Naked to the waist suspended linebacker Von Miller leaned over a table in the Broncos' locker room and cut the deck of cards.

He's the joker.

The Broncos mean business.

In the absence of Miller from the lineup Denver is not as intimidating. The 23.7 points surrendered per game are troublesome for any NFL defense with championship aspirations.

But in the absence of Miller the Broncos have become a better team.

Here is what I mean:

The Denver defense has been prodded to step out from behind the shadow of Miller's awesome talent. His lack of maturity has forced the Broncos to realize that the 24-year-old linebacker can be the wild card in the team's run to the Super Bowl but Miller's tenuous status within the league's drug program means he can no longer be trusted to be a cornerstone player.

In Miller's absence the Broncos are weaker in talent but have sharpened their edge.

There's a chip on the shoulder caused by the leaguewide assumption this defense is just along for the ride on the coattails of quarterback Peyton Manning.

That notion ticks off the Broncos who play for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

And that's a good thing.

While Miller tries to figure out ways to kill hours as he sits out the rest of his dunce time in the principal's office there's no question the young leader growing a little more every week is linebacker Wesley Woodyard.

In a league that wants to play faster on offense it is the speed of Wood- yard that kills the confidence in foes. A year ago Woodyard made the Broncos believe they could live without D.J. Williams. This season the line to the Pro Bowl for your local heroes begins behind Woodyard. And that includes you Mr. Miller.