TEMPE, Ariz. — Old habits die hard, which is the only reason the Denver Broncos haven't already been declared champions of the NFL. Intellectually, we know the Broncos are the best team; they're undefeated, they've got the league's best player in Terrell Davis and they're playing with the supreme arrogance of a team enjoying its own validation.
If one of the old-guard NFC teams--the 49ers, Cowboys, Packers, Giants, Redskins, Bears--was having this kind of season it would have already inspired embarrassing praise, or at least a Super Bowl video. But because it's the Broncos who are 8-0, there's still a healthy dose of skepticism hanging in the air. We're still squeezing the contents to see if the package is firm, still probing and squinting and holding the Broncos up to the light to see if they're really this good.
The least feared champion in years is having as good an encore season as any team since the 1986 Bears. The search for worthy candidates hasn't turned up anybody that should turn our eyes away from Denver, but that's where the fun begins in the second half of the season, even if it's not unanimous choice for best story line.
It's a nice twist that in the blink of an eye, essentially, the entire balance of power has changed, that arguably three of the top four teams play in the AFC--Denver, Jacksonville and the Raiders--rather than the other way around. It's about time the entire regular season revolves around more than the Niners and Cowboys or Niners and Packers or Niners and Redskins or Niners and Giants or Niners and Bears. In fact, if the Niners don't figure out how to play defense over the next few weeks, they won't even be a part of this subplot once fall turns to winter.
If the trashing of conventional wisdom is part of the story of the first half of this NFL season, then we'd have to start with the lack of defense. You know the old adage, "Defense wins championships?" Well, it probably won't hold this season. That's because nobody's playing defense.
Miami has the stingiest defense in the league, yet the Dolphins let the Bills to score 16 points in the fourth quarter last week. The Raiders had the league's official No. 1-ranked defense in the league, but allowed Warren Moon to complete 17 consecutive passes last week. The Niners may be 6-2 but they've given up more points than San Diego, which is why it's not ridiculous to think (at least temporarily) that the Falcons can unseat San Francisco atop the NFC West.
Half the games each week look like something out of the old AFL; it began in Week 1 when the Niners got a 96-yard run from Garrison Hearst in overtime to beat the Jets. Usually by now, some defensive stalwart has revealed itself to everyone. Normally, there's one team you can point to which you know beyond a reasonable doubt can at least neutralize the firepower of the Vikings, Broncos and Jaguars. Not now.
The Steelers, who gave up 41 points at home last week, can be discounted. So can the Chiefs, who are having a meltdown. The Arizona Cardinals, who host the Redskins today, were supposed to be an old-fashioned, defense-first, smash-mouth team; instead they've yielded 170 points (to only 125 scored) to reach 4-4 in the strangest way.
The teams that have given up the fewest points at the midway mark of the season--Dallas and Miami--are solid contenders, but would you make the argument that either is one of the top three teams in its conference? I wouldn't. If the Cowboys beat Seattle and Minnesota, then win on the road against the Saints and Chiefs in four successive weeks, I'll think about changing my tune. The burden of proof is on any team that plays in the NFC East, and the Cowboys have yet to beat a winning team. The most impressive thing about the Dolphins is how Jimmy Johnson has gotten his program across in such a short time.
His first two seasons in Miami, Johnson didn't want to radically remake the Dan Marino Dolphins. After getting smacked out of the playoffs meekly last season, Johnson had seen enough. He's gotten the Dolphins to forget about style and concentrate on un-Miami-like qualities of defense (league-leading 109 points given up) and ball control.
And the Dolphins could have at least one big moment in the spotlight. If Denver can win in Kansas City on Nov. 16 and at the Meadowlands against the Giants on Dec. 13, it'll set up the league's sexiest regular season game since December 1985: Denver at Miami. If a team is going to go undefeated, the road goes through Miami.
We're accustomed by now, over most of the past 20 seasons, to watching a bunch of AFC teams scramble while a pair of NFC teams have established their dominance. This season, there's simply Denver and the masses. The only teams out of playoff contention in the AFC are the Colts, Ravens and Bengals; in the NFC, it's the Eagles, Redskins, Panthers, Lions and Rams.
The league's surprise teams would have to be the Raiders and Falcons. Dan Reeves might have to take a back seat to Dennis Green as coach of the year, but nobody else. Here's one of the coolest stats in the NFL. Atlanta has never gone 7-2, and would have to win in New England to do so. Of course, the Falcons will need validation week after week before we're ready to put them alongside the Niners and Vikings and Cowboys. But nobody's accustomed to being in that position more than Reeves, whose time in Denver created three Super Bowl appearances but also the sense of reservation people have about the Broncos even now.