The Denver Broncos have had somewhat of a controversial offseason. The most talked about moves were giving up quarterback Tim Tebow and picking up legendary quarterback Peyton Manning. The AFC West is one of the most difficult divisions in the NFL to predict, with all four teams having the potential to be in the hunt for the division.
In 2011, there was a three-way tie for the division between the Broncos, the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos have many reasons to expect an improved year and another playoff run.
However, they also have a few elements of their coming season of which to be wary.
Broncos fans should be aware of these pros and cons heading into their 2012 campaign to defend the AFC West division crown.
Given his career to date, the only bad result one should fear from having Peyton Manning at quarterback is injury. He has played fantastically in every season that he has played so far in his 13-year (plus one year of injury) career.
Manning has not shown any signs of ill-health yet in a Broncos uniform. In his third preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, he had a quality start. Manning played an essentially perfect half—throwing two touchdowns and putting up a 148.6 quarterback rating.
The ceiling on Manning is still extremely high.
If he stays healthy, he will likely be a Pro Bowl contender and put up the tremendous numbers he always has. In order for Denver to have a successful season—which at this point means at least winning the division—he will need to.
Officially, the Denver Broncos have the second hardest strength of schedule in the NFL, only a bit behind the New York Giants. Their opposing winning percentage is about nine percent more than—for example—the New England Patriots.
That accounts for about a game and a half of difference.
Taking a closer look makes the situation look worse rather than better. The Broncos will play several perennial power-houses—including the Patriots, Ravens, Steelers and Saints. They will also play some second-tier teams with high ceilings—including the Falcons, Panthers, Texans and Bengals.
The Carolina Panthers should not be ignored on that list. With their linebacking core healthy this year and quarterback Cam Newton having a full offseason to develop, the Panthers will likely be strong both offensively and defensively.
The Broncos' out-of-division schedule is arguably the hardest in the NFL this year. The only "easy" game is against the Cleveland Browns, and will not be until Week 16.
Denver will need to start out playing well right out of the gate. Their nightmare opening schedule—Steelers, Falcons, Texans, Raiders, Patriots and Chargers—could put them in a bad situation heading into their Week 7 bye week.
While the AFC West is not the weakest division in the NFL, it lacks an elite team (excepting possibly the Broncos). In 2011, the Broncos won the AFC West with a measly 8-8 record, and the division as a whole was below .500.
Even though I just told you that the Broncos have an extremely hard out-of-division schedule, their in-division schedule is quite reasonable. There is no other team in the AFC West that should terrify Denver fans. The Broncos are widely believed to be the favorites in the AFC West, with some even picking them to make the Super Bowl.
The strength of schedule sword cuts both ways.
The Broncos are capable of winning a lot of games in-division, which would go a long way toward winning the division. At the same time, their painfully hard out-of-division schedule potentially means that they will need to win four or five out of their six division games in order to have a winning season.
Given the lack of an elite team in the AFC West and their challenging matchups against the AFC North and the NFC South, do not be shocked if an 8-8 team again wins the division.
The Denver Broncos' depth chart went through some changes in the offseason. Although the Broncos defensive unit put together some impressive games in 2011, they are still not one of the deeper units in the league.
The loss of defensive end Jason Hunter to a torn tricep will not help. The Broncos will need to manufacture good pressure on opposing quarterbacks like they did in some of their better performances in 2011.
Some key players will need to have big years on defense—including second-year linebacker Von Miller and defensive tackle Ty Warren. Safety Jim Leonhard was also brought in to add depth, but it is unclear how healthy he will be, according to Bronco Talk.
Overall, Denver fans should feel optimistic about the coming season. They are a better team on paper than last year and are favorites in the AFC West.
Their first-place schedule sets them up for some potentially epic games. They will most likely need to play better as a team than they did last season in order to make the playoffs. An 8-8 record might not be enough to win the division again.
Also, they probably cannot count on quite so many miracle wins.
There are several X-factors for the Broncos this season—including quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Brandon Stokley, aging running back Willis McGahee and rookie defensive tackle Derek Wolfe.
After the events of the 2011 season, Denver fans should be satisfied with nothing less than the AFC West crown.