The 2012 Denver Broncos have completely hit their stride, and they match up very well against the 1998 Denver Broncos squad that went on to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII. It may seem hasty or rash to draw such concluding comparisons, yet the facts and numbers do not lie. This 2012 Denver Broncos team is special.
In 1998, the Broncos started the season as the defending Super Bowl champions, having defeated Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII the year prior. It was common knowledge that John Elway only had one or two seasons left before he would retire, and while they were one of the most complete teams in the league, the odds of repeating as Super Bowl champions were extremely slim. Nonetheless, Elway and his veteran squad beat the statistics.
Elway relied heavily on his receivers during the 1998 season. His favorite targets were Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith, who had both established themselves as elite receivers in the mid-1990s. Through nine games in 1998, McCaffrey had 755 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, while Smith had 554 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Smith would pick it up in the later part of the season and finish with more receiving yards than McCaffrey, yet McCaffrey would finish as Elway's favorite red-zone target with ten touchdowns.
Fast forward to 2012, when Eric Decker has 598 yards and seven touchdowns through nine games. He's been a red-zone machine, as quarterback Peyton Manning is always looking his way when the Broncos find themselves in scoring range. DeMaryius Thomas has fewer touchdown receptions (four), yet he has 891 receiving yards through nine games. The tandem of Decker and Thomas has one more touchdown and 180 more receiving yards than McCaffrey and Smith did at the same point in their Super Bowl season.
Of course, it needs to be noted that the league has changed drastically in the past 14 years, as teams are opting to pass much more now than they used to. In 1998, Denver was reaping the benefits of Terrell Davis, who would go onto to rush for over 2,000 yards in 1998. While Willis McGahee has been a more than serviceable running back for the Broncos in 2012, he's more on track for an 1,100 yard season than a 2,000 yard season. In his defense, no back in the NFL besides Adrian Peterson is going to rush for anywhere near 2,000 yards this season.
Another staple of the Denver Broncos offensive attack in 1998 was Shannon Sharpe, who was one of the best tight ends in the league at the time. Through nine games in 1998, Sharpe had five touchdowns and 487 receiving yards. While Denver doesn't have a tight end with these receiving figures this year, Joel Dreessen has emerged as a reliable red-zone target at tight end, as he already has four receiving touchdowns through nine games.
On the other end of the ball, the Denver Broncos finished the 1998 season with the 11th-best defense in the league. They held teams to a 39 percent success rate on 3rd-down conversions and sacked opposing quarterbacks 47 times. These were very respectable numbers, and the Denver defense really stepped up during the 1998 playoffs, yet the 2012 Broncos defense is perhaps the most-underrated in the league. They are ranked sixth overall in total yards allowed, have held their opponents to a 37 percent success rate on third downs and have already collected 31 sacks in nine games. All in all, these are better numbers than the 1998 Broncos defense.
In no way am I comparing the legacies of McCaffrey and Smith to Decker and Thomas, nor am declaring that McGahee is having a comparable season to the one that Davis had in 1998. Decker and Thomas still have to prove their worth in coming years, and few backs will ever achieve the numbers that Davis accumulated in the late 1990s. As an all-around unit, however, the 2012 Broncos are statistically better than the 1998 squad.
To end this comparison, let's look at the quarterbacks, both of whom are two of the greatest to ever play the game. In 1998, Denver was led by John Elway, who fought off injuries throughout the season. Elway finally recovered from all his injuries by Week 12 and finished the season strong. He threw 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions on the year and kept his momentum going through the playoffs. It was a fitting end to a historic NFL career. In 2012, Peyton Manning is having the comeback of the century and proving to all his cynics that he still has quite a bit of gas in the tank. He has already tossed 21 touchdowns and has surpassed Elway's yardage total from 1998, which of course is skewed given the reliance Denver had on the run in 1998. Nonetheless, it's undeniable that Manning is putting up Super Bowl-worthy figures this season.
The Super Bowl champion is not the best team, but the team that plays the best in the playoffs, and only time will tell if Denver can establish themselves as that team this year. Statistically, however, they are putting up figures that rank them as one of the best Denver Broncos squads of all time.
The Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, and New England Patriots are being widely referenced as the most likely Super Bowl champions this year, and it seems that the Broncos are being snubbed a bit in that discussion. What they have accomplished should not be understated, however. They are a team with a new quarterback, a young offense around him and a defense that is defying all expectations. They clearly had a learning curve to overcome at the beginning of the season, yet it seems that the 2012 Broncos have found their stride and, with that, a place in Denver Broncos history.
Will they bring another Lombardi Trophy to the Mile High City?
The statistics are saying it's quite likely.