DENVER (AP) -The Denver Broncos have the fourth-worst defense in the NFL, they're minus-10 in turnover differential and their injury epidemic is so acute they're down to their sixth, seventh and eighth options at tailback.
Their top three linebackers are all sidelined, along with star cornerback Champ Bailey, who is tied for the team lead with just one interception. Their best pass-rusher, Elvis Dumervil, has three sacks and one broken finger.
So, why are the Broncos smiling?
Because they're the only team aside from the unbeaten Tennessee Titans to have sat alone atop their division every week since the opener, and they can thank clever coaching and deft draft day decisions.
At 6-4, they're two games ahead of struggling San Diego in the AFC West heading into Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders (2-8), who, conversely, are paying the price for poor front-office decisions and aren't getting much out of their 2008 draft class.
Seven Broncos rookies have started 28 games, led by top draft pick Ryan Clady, who hasn't allowed a full sack yet. Second-rounder Eddie Royal leads the league's rookies with 56 receptions for 659 yards and four touchdowns.
``You don't find many rookies that are able to come in and play right away,'' Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler said. ``We've been lucky offensively to have two with Eddie and Ryan.''
Royal has played like a grizzled veteran from the moment he stepped on the fields at Dove Valley, and Cutler has been particularly impressed with Clady's ability to keep him upright.
``With all of the pass rushers in this league, it's kind of a specialty position. He has faced some good ones - (Miami linebacker) Joey Porter and (Atlanta defensive end John) Abraham - these last few weeks and he has held his own,'' Cutler said. ``We are able to do a lot more things with him, a lot more drop-backs and a lot more single protection, because he's so solid back there.''
The Broncos have dug deep into the rest of their draft class to stay afloat. Three other picks have played in all 10 games and three undrafted rookies - linebacker Wesley Woodyard, cornerback Josh Bell and punter Matt Kern - have made their marks, as well.
ted immediately.
``This was probably as high character as we have ever had, if you take a look at their test scores, and we got 'players' as well,'' coach Mike Shanahan said. ``So, we feel very good about where we're at and hopefully these guys are around here for a long time.''
Three weeks ago, rookie fullback Peyton Hillis, who had just one reception in the first seven games, caught seven passes for 116 yards against Miami, then ascended to the top of the tailback chart, scoring his first two touchdowns rushing last week at Atlanta.
Rookie Spencer Larsen's first start last week was both memorable and historic: The fullback/linebacker is the first player in franchise history - and just the fourth in the NFL since 1990 - to start on both offense and defense in the same game.
The Raiders, who switched coaches already, haven't gotten nearly as much impact from their draft class, as turf toe injuries to first-round pick Darren McFadden have limited his effectiveness.
After rushing for 164 yards against Kansas City in his second NFL game, McFadden has just 40 carries for 144 yards and missed three games with the injury. He returned last week, but had only three carries as the Raiders work him back into the offense.
Oakland used its second-round pick to trade for cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who was waived after eight games, and the third-round pick to acquire backup tackle Mario Henderson in the 2007 draft.
Fourth-rounders Tyvon Branch and Arman Shields are on injured reserve, while sixth-rounder Trevor Scott has three sacks as a situational pass rusher and seventh-rounder Chaz Schilens has become the starting receiver but has only eight catches.
Given the disparity, it's easy to understand why oddsmakers installed the Broncos as double-digit favorites.
Shanahan, however, was acting all week like these Raiders are still suiting up Marcus Allen, James Lofton, Ronnie Lott and Howie Long.
Well, they do have, according to Shanahan, ``the most underrated player in the history of the game'' in shutdown cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
``I can't believe this guy hasn't been to the Pro Bowl or people don't talk about him all the time. This guy is off the charts. He's as good as it gets. I just think he's the most underrated player since I've been in the National Football League,'' Shanahan gushed.
He said Asomugha doesn't get his props because teams don't dare throw his way.
``The people that throw at him usually get beat,'' Shanahan said. ``He's not going to be challenged, but he plays 100 percent on every play. He plays the run, he plays the pass, the guy is a competitor. He's the most underrated top player in the game.''
Shanahan will even say so to his face if he gets the chance Sunday.
``I've never met him, but I'm going to shake his hand after the game,'' Shanahan said. ``He's one of my favorite players, even though he is with the Raiders. That shows you how much I like him.''

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