The signing of Peyton Manning might be the greatest free-agent addition in the history of the NFL through eight games. The Denver Broncos backed into the playoff behind Tim Tebow in 2011, so the pieces were in place for Manning to take this team to the next level, and that’s just what he’s done.
There were bumps along the way and the Broncos have yet to beat an elite team, but they have taken care of business on the road and at home versus weaker opponents. Manning is not only making a case for Comeback Player of the Year, but also Most Valuable Player.
Manning is one of the truly unique players in the NFL, a quarterback who can elevate the play of everyone on the team. Thanks to Manning, the Broncos now have a lead in the AFC West and should run away with the division with a soft second-half schedule. It would be surprising at this point if the Broncos didn’t make the playoffs, with the only question being if they can also secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage.
Aside from Manning’s brilliance throwing the ball, it’s amazing just how well-rounded the Broncos have been this season. If not for 10 lost fumbles on the year, the Broncos would not be ranked in the bottom-five in any significant statistic. Manning even elevates the play of the defense and makes its job much easier.
The Broncos and Manning lead the league in completion percentage and 20-plus yard pass plays. The worst passing statistic is interception percentage, and the Broncos still rank seventh in the NFL. Any questions about Manning’s physical abilities are long gone, and he’s producing at an unprecedented level. The scary thing for the rest of the NFL is that Manning has put up these numbers against the toughest part of the Broncos’ schedule. There’s actually room to improve.
Offensive weapons seem to be in abundance in Denver now that Manning is comfortable with his offense. Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas are on pace for career years, and Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley adding to Manning’s arsenal. There are also weapons like Virgil Green and Ronnie Hillman that are just scratching the surface of their talent and have received more snaps over the past few weeks.
Of course, Manning presence has changed the offense from last year, and the team is no longer the top-ranked run offense. The running game has actually been below-average, and there’s a lack of explosiveness that the team seemed to have in 2011.
It’s a passing league, and the Broncos are able to use the running game to keep defenses honest, and that’s about all they need the running game to do. Willis McGahee is doing the job, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Hillman starts to steal carries in the second half.
Pass Offense: A+
Run Offense: C-
Overall Offense: A
It’s a little harder to gauge just how good or bad Denver’s defense has been in 2012 and just how it’s been progressing. So far, the Broncos seem to have found two young cornerbacks in Chris Harris and Tony Carter that can play at a level high enough to knock veteran cornerback Tracy Porter down the depth chart. Veterans like Keith Brooking and Jim Leonhard have been valuable additions as injury replacements and in certain defensive packages.
In time, the Broncos might even get better at limiting third-down conversions and preventing teams from throwing for touchdowns. Opponents are trying to pass on Denver to keep pace with Manning, and that’s probably inflating some of the pass defense statistics unfairly.
The defense has also been only average at taking the ball away from other teams, which is a big reason why the Broncos are minus-four in turnover margin. A fierce pass rush and a run defense that is top five in yards have given the Broncos opportunities to force turnovers, and they have not been able to take advantage. If the Broncos want to compete with the other elite teams in the NFL, they will need to force more turnovers in the second half.
The Broncos just don’t have a dominant defense at this stage of the season, but a dominant defense is not necessary. The Broncos have been very good at preventing big plays, and few big games forcing turnovers can drastically change things. The Broncos still get to face the Kansas City Chiefs twice and should be able to add more to the total in those games.
Playing solid defense and making timely plays is the most important factor when Manning is the quarterback, so the Broncos should continue to do what’s been getting the team wins. As the weather gets colder and the Broncos play weaker opponents, there will also be additional opportunities for the Broncos to generate turnovers.
Pass Defense: B-
Run Defense: B+
Overall Defense: B