By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

Once 6-0, then 6-4, the Broncos finally got back on the winning track on Thanksgiving with a very convincing, 26-6 beatdown of the reeling Giants in Denver. What came to light pretty clearly on the heels of that win was that the Broncos are neither as good as their first six games nor as bad as their next four. Where they are exactly is foggier, but with a couple of breaks, they will still wind up in the playoffs. And in the end, given all of the tumult hovering around them prior to the start of the year, getting there would be quite an achievement, no matter how Josh McDaniels and his charges do it.

josh-mcdaniels-kyle-ortonDenver has two games left with Kansas City (including this week at Arrowhead Stadium) and a home date with the Raiders among the remainder of its schedule. There will also be trips to Philadelphia (could be tough) and Indianapolis (will be tough) on the docket. If the Broncos take care of business against the inferior Chiefs and Raiders but lose to both the Eagles and Colts, a postseason berth may require some help. Finishing at 10-6 will put them in the wild card hunt along with the Steelers and Ravens – both teams to whom they’ve lost – as well as the Titans, who currently look like they’ll never lose again, but would have to run the table to get to 10 wins. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are currently tied at 6-5 with a Week 16 showdown at Heinz Field still to come. If the Broncos are to make it to 10-6, they best hope either the Ravens or Steelers lose twice or else they’re going home, which is why the key game on their ledger will likely be the one in Philly on Dec. 27. A win that day, if everything else goes to form, and they’re 11-5 and almost definitely in.

McDaniels, who looked doomed during the preseason thanks to the bitter Jay Cutler trade (which by the way has turned out to be the steal of the century for Denver) and the misbehavior of Brandon Marshall, weathered the storm beautifully for six weeks. But during their four game losing streak following their Week 7 bye, not only were they losing, but some of that negative, potentially team threatening stuff from the summer started to creep back into the picture. Players shoving each other on the sideline, quarterback and team co-MVP Kyle Orton getting hurt, McDaniels getting into a verbal sparring match with Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips, the NFL Network catching him using a certain 12-letter word on air (which is really a non-story); it all smelled of the same stench that followed the team around in the offseason and felt like it had the potential to derail the season.

But the win over the Giants was like huge shot a Febreze and now, thanks to the schedule makers, the Broncos should be able to earn the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2005. It’s hardly a done deal, but it looks good and for a group that has overcome as much as the Broncos have, that’s not too shabby.

This Week’s Five Best Teams

1. New Orleans: Quite a statement by the Saints, eh? Not sure they’ll finish 16-0 but at this point it will likely take an injury to someone really important on offense (and when I say really important, I hardly mean Reggie Bush) to slow them down. Also, as unbelievable as Drew Brees has been he’s likely to finish third in the MVP voting, behind Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, even if New Orleans runs the table.

2. Indianapolis: Boy do the Colts lead a charmed life. They trail entering the fourth quarter the last five weeks and win all five of them. Why do teams keep crapping their pants when leading Indy late? Don’t be scared to beat the Colts, guys, be psyched to do it! Just keep doing what got you to that point. Oh and by the way, it says here that if Indy beats Tennessee this week, it will go unbeaten for the regular season.

3. Minnesota: It would be easy to chalk up Brett Favre’s continued sparkling play to horrible defenses on the other side of the field (Chicago, Seattle and Detroit the past three weeks) and just keep ragging on him and predicting his imminent implosion. But he’s playing incredibly well, perhaps as much so as any point in his career since the Super Bowl years in the mid-90s. So we’ll give him credit for. Good job, Brett. You’re still an a-hole, though.

4. San Diego: With all of the injuries on defense and the decline of LaDainian Tomlinson, where would the Chargers be without Philip Rivers? They’ve now won six in a row with Rivers completing 77 percent of his passes with zero picks over the last three. He will get no MVP love thanks to Manning, Favre and Brees, but he definitely deserves some.

5. Cincinnati: The Bengals are this high less because of their 17-6 crapfest win over the Browns and more because all of the other teams who might be this high (the Patriots, Steelers, Cardinals and Ravens) have been more lousy more recently. And that’s the winner of this week’s Backhanded Compliment Award.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams

1. Cleveland: Nice to see the Browns back to their sub-200 total yard selves following that outburst of offense in Detroit a couple weeks ago. All it took was a quasi-real defense (the Bengals) to bring Brady Quinn back down from 300 yards and four TDs to 100 yards even on an unreal 34 pass attempts.

2. Tampa Bay: Other than the money, it can’t be much fun to be Bucs coach Raheem Morris. His decisions (trying a 51-yard field goal with 17-13 lead late, calling for a fake punt in the first half that not only didn’t work but landed his punter on injured reserve) against Atlanta cost Tampa its second win of the year more than anything else.

3. St. Louis: My favorite bad team, after coming so close and playing so much better the past couple of week, got bombed at home. And by the almost as terrible Seahawks, no less. Ouch.

4. Detroit: When the Lions recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff last week against the Packers then went right in for a score, it felt like they may really be on to something. Then, they got outscored 34-5 over the course of the next three+ quarters and it went back to just feeling like Detroit.

5. Oakland: The effort was certainly there on Thanksgiving in Dallas for the Raiders and they most definitely made the Cowboys sweat a bit. And journeyman Bruce Gradkowski is playing OK (though when you’re following JaMarcus Russell, just showing up is an improvement). But that play in the second quarter when they had a sure pick deep in Dallas territory but couldn’t convert because two of their guys crashed into each other was all the necessary evidence to prove that they’re still the Raiders and they still stink.

What’s Trendy

– The Titans: Since Chris Johnson usually occupies this space by himself, I figured we’d spread the wealth among the rest of his teammates this week. For starters, Vince Young, who threw for 387 yards and led a 99-yard, game-winning TD drive in the final minutes last week against Arizona, is the man, clearly looking like he’s over the issues that plagued him the last couple of seasons and has figured how to play quarterback in the NFL. Rookie receiver Kenny Britt caught seven passes for 128 yards and the winning score, overcoming what could have been a back-breaking fumble on the preceding drive. The team as a whole is the first in league history to win five in a row after starting out 0-6. Oh yeah, and Johnson only scored his fifth 50+ yard TD of the year to tie Jim Brown’s league record, became the first player in history to score three TDs from 85 or more yards in a season and posted at least 125 yards on the ground for the sixth week in a row, becoming just the third player in history to do that. OK, now exhale.

– LeRod Stephens-Howling, Cardinals: This seventh-round pick out of Pitt not only returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, but downed two punts inside the Tennessee two-yard line in the second half, including one just a shade off the Titans goal line with just 2:37 left in the game and his team up by four. Hey, it’s not his fault the Titans then went 99 yards to win at the buzzer.

– Mike Tomlin, Steelers: Not only did the Pittsburgh coach shut the mouth of jerk receiver Hines Ward after Ward bitched about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger not playing against the Ravens due to a concussion (“Hines was obviously misinformed,” Tomlin said, declaring Roethlisberger’s absence was his decision and practically slapping that silly grin off of Ward’s face in the process), after last week’s loss to Baltimore, he said, “We will not go gently. We are going to unleash hell in December.” Awesome stuff.

What’s Not

– Jake Delhomme, Panthers: After four more picks against the Jets, giving him 18 on the season and marking the third time this year he’s thrown three or more in one game, it took a broken finger on his throwing hand to potentially cost Delhomme his job. Way to be proactive, John Fox. No wonder Bill Cowher is waiting until the season ends to look into a new job.

– Gary Kubiak, Texans: After another awful loss to the Colts in which they were way ahead and then blew it (which they do against lots of team, not just Indy), Houston is now pretty much guaranteed another non-playoff year. The idea has been floated already but I swear I’ve been on the bandwagon for a while – it’s time for a new mindset for the Texans. the talent is there, but the ability to harness it and put it to proper use is not and that falls squarely on the shoulders of coach Kubiak.

– The Patriots Defense: Thanks to huge wins over the likes of the Bucs, Jets and Titans (pre-Vince Young), this group was ranked in the top 10 in the league. After the loss to New Orleans, hopefully anyone who thinks those kinds of numbers really mean something will know better.

And finally…

Since it’s Patriots bashing week, I’ll regretfully add one more log to the fire. What the hell is going on with the personnel decisions? This past offseason’s big gets were Leigh Bodden (decent but not great), Fred Taylor (out going on two months now), Joey Galloway (an unmitigated disaster, cut), Shawn Springs (a healthy scratch the past three weeks despite a three-year deal with $2.2 million guaranteed up front) and Derrick Burgess (the biggest do-nothing seen around Foxboro in years). Throw in getting nothing to replace Richard Seymour for this season (or next, and for the record I was in favor of the Seymour trade and still am) and the results of all these moves together is complete crapola. Not sure if it can simply be attributed to the loss of Scott Pioli to the Chiefs or part of a bigger, deeper problem. But what is abundantly clear is that Bill Belichick’s record in the free agent/trade department this year is worse than shoddy and that’s the truth whether the Patriots get destroyed in New Orleans last Monday or not. I sort of doubt it will happen, but it will be interesting to see whether or not current player personnel guy Nick Caserio or special assistant (and former Titans GM) Floyd Reese take on a larger role in these decisions next offseason. No matter who has what input, it’s impossible to argue that there was a total failure in this portion of the decision making for this year. Regardless of how or when this season comes to an end, things must improve in this department next year in a major way.