First Down/Fourth Down: Denver's D, McCoy headline best of Week 7

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Peyton Manning may be the greatest quarterback in NFL history, a statement backed by his record-setting Sunday. If he is to grab his second Super Bowl ring, though, he needs the Denver defense to pull its weight.

The recent returns are incredibly encouraging.

Led by three sacks from DeMarcus Ware and an interception from Aqib Talib -- both free-agent additions in the offseason -- the Broncos stifled San Francisco on Sunday. The resulting 42-17 win was as much about how little Denver allowed the 49ers to do as it was about Manning's aerial assault.

• Catch up on everything you may have missed in NFL Week 7

"Even when it started off a little bit rough for us in the beginning of the season, we all knew what type of defense we were and just kept sticking to it," Von Miller said this week. "I still don't think we're nowhere close to where we can be."

The Broncos D currently sits No. 6 in both points and yards allowed. Over the past three games, all wins, Denver has surrendered an average of just 18 points and 243 yards.

Combine an improved defensive attack (Denver finished 22nd in scoring defense last season) with a potent offense and the Broncos again have emerged as favorites in the AFC.

More on Week 7: 

First Down: The Cowboys' big three.

They're not quite a football reincarnation of the Troy Aikman-Emmitt Smith-Michael Irvin trio just yet but Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant are toying with Dallas' opponents so far this season. It happened again Sunday against the Giants. Romo threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns; Murray and Bryant combined for 279 total yards. 

Murray's 128-yard rushing performance marked his seventh straight game in triple digits to start the season, a new NFL record. The Cowboys' RB is currently on pace for 2,086 yards this season, 19 yards off the single-season record held by Eric Dickerson. Also in Murray's sights at the moment is the record for most carries in one season -- Larry Johnson holds that mark at 416; Murray would reach 427 at his present rate.

"It’s special just to be a part of it," Romo said of Murray's start. "I love that kid. He will always be like a brother to me when we are done … He really just exemplifies everything you could want in a player."

Best of worst from Week 7 | MMQB: Peyton just now entering prime?

Fourth Down: How Houston closed the first half.

The Texans took it to the homestanding Steelers for the opening 27 minutes or so Monday night. And then they endured one of the worst stretches in NFL history.

Starting with a 44-yard Shaun Suisham field goal that pulled the Steelers within 13-3, Houston allowed 24 points in two minutes and 54 seconds right before halftime amid a tornado of mistakes. Danieal Manning bobbled a kick, Arian Foster fumbled, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw an interception, the defense vanished ...

"The thing is, you can't do that," Houston head coach Bill O'Brien said. "You can't turn the ball over. You can't field a kick, bobble the kick. Can't give up shot plays. You can't have 12 men on the field on third down to give them a first down. ... It's very frustrating when you turn the ball over on your own 2-yard line. The whole thing's frustrating."

By the time it was over, Pittsburgh led 24-13 en route to a 30-23 win.

First Down: St. Louis' 2014 draft picks.

If an upset of Seattle was a glimpse into the Rams' future, brighter days are ahead. Their rookie class showed up in a big way, paced by 85 yards and a touchdown from RB Tre Mason. 

He picked up a bunch of those yards, as he did back at Auburn, running behind Greg Robinson. The No. 2 overall pick last May, Robinson punished Seattle's defensive front from his guard spot. Aaron Donald, currently Pro Football Focus' highest-graded DT this season, did the same on the other side of the football. And DB LaMarcus Joyner tied for the team lead with seven tackles.

St. Louis was careful not to overwhelm its young talent too early. The patience paid off on Sunday. 

NFL draft Big Board 2.0: Who stands out in class with no clear frontrunner?

Fourth Down: 

Hold off on ordering those playoff tickets, Browns fans. Seven days after routing Pittsburgh in front of a raucous home crowd, Cleveland stalled out in a 23-6 loss at Jacksonville. The setback dropped Cleveland's record to 3-3, good for last place in the AFC North.

A silver lining: Next up for the Browns are home games with Oakland and Tampa Bay. Assuming they can avoid another letdown, a quick recovery -- and a 5-3 record -- should be in the cards. 

First Down: Detroit's push for Golden Tate.

The Lions made it a priority this past offseason to find Calvin Johnson some help. Enter Tate, a critical if somewhat overlooked piece to the Seahawks' championship puzzle in 2013. 

Just seven weeks into this season, the Tate signing looks like one of the best moves made by any team. Tate made a career-high 10 catches Sunday versus New Orleans, including a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown to spark a stunning rally late. 

The Notre Dame product ranks fourth in the league in receptions (48) and sixth in receiving yards (649). Better yet for Detroit, thanks to Tate's help, it has a 2-0 record with Calvin Johnson out of the lineup.

Fourth Down: The NFC South.

Consider that the Saints, 2-4 after that collapse versus the Lions, might still be the odds-on favorite to walk away with this division. They currently trail the 3-3-1 Panthers, but Carolina was blown out of the water by Green Bay on Sunday. Elsewhere, Atlanta lost its fourth straight, a 29-7 decision at the hands of the Ravens.

The lone NFC South team to escape Week 7 unscathed was Tampa Bay, which sat through its bye on a 1-5 record. Combined, this division is 8-17-1 on the year.

First Down: Colt McCoy.

McCoy, 28 years old and three years removed from his last NFL start, probably does not offer much hope as Washington's QB of the future. Don't let that take anything away from McCoy's victory out of the bullpen Sunday. 

"I don’t want to get emotional," McCoy said after leading a game-winning drive against Tennessee. "But I’m just thankful that I’ve hung in there and kept fighting."

A third-round pick of the Browns back in 2010, McCoy went 6-15 as a starter for them before being glued to the bench. Last season, he threw all of one pass as a backup in San Francisco. The future did not look all that bright in Washington either, with Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins on the depth chart.

But Cousins faltered after Griffin's injury, and now McCoy is in line to start a nationally televised Week 8 game at Dallas. 

Fourth Down: Seattle and San Francisco.

While the defending champs and their fiercest rival work through their issues, the Arizona Cardinals have grabbed a stranglehold on the NFC West. The Seahawks and 49ers each were handed their third losses of the season on Sunday -- Seattle upset in St. Louis; San Francisco obliterated by Denver. 

The Seahawks' loss came on the heels of their shocking Percy Harvin trade, the first clear evidence in some time that their locker room is not an unblemished nirvana. The 49ers' problems, meanwhile, have been numerous ... as have their injuries. They lost center Daniel Kilgore to an ugly broken leg Sunday.

First Down: Sammy Watkins' Rookie of the Year chances.

Buffalo had four seconds to gain two yards, find the end zone and beat Minnesota. QB Kyle Orton looked for one player and one player only: Watkins. The Bills' emerging superstar made the grab, handing his team a dramatic victory. 

In college football's Heisman race, talk often centers on the need for a "signature moment" or two -- a clutch, highlight reel-worthy play that raises a player's stock. A big play or two helps along the way to NFL awards, too, and the 2014 rookies will be hard-pressed to top what Watkins delivered Sunday.

Fourth Down: Chicago at home.

Defend your home field. Steal a couple on the road.

Generally, that's how NFL teams plot their paths to the playoffs. The 2014 Bears are, uh, taking a different approach.

Chicago's 27-14 home loss to Miami on Sunday was its third straight setback this season at Soldier Field -- and fourth straight dating back to a Week 17 loss to Green Bay that bounced the Bears from the playoffs. The last two losses there have not even been particularly close: 27-14 in Week 7 and a 38-17 defeat at the Packers' hands (again) in Week 4.

The Bears do have three road wins to their credit, matching Dallas' league-high total. But at 3-4 overall, they're on the verge of dropping from a hotly contested NFC North race and onto the fringe of wild-card contention.