies, as well as the late change at left tackle with eight-year veteran Langston Walker getting the boot in favor of second-year man Demetrius Bell at left tackle. Bell and the other youngsters made their share of mistakes, but they often got the better of the Pats with sheer muscle. This is a tough group, and newly acquired center Geoff Hangartner set the physical tone with his strong effort against nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who has dominated all of Hangartner's predecessors in Buffalo.

» No one is neutral about Cutler. His prolific passing for the Broncos made him fairly popular, but his brash and often arrogant demeanor rubs a lot of people the wrong way. McDaniels took most of the heat when Cutler forced his way out of Denver. But many observers viewed Cutler as a spoiled brat who couldn't deal with the fact Shanahan no longer was in charge and he refused to accept a new coach with new ideas. This is what one NFL executive told me about Cutler in July: "I don't think he's a leader of men." After his four-interception performance in the Bears' loss to the Green Bay Packers, one has to wonder just how willing Cutler's teammates are going to be to follow him -- at least in the near future.

» OK, I'm rethinking what I said last week about admiring the fact Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was happy with what he was taking into the season despite going 0-4 and looking sloppy in the preseason. The Cards were very sloppy in their 20-16 loss to San Francisco. They were penalized 12 times, and what is supposed to be one of the most explosive offenses in the league was out of sync and showing a general lack of energy. You have to wonder if the Cardinals are feeling the effects of the loss of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who went onto become coach and (after the recent firing of Chan Gailey) offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs.

» Let's be sure to give plenty of credit to the 49ers. Their defense played well. And as unimpressive as they were on offense, they did accomplish this much: They made a statement that they are going to be a tough, physical team. They kept pounding the ball on the ground, with not a whole lot to show for it, but the persistence gave the Cardinals something to think about during the game and, more importantly, beyond. By constantly running Frank Gore -- even when Arizona packed eight defenders at the line -- and playing sound defense, the Cards and the rest of the teams in the NFC West were put on notice that a game with the 49ers requires you to expend everything you have physically and emotionally. And that's how the Cardinals felt. The 49ers could make an even louder statement when they face the Seattle Seahawks at home in Week 2.

» Taped within each dressing cubicle in the Vikings' locker room Sunday was an 8-by-10 sheet of paper, bearing a photo of several Viking players' hands joined together and these words: "Start Fast ... Stand Firm ... Finish Strong!" Well, at least they got the second two right in their 34-20 victory over the Cleveland Browns. The Vikings started slowly, but once Adrian Peterson got over whatever it was that caused him to lose his lunch ... or maybe it was breakfast ... on the sidelines and had the game firmly placed in his hands, they pulled away from their overmatched opponent.

A couple of other Viking notes: Rookie right tackle Phil Loadholt, one of two new starters on the offensive line, thinks he was about eight years old when he first heard about a big-time NFL quarterback named Brett Favre. Now he blocks for the guy. ... The Polian Football Dynasty has expanded to Minnesota. Bill Polian is the president of the Indianapolis Colts, and his oldest son, Chris, is the Colts' vice president of football operations. Bill's second-oldest son, Brian, is special teams coordinator at Notre Dame. And Bill's youngest son, Dennis, is an assistant to Vikings coach Brad Childress.

» Like the Bills, the Raiders made the second half of Monday night's doubleheader surprisingly entertaining by pushing the Chargers to the brink. And one of the most memorable moments came when, on fourth-and-14 from the Oakland 43 and his team trailing by four points with 2:41 remaining, Raiders coach Tom Cable made an incredibly gutsy call by going for it. He had JaMarcus Russell use every bit of his huge arm to throw a perfect, 57-yard strike to rookie Louis Murphy. By the way, despite that first-round pick they're getting in 2011, the Patriots clearly lost a lot when they shipped defensive lineman Richard Seymour to Oakland. Against an injury depleted offensive line, Seymour was as dominant as ever. He looked like he was still playing at, or very near, the top of his game. Think the Pats could have used him in the first half of the doubleheader?

They've got answers ...

» The Cowboys, because even after saying good-bye to Terrell Owens, they still look to have an abundance of big-play receivers as Roy Williams, Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton demonstrated on their scores in a 34-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

» The Chiefs, because (if media reports are accurate) they signed free-agent wide receiver Bobby Wade. This would be a strong move, because, even without injured starting quarterback Matt Cassel and a thin receiver group, the Chiefs gave the Baltimore Ravens all they could handle before suffering a 38-24 loss. Wade should make Kansas City's receiving corps stronger.

» The Jets, because not only is their defense highly effective, it is extremely physical. This was why they made Rex Ryan their coach and allowed him to bring along key defensive players from his former employer, the Ravens. And the inability of the Texans' offense to handle the punishment that Ryan's defense delivered is a major reason why the Jets left Houston with a 24-7 victory.

» The Seahawks, because, after a shaky start by their offense (with Matt Hasselbeck throwing two interceptions in his first eight passes), their defense was highly effective in preventing St. Louis from capitalizing on the turnovers. Rookie linebacker Aaron Curry was a driving force in a highly aggressive defensive showing that helped the Seahawks to a 28-0 triumph.

They've got questions ...

» The Panthers, because their starting quarterback, Jake Delhomme, threw four interceptions and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown in the 38-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. They added free agent QB A.J. Feeley to replace injured backup Josh McCown, but there is reason to believe this team could be in huge trouble because Delhomme's downward spiral continues.

» The Browns, because, as many (including yours truly) concluded as a result of Eric Mangini's refusal to officially select a starting quarterback until game day, they know they don't have a true starter to lead them out of the basement of the AFC North. Brady Quinn, whom Mangini chose over Derek Anderson, was simply horrendous against the Vikings. And it seemed to go beyond opening-day jitters. He showed poor accuracy, made poor decisions, and had multiple ugly moments such as when the ball fell out of his hand for a fumble. "I don't think he was ready," Vikings defensive tackle Pat Williams told me. And if he was the Browns' best choice, what does that say about Anderson?

» The Bears, because after losing linebacker Brian Urlacher to a season-ending dislocated wrist, there is no one to replace the heart and soul of their defense. They will miss his playmaking and toughness (they were 0-7 without him in 2004, after going 5-4 with him), and if Cutler continues to throw passes to the other team, the defensive decline could be even more pronounced.

» The Dolphins, because if the poor showing by quarterback Chad Pennington and the rest of the offense in a 19-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons was any indication, they need to find some answers -- and fast -- about what they need to do to get back to the team that made that amazing turnaround last season. It seemed pretty well understood throughout the NFL that the Dolphins weren't going to surprise anyone this year, but it seemed as if they were operating with that mentality against the Falcons.

Fan rankings

How do the 32 teams rate following a scintillating Week 1 in the NFL? Our experts have weighed in with their picks. Now it's your chance play NFL expert and rank all 32 teams. **More ...**

Top five teams

1. New England: You have to cut Tom Brady some slack for playing his first full game since Super Bowl XLII, although problems created by the many changes in the Patriots defense could be an issue.
2. Pittsburgh: It's hard to believe that a team this good, with such a physical mentality, could have such a soft offensive line.
3. Philadelphia: Depending on how quickly Donovan McNabb is able to recover from a cracked rib, the Eagles could have some problems after getting off to a strong start.
4. Green Bay:Aaron Rodgers reaffirmed his big-time talent with a clutch performance against the Bears, and that switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense is off to a strong start.
5. Indianapolis: It wasn't easy vs. Jacksonville, but it never is.

Top five offensive players

1. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota: An absolutely amazing player with endless talent and heart. His 64-yard touchdown run against the Browns will go down as one of the greatest ever witnessed in the NFL. The fact it happened in Cleveland, where a man named Jim Brown made similar runs during his career, seemed fitting.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans: OK, it was the Lions, but Brees lights up a lot of teams and he should have more spectacular games this season.
3. Tom Brady, QB, New England: He had more than a few rusty moments against the Bills, but ultimately he found the groove that makes him one of the very best the game has ever seen.
4. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis: Make all of the changes you like around him, he's still the gold standard among quarterbacks.
5. Tony Romo, QB, Dallas: With no more T.O. distraction, he wasted no time showing what he can do by throwing for a career-high 353 yards against Tampa Bay.

Top five defensive players

1. James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh: He remains a major force, as he demonstrated by forcing a fumble and wreaking all sorts of havoc vs. the Titans.
2. Mike Peterson, LB, Atlanta: Defensive end John Abraham made two big sacks, but Peterson was the biggest defensive catalyst in the Falcons' win over the Dolphins by registering seven tackles, a forced fumble, and an interception.
3. Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco: His difference-making performance against the Cardinals included 13 tackles and had an eye-popping interception that saw him run across the field and leap high in the air to snag Kurt Warner's pass.
4. Richard Seymour, DE, Oakland: Working without any practice after strangely choosing to delay his arrival to his new team, the former Patriot was spectacular against the Chargers, getting two sacks among six tackles and generally making himself a disruptive force.
5. Aaron Schobel, DE, Buffalo: He made the play of Monday night by soaring to make a one-handed tip of a Brady pass to himself, and then returning the interception for a touchdown. He nearly had a second pickoff, which isn't supposed to happen when you're a defensive lineman.

Top five coaches

1. Bill Belichick, Patriots: Perhaps coaching greatness doesn't have much to do with pulling out a miraculous win, but if anyone was going to do it, you just knew Mr. Cutoff Sleeves would.
2. Tom Coughlin, Giants: Without Plaxico Burress, Coughlin came up with a sound game plan that relied on a solid running game and limited but effective passing by Eli Manning.
3. Andy Reid, Eagles: One game into the season, and he already has a significant concern.
4. Mike Smith, Falcons: He did a nice job of getting his team ready to show in an impressive victory over the Dolphins that last year was no fluke.
5. Mike Tomlin, Steelers: His defending champs are 1-0, but he'll have to find a way to get the running game going.

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