Peyton Manning's Spectacular Season Won't Spell Super Bowl for Denver Broncos

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Peyton Manning's Spectacular Season Won't Spell Super Bowl for Denver Broncos
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Peyton Manning is arguably playing the best football of his career, and at 9-3, the Denver Broncos already have a second-straight AFC West title locked up. 

But you'd be jumping the gun to say this team is a favorite to reach New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII. 

Victorious in their last seven games, Manning and the Broncos currently hold the longest winning streak in the National Football League. The four-time NFL MVP looks poised to make another miraculous run at the league's most prestigious individual award, and linebacker Von Miller has been equally amazing on defense. 

But it takes more than two great players to advance through a treacherous playoff schedule and make it to the big game. 

To win against solid competition in the postseason, you must start fast, finish strong and limit mistakes for a full 60 minutes—sometimes longer. In January, even the smallest slip-up can cost you an entire season. 

Let's look closely at Denver's three losses this season and the disturbing trend that has developed against the quality opponents it has faced. 

Week 2 against the Atlanta Falcons (now 11-1), Manning threw three interceptions in his worst game of the year and Denver fell 27-21 on the road. The score tells us the game was close, but was it?

Not at all. 

The Broncos trailed 27-7 heading into the fourth quarter. Two Willis McGahee TD runs made the game close at the end, but it was too little too late. As a team, Denver committed 10 penalties and turned the ball over four times. 

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
The Broncos have struggled against the NFL's top teams in 2012.

The very next week (this time at home) against Houston (also 11-1), the Broncos sputtered out of the gate and trailed 21-11 at the half. Three field goals and a safety were needed just to reach 11. By the end of the third, the Texans' lead expanded to 20 points. 

Once again Denver used two late scores to get within six points, losing 31-25. The 20 point deficit proved too big to overcome, even for "The Sheriff", one of the NFL's all-time comeback kings. 

Fast forward to Week 5 at New England, and the script remains the same. Trailing 31-7 late in the third, Denver once again closed the gap with two late TD passes, this time falling 31-21 against the reigning AFC Champions. 

No interceptions and only four penalties in that game, but three fumbles proved costly. 

Obviously, Manning has rounded into form each week, as have the Broncos. The seven-game winning streak can attest to that. But Denver hasn't faced a single high-caliber opponent since that lopsided loss to the Patriots

And that's where the concern sets in. 

How will Manning and the Broncos fare when they travel to Baltimore in two weeks? Denver's last seven wins have come against teams with a combined record of 31-53. Only one, the 7-5 Cincinnati Bengals, has a winning record. 

The Broncos will enter this year's playoffs with one of the best signal-callers in NFL history. One that is somehow playing as good if not better than he was playing before missing the entire 2011 season.

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That alone is a monumental advantage. His leadership and immense football knowledge makes every player on that offense better. They basically have a head coach on the field with them. 

But Denver's struggles in the run game (No. 23 in the NFL at 3.85 yards per carry) have been concerning. Losing Willis McGahee for the season only weakens the backfield. 

The defense, outside of Miller, has not been consistent week in and week out. 

With aspirations of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the Broncos must prove they can play a complete game against perennial playoff teams like the Patriots, Ravens and now the Texans. 

They look to be headed in the right direction, but by no means have they reached that level just yet. Perhaps Week 15 against Baltimore will serve as a more accurate measure of where this team is at. 

There's plenty of football left to be played, but making the Broncos out to be a Super Bowl contender this season is, in my opinion, at least one year too soon. 

 

Brandon Burnett is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and NFC West Lead Writer for Cold, Hard Football Facts. Don't forget to add him on Twitter

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