ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) - The Denver Broncos are hitting a critical stretch with two games against Kansas City wrapped around a trip to New England over the next three weeks that figures to either bolster or blister their Super Bowl credentials.
There will certainly be some crucial decisions to be made that could have far-reaching consequences.
Don't bother asking what does the Fox say.
Jack Del Rio sure isn't.
The Broncos' interim coach won't be making the biggest decisions of Denver's season based upon what his boss, the convalescing John Fox, would do if he were on the sideline.
''You could characterize it how you'd like. I've said very clearly, he's established a blueprint and I've worked with him before. So, I understand John,'' Del Rio said. ''I also understand myself, having been a head coach for nine years. I can't possibly be at my best if I'm going to stop and pause and go, `What would John do? Oh, uhhh.' No, I can't do that.''
Fox, who's back home in North Carolina recovering from heart surgery, talks with Del Rio by phone every day. But they don't necessarily strategize over specific scenarios the Broncos might face on game day, like whether or not to go for it on fourth-and-1 or send in kicker Matt Prater or punter Britton Colquitt.
Or, for that matter, to have Peyton Manning take a knee and take his chances in overtime.
Even though players say they're hearing the same message, just a different voice, over the last two weeks, Del Rio is making up his own mind on all game-day matters until Fox returns sometime in December or January.
''I've got to make these decisions and they will always be made in terms of what I believe, based on the information I have, what is best for the football team, what decisions give our football team the best chance to win. That's it,'' Del Rio said.
Del Rio and Fox go way back. And after Denver's head coach fell ill on the golf course Nov. 2 during the Broncos' bye and his doctors told him he could no longer put off aortic valve replacement surgery, Fox picked Del Rio to serve as his stand-in.
''I have great confidence in him,'' Fox said earlier this week from his home in Charlotte.
That doesn't mean Del Rio will obligatorily channel Fox on game day, even if the dicey weather expected to hit the Rocky Mountains on Sunday night alters Del Rio's mind-set or his risk tolerance when the Broncos (8-1) face the Chiefs (9-0).
Del Rio knows second-guessing comes with the territory of being a head coach and that any one of his decisions could loom large in the big picture.
''I certainly understand that,'' Del Rio said. ''You tend to get more of those questions after something doesn't work and I get that, too. But I will execute from my standpoint, my responsibilities. That includes making decisions in those situations.''
Del Rio finds himself in a pressure-packed situation this weekend. Lose and the Broncos find themselves two games behind the Chiefs in the AFC West with games at Arrowhead and Gillette looming before Thanksgiving. Manning could shatter all those passing records and the Broncos, prohibitive Super Bowl favorites since spring, could score more points than anybody in history and still find themselves only the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs.
Del Rio won his debut last week at San Diego, 28-20, when his first game-day decision panned out. Denver won the coin flip and deferred. The Broncos scored on the final possession of the first half and the first drive of the second half, building a 28-6 lead.
For a minute, it looked as though he'd made an even bigger move in Fox's absence when cornerback Quentin Jammer, who had played just three games and tallied one tackle all season, got the start ahead of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Turns out, Rodgers-Cromartie just wanted to honor Jammer, who played 11 seasons with the Chargers before signing with the Broncos this year, so he sent him out in his place in Denver's base defense to start the game.
Jammer, who was indeed a bigger part of the game plan with a season-high 32 snaps on defense, gave way to Rodgers-Cromartie after the first two plays.
Del Rio's hands were full juggling head coaching and defensive coordinator duties and he didn't notice the switcheroo - and was still unaware until reporters informed him about it during his postgame interview.
He wasn't upset, though.
''I thought that was cool. I did ask that in the future that they alert me before I go in and speak with you all,'' Del Rio said, chuckling.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton