Denver • As prizes go, the AFC West title for the Broncos is like a stocking stuffer for a 16-year-old who just got his driver's license.
It's nice. But what else you got?
Thanks to a strong second half against Tampa Bay, the Broncos were able to put together a long list of accomplishments and realistic future goals Sunday at Sports Authority Field.
First, the Broncos' convincing 31-23 victory clinched their second consecutive division title. Afterwards, there was no champagne popping in the locker room. "No, just that we did acknowledge it because it was one of our goals," said Broncos coach John Fox. "It's just a starting point for us, really."
Winning the division guarantees the Broncos will play at least one AFC playoff game at home. But if winning the West was all the Broncos achieve this season, it would be a disappointment.
Peyton Manning did his part to solidify his candidacy for a record fifth NFL MVP award by throwing three touchdown passes one to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, who lined up as a fullback, and two to Demaryius Thomas. He also completed, with remarkable accuracy, a pass to Knowshon Moreno on the ground on his rump for a first down.
Still, it's not just Manning. It's also Denver's defense that has provided the Broncos with a chance to get a first-round bye in the playoffs, which would boost their chances of playing in the AFC championship, which would increase their odds of reaching the Super Bowl, which would put them in position to ...
"We're just the AFC West champs right now," said Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil.
First things, first. Once again, the Broncos' defense made a pretty good quarterback look below average. Through three quarters, Josh Freeman was 11-for-26 for 142 yards.
"It's all about the guys up front," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "That's the biggest difference with this defense compared to other years here. When you can stop the run and get pressure? Anything can happen."
Anything, like perhaps Broncos star linebacker Von Miller winning the NFL defensive player of the year award. His candidacy got a lift when he intercepted a Freeman pass in the third quarter and returned it for a touchdown. Broncos 31,Buccaneers 23
Tampa Bay 10 0 0 13 23
Denver 7 0 21 3 31
Den • Unrein 1 pass from Manning (Prater kick), 8:47.
TB • FG Barth 31, 4:41.
TB • Clark 11 pass from Freeman (Barth kick), :14.
Den • D.Thomas 8 pass from Manning (Prater kick), 9:21.
Den • D.Thomas 10 pass from Manning (Prater kick), 4:39.
Den • Miller 26 interception return (Prater kick), 3:56.
TB • FG Barth 50, 14:55.
Den • FG Prater 31, 7:36.
TB • FG Barth 55, 3:23.
TB • Williams 5 pass from Freeman (Barth kick), 2:33.
First downs 18 25
Total Net Yards 306 333
Rushes-yards 21-71 29-91
Passing 235 242
Punt Returns 1-15 4-95
Interceptions Ret. 1-27 1-26
Comp-Att-Int 18-39-1 27-38-1
Sacked-Yards Lost 1-7 0-0
Punts 5-51.4 5-44.8
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 1-0
Penalties-yards 11-80 8-75
Time of Possession 26:33 33:27
Rushing • Tampa Bay, Martin 18-56, Ware 1-8, Freeman 2-7. Denver, Moreno 20-69, Hillman 5-29, Ball 2-(minus 2), Manning 2-(minus 5).
Passing • Tampa Bay, Freeman 18-39-1-242. Denver, Manning 27-38-1-242.
Receiving • Tampa Bay, Williams 6-93, Jackson 3-55, Martin 3-42, Clark 3-21, Stocker 2-19, Underwood 1-12. Denver, Tamme 9-89, D.Thomas 8-99, Moreno 4-14, Willis 3-22, Decker 2-17, Unrein 1-1.
Missed Field Goals • Denver, Prater 47 (WR).