(Sports Network) - Heading into their game at Atlanta last week, the notion of the Denver Broncos scoring only 24 points would have likely been met with jubilation by Falcons fans.
The way Denver had played defense this season, there was great reason to believe that a young but dangerous Falcons offense would do whatever it wished in Week 11, and that limiting Jay Cutler and the powerful Broncos attack to 24 might just mean a double-digit victory for the home team.
When Mike Shanahan's club opened the game without All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey and minus 100 percent of its opening day starting linebacker corps, fantasy owners of Falcons stars like Roddy White and Michael Turner had to be licking their chops, too.
But something funny happened on the way to an Atlanta runaway. The Broncos actually played some defense.
Three Falcons running backs combined for just 96 yards on 30 carries (3.2 yards per attempt), with a makeshift Denver linebacking corps consisting of rookie Spencer Larsen in the middle and Wesley Woodyard and Jamie Winborn on the outside making a number of big tackles and consistently guarding against the game-changing big play.
Against the pass, the Broncos didn't have a sack and allowed White to go over 100 yards, but also kept quarterback Matt Ryan from throwing a touchdown strike and got a big interception from cornerback Dre' Bly in the second half.
In all, not a performance being edited down into celluloid history by the folks at NFL Films, but given their depleted defensive state and less-than- sterling reputation on that side of the ball, the Broncos' 24-20 win might as well have been engineered by the Pittsburgh's vaunted Steel Curtain.
"A lot of people say that we're not a good defense because of numbers, but any smart mathematician would know that after three or four high-number games, the numbers aren't going to look good," said rookie cornerback Josh Bell, who opened opposite Bly for his first career start and made five tackles. "But the past three weeks, we've stopped the run -- Ronnie Brown, Jamal Lewis, Michael Turner. [Turner] had his good play -- every good player in the NFL is going to get his -- but we played a complete game today."
Clearly, the defense gave the Broncos a chance to win on a day in which the offense was not at full strength or optimum efficiency.
One week after throwing for 447 yards in a 34-30 win at Cleveland, Jay Cutler went for a more modest 216 yards and a touchdown on 19-of-27 passing.
Meanwhile, a running game that had been beset by injuries in recent weeks received a group effort from three players who probably never envisioned playing such a significant role when the calendar flipped to November.
Converted rookie fullback Peyton Hillis scored two of the Broncos' three touchdowns and rushed for 44 yards on 10 carries. Practice squad promotee P.J. Pope made his four carries count for 35 yards, and prodigal son Tatum Bell - who looked like he might never wear an NFL uniform again following a bizarre teammate-theft story after being cut from the Lions in early September - carried seven times for 34 yards just days after being re-signed to the team.
Yes, it was an all-around effort, one that the Broncos didn't previously seem capable of given their injuries and recent play.
In addition to moving the team to 6-4, now two full games up on the San Diego Chargers in the AFC West, the game showed that Denver is something more than a one-trick pony, a fact that will likely do wonders for team morale.
"It means a lot for confidence," said Woodyard, another rookie proving his mettle as an unlikely starter. "We just came off a three-game losing streak, and now we're on a two-game winning streak. We've got to continue to keep that momentum going and just come back every week -- continue to play hard."
"We feel good about it, but we know we have a job to do," said Winborn. "We're on to the next team right now -- we've got Oakland coming into our house, and I'm pretty sure they want to get a win real bad. We're going to wipe this out and we know we've got to bring our A-game if we want to win next week."
CHARGERS: At least the San Diego Chargers are talking a good game.
At 4-6 with six games to play, Norv Turner's team is well aware that time is running out if it wishes to win the moribund AFC West and avoid joining the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, and Seattle Seahawks on a short list of the NFL's most disappointing teams in 2008.
The recovery has to start this week, when the Bolts open a three-game homestand against the Indianapolis Colts (6-4), who are on a three-game win streak and harbor postseason aspirations of their own. Following that tilt are contests against the Falcons (6-4) and a Thursday nighter against the Raiders (4-6).
"We're continually backing ourselves into a corner, and we're probably facing the corner now," said Chargers linebacker Matt Wilhelm following the 11-10 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday. "Speaking for myself, we're excited to play three games at home. We feel there's a great opportunity with a very good Colts team coming to town."
Added tight end Antonio Gates, "You continue to grind. We said from day one that this is a marathon. You just continue to play one game at a time. Our whole focus has definitely switched to the Colts. We're going to have a chance...to make some corrections offensively, and move forward. That's all we can do."
Despite Sunday's defeat, Turner saw things he found encouraging
"We've been in must-win mode. This group of guys, there's no quit in this group. This group fought as hard tonight, that was a physical football game and that's a very physical football team we're playing against. Every guy was in it on every play and guys being helped off and someone going in and fighting for them. That's the way we're going to play next week and that's the way we're going to play every week. That's what this group is about."
"The mindset is keep on playing," said linebacker Shaun Phillips. "You can't roll over. We have too many high-character guys to lie down. That's just not going to happen."
CHIEFS: A Chiefs team that has counted depth as a serious issue this season actually got a tad deeper on Sunday, as running back Larry Johnson returned from a four-game absence in Kansas City's 30-20 home loss to the Saints.
Johnson missed four games for disciplinary reasons stemming from a series of off-the-field incidents, with the team piling a de facto three-game suspension on top of the league's one-game slap on the wrist.
In his return, the former Pro Bowler rushed 19 times for 67 yards but failed to score a touchdown on several chances inside the 5-yard line. The Chiefs had to settle for field goals of 20 and 21 yards on two separate drives, helping to seal their 18th loss in 19 games dating back to last year.
Still, Johnson, who also caught a 20-yard pass out of the backfield, received high marks from at least one of his teammates.
"I think he ran tough today," said Chiefs guard Brian Waters. "I think he ran physical and I think that the little offensive wrinkle that we showed today gives us the ability to do both things (power run and spread) we want to do. We just have to do a better job executing."
RAIDERS: With yet another season heading nowhere, fans of the Oakland Raiders are now left to speculate about who the next coach to try to turn salvage this sunken ship will be.
A great number of coaches, including a selection of the best available candidates, will want nothing to do with the Raiders as long as owner Al Davis is pulling the puppet strings. Apparently, that group does not include former Giants head man Jim Fassel, who reportedly sent a letter to Davis expressing interest in the job.
In comments made on Sirius NFL Radio on Tuesday, Fassel did not deny the existence of the letter, or his interest in taking over the head coaching reins in Oakland. Fassel previously worked for the Raiders as the team's quarterbacks coach in 1995.
"I can honestly say this, and I mean this with all sincerity," said Fassel. "I know Al Davis. I've talked to him at different times and I've worked for him and I can honestly say...the year I was there we were doing good now, we were lighting it up pretty good on offense until we lost [quarterback Jeff] Hostetler, [Davis] never interfered with me one time. I think he called me a couple of times and asked me a couple of things and said, 'Well, if you need anything just let me know. Other than that, just keep on doing what we're doing, I guess.' He didn't interfere at all. He treated me great. He paid me really good money and we did this. So I don't have the same problem that maybe other people do."
Fassel, who last worked in the NFL in 2006, when he was fired as Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator at midseason, served as head coach of the New York Giants from 1997 through 2003. Fassel, who will turn 60 next August, was 60-56-1 (.517) overall (regular season and playoffs), and led the Giants to the playoffs three times including a Super Bowl in 2000.
In terms of his candidacy for the Oakland job, the Raiders could do a lot worse (and have).