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Broncos beat Buccaneers, clinch AFC West

Broncos' Manning passes under pressure against the Buccaneers during their NFL football game in Denver, Colorado

Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning passes under pressure against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their NFL football game in Denver, Colorado December 2, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Leffingwell (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)


For the second straight year, the Denver Broncos have won the AFC West. But this year feels a whole lot different.

In 2011, the Broncos won their division via Tebowmania, with Tim Tebow pulling out a string of surprising comebacks and Denver squeaking into the playoffs with an 8-8 record. In 2012, the Broncos have already clinched their division by defeating the Buccaneers on Sunday, improving their record to 9-3 on the season.

The biggest difference, of course, is that Peyton Manning is a huge upgrade over Tebow. Last year the Broncos were winning games by scores like 13-10 and 16-13, with Tebow often completing 10 or fewer passes a game. This year, the Broncos are winning by big margins, with Manning putting up MVP numbers.

On Sunday the score was 31-23, and Manning went 27-for-38 for 242 yards, with three touchdown passes. Manning’s numbers are every bit as good as they were in his four MVP seasons with the Colts, and these Broncos are as good as any of Manning’s teams in Indianapolis.

That’s true in large part because of a defense led by Von Miller, a dominant pass rusher who can also drop into coverage, as he showed when he picked off a Josh Freeman pass and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown, a score that pretty much sealed the Broncos’ win in the third quarter. The Broncos’ defense had an excellent game, shutting down not just Freeman but also the Bucs’ excellent rookie running back Doug Martin, who was never able to get anything going all day.

The 6-6 Buccaneers still have slim hopes of making the playoffs as an NFC wild card. But the Broncos already know they’ll be playing into January. And at the rate they’re going, they may be playing into February.