This was the moment that the Denver Broncos pushed all of their chips in the middle—going all-in on a Super Bowl or bust move.
John Elway, the most prolific quarterback in Denver history, and many of us think one of the top three QBs of all-time, turned heads when he accepted the job as Executive Vice President of Football Operations and returned to the team he took to five Super Bowls, including two consecutive wins to close out his career.
While Bronco maniacs praised the decision to bring back their hero to lead this team to the promise land again, some questioned if his hiring would pay dividends—given the run of failed player-turned football executive in recent history. From Matt Millen to Dan Marino, having a former star at the top of your team definitely did not ensure success, in fact, it often produced the opposite.
But since day one "The Duke" has had a vision for this team, a vision that would lift the Orange and Blue out of the dark days left behind by the ego-maniacal Josh McDaniels and his continuous streak of failures and blunders.
Flash forward to today and look at the squad that has been assembled here in Denver. While none of the supposed experts at ESPN or CBS Sports have Denver going to the Super Bowl, here are five reasons why those experts will be eating their words come February.
The Broncos had the "book end" pass rushers teams wanted last season with rookie Von Miller emerging early and, when teams started doubling him, Elvis Dumervil swung in and rattled passers time and time again in the second half of the season.
"Doom and Gloom" both went to the Pro Bowl and finished with a combined 21 sacks for a much improved pass rush.
Now, Von Miller is a year more mature, Dumervil is another year removed from his devastating pectoral injury that made him miss the entire 2010 campaign and the Broncos added another force along the line to harass passers to no end.
On draft day, many people were disappointed that the Broncos traded out of the first round and failed to receive a major package in return. I said it was a mistake. Then they drafted Derek Wolfe in the second round—supposedly adding him to the rotation of DTs for the Broncos.
However, watching the Giants win another Super Bowl with a huge stable of pass rushers, Elway rethought his early draft strategy, knowing you can NEVER have to many players to rush the passer.
While listed as a DT at the draft, Derek Wolfe is more suited for the DE position and can he ever bring it.
Wolfe showed his pass rushing ability in the preseason and only adds another element to the Broncos defense in passing situations.
With three solid pass rushers to deal with, the corners will not have to cover as long and many blitz package rushers will be unblocked as it is impossible to deal with all three and successfully pick up every blitz. In addition, pressure on the quarterback leads to mistakes and mistakes lead to turnovers and turnovers lead to wins.
The prediction here is that the three combine for 30+ sacks this season and Denver is in the top three in sacks and turnovers—making their defense all that more stout.
The new NFL is a passing league—that much is quite clear. However, having a solid core of RBs is always a positive step to keep the defense on their toes.
Not only do the Broncos have four Tailbacks that can run, but two excel in the passing game. Nothing is more important to a QB than safety valve out of the backfield that can gain yards in space.
With McGahee looking like a 25 year old version of himself, Knowshon Moreno returning (and rightfully so) to a reduced role, rookie Ronnie Hillman looking like the new version of Darren Sproles and Lance Ball being the steady, hard-running sleeper back of the group, the Broncos can throw multiple looks at defenses from the backfield, combining the rushing and screen game into another weapon for Peyton Manning.
Oh, and by the way, all of these backs are better-than-average blockers to keep our $96 million investment off his back.
Champ Bailey is in the twilight of his career.
At 34, Bailey should be slowing down, but he's not. What he lost in speed, he makes up for in instincts and smarts and he hasn't lost that much speed. He is still one of the three best shut down corners in the league and is still at the top of his game.
Bailey leads an improved crop of DBs that includes former Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter and stalwart safety Mike Adams. Both Adams and Porter will pay tremendous dividends this season. Sure, it would've been great to have Dawkins back there for one more season, but this unit is better suited in coverage.
Chris Harris emerged as the nickel corner last year, despite going undrafted, and he proved his rookie season wasn't a fluke, as he held off veteran corner Drayton Florence to keep that job.
Harris played excellent in the preseason and looks to be once again earning increased playing time for a team that will play nickel defense almost as much as they will play their base.
The wild card here is Raheem Moore/Quinton Carter. While Carter looked decent his rookie year, Moore simply wasn't that good. But with the previously mention heavy pass rush and a solid veteran in Adams to learn from, Moore will make tremendous progress throughout the season.
The schedule for the Broncos may be the toughest in the NFL based on last year's records. Having to play six playoff teams in the first nine weeks will certainly test this group.
They face seven playoff teams in all, including the two most prolific offenses in the last few decades and three of the best defenses from last year. They will be tested, week-in and week-out.
While many people think that this is a weakness for this team, I disagree. While they may only emerge out of the first eight games at 4-4, facing the top teams in the league early on will help mold this team into a juggernaut that will be able to face any challenge.
When they finally hit their stride by midseason, the Broncos will be the most battle tested and battle ready team in the league. a 10-6 or 11-5 finish will still get them into the playoffs, and most likely they will have played almost every team they will face in the postseason.
A tough schedule? Yes. An impossible one? No, and the Broncos will be a much better team for it. Even if they sneak into the playoffs, we all know what teams can do once the reach the big dance, just look at the Giants from last year.
Of course, the No. 1 reason the Broncos will advance to the Super Bowl is No. 18. We didn't invest that kind of coin in a player to watch us flounder.
Peyton put any serious doubters to shame in the preseason game against the 49ers as he took a nasty hit, completed a deep pass and shredded one of the best defenses in the league on his way to a near perfect passer rating.
Couple that with the fact that he has a solid running game and a plethora of receiving options, and the Manning-led offense will put up some points.
While the top three receivers may not possess the resumes of other teams, Decker, Thomas and Stokley are all primed to have career years. Thomas and Decker had good years last year, while catching wounded ducks from a glorified running back—Imagine what they can do with Manning.
Also, Denver will run a lot of two TE sets with Dreesen and Tamme, maybe a Julius Thomas here and there.
All of this put together will ensure big leads and comeback wins. Manning will prove all of his doubters wrong and have another Pro Bowl-caliber year.
Combine all of these reasons with a more than solid kicking game, and the Broncos are a force to be reckoned with.
Like any NFL team, this is obviously contingent on health, as nothing derails a season faster than injuries—just ask the 2011 Chicago Bears. Nothing would hurt more than Manning going down, but here's saying he lasts the entire season.
I like that they are not catapulted to the top of the experts predictions and I think the Broncos like it too. They will fly under the radar as much as a team can after acquiring the biggest free agent in history, and emerge at the top of the AFC.
Heck, they may even win the whole thing.
At the end of the 2012 season the combination of Bowlen, Fox and Elway will have put together a solid and successful team.
One that will be poised to make runs like this for the next decade, as this certainly will not be their last Super Bowl under Elway.