Denver Broncos Must Prove That Last Year's Playoff Run Was Not a Fluke

Jason Muckley@@jamuckleySenior Analyst IIAugust 10, 2012

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 09:  Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos calls out the defense against the Chicago Bears during a preseason game at Soldier Field on August 9, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. The Broncos defeated the Bears 31-3.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning are on their honeymoon this preseason. Having broken up with Tim Tebow and moved on to a more mature, polished quarterback, the team is in awe of Manning's leadership ability and precision at calling plays and barking orders. Teammates young and old are starstruck by his abilities.

But this happens every season. It's one part amnesia and one part ignorance. Last year, the Broncos backed into the playoffs, dropping three straight games against the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs.

They barely broke into the playoffs, tied with the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers with an 8-8 record overall.

Enter the insomnia.

Coaches will preach during press conferences that when a team enters the playoffs, their record is reset to 0-0 and it becomes anyone's game. Just ask the New York Giants, who finished just a game better than the Broncos and wound up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy this season.

Or better yet, ask the 15-1 Green Bay Packers, who everyone picked to repeat as Super Bowl champs and then were promptly handed a loss in their first playoff game of 2011.

The Broncos amazed the world by hanging with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were severely hampered by injuries to Ben Roethlisberger (sprained left ankle) and Maurkice Pouncey.

James Harrison, Brett Keisel and Troy Polamalu missed time during the week leading up to the game because of various ailments.

It was a hard-fought contest decided on the first play of overtime, when Tim Tebow connected with Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard strike, instantly catapulting the Broncos into the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

Fans were euphoric with the incredible win. The team was validated after their up and down, inconsistent season, which featured a 20th overall defense and a lopsided offense that never could get going in the passing game. The team also led the league in rushing with the unconventional run-option offense.

The improbable, unbelievable comebacks that Tebow engineered ultimately hid numerous flaws in both his game as a quarterback, the inconsistent play on defense and some of the poor play of his fellow teammates on offense.

Their meteoric rise from bottom feeders at 4-12 in 2010 to Super Bowl hopefuls advancing to the second round of the playoffs in 2011 lured the big fish that was Peyton Manning in free agency.

Just like any good sports flick (think Moneyball), the end of the story was that the next week in the playoffs, the Broncos were thrashed by the New England Patriots.

While it was discouraging for fans, most of them were just thankful for the fun run they had with Tebow and couldn't get over how the team pulled out so many close games late in the fourth quarter. The Broncos won seven of 11 games decided by a touchdown or less last season.

To me, as a Broncos diehard, but also a realist, there has to be some time before the season starts where we can look at the product on the field objectively and make a prediction about what the 2012 season holds for Denver.

The Broncos have garnered quite a bit of attention this offseason after signing Peyton Manning. Teams are not going to take the Broncos lightly like they may have done last season when they employed Tim Tebow on offense. Teams will be setting up schemes to take away Manning's favorite targets, pressure him incessantly with his suspect offensive line and do everything they can to knock him to the ground.

His arrival is probably the best gauge any team could get as to where they really are. His game instantly elevates the Broncos, as it did for the Indianapolis Colts despite a mediocre supporting cast.

Still, if the rest of the team doesn't step up, they will be exposed.

Not only will opposing teams' defensive coordinators be gunning for Manning—the Broncos will face the second hardest schedule in the league this year. Their narrow margin in the AFC West guaranteed them a spot in the playoffs, but also set them up with a date against the New England Patriots in Foxborough and the Houston Texans at home this season.

The pressure starts Week 1, as the Broncos have a rematch against a healthy Pittsburgh Steelers team looking to avenge their one-and-done playoff showing last year.

If the Broncos are to show that they are legitimate contenders in the NFL, they will have to go at least 4-3 in an opening stretch that features the Steelers, Falcons, Texans, Raiders, Patriots, Chargers and Saints.

Something like a 2-5 record in that stretch could put their entire season in jeopardy, as they could face the prospect of finishing 2012 worse than 2011, which would be a disappointment for all of Bronco Country.