The Denver Broncos opened the 2012 season, as well as the Peyton Manning-era, with a bang, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football 31-19. But after losing three of four games after that, it looked like the Broncos may be in for a mediocre season.
It was the second half of a Monday night game in Week 6 that turned the season around. Down 24-0 at halftime against the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos rallied to score 35 unanswered points to win the game 35-24. They haven't looked back since.
Denver has won 11 games in a row and as a result, they have home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and are one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
But with the Broncos' next opponent uncertain until the Wild Card round is over, it gives us a chance to reflect on the 2012 regular season.
Peyton Manning: A+
Remember all of those questions surrounding Peyton Manning in the offseason after Denver brought him in? Would his neck be able to hold up after having four surgeries? Would his arm be strong enough to make the throws necessary against NFL defenses? Not only did Manning answer those with a resounding yes, he had one of the best seasons of his career.
Manning threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns. Both numbers were the second highest in his 14-year career. But it was the leadership and the focus that he brought to the team that made them one of the best in the NFL. The way he reads defenses and runs the offense from the line of scrimmage is what sets Manning apart from just about anyone who has ever played the position.
A league MVP award, which would be the fifth of his career, should go to Manning for a season that was nothing short of incredible.
Willis McGahee: B-
Before being injured in November against San Diego, McGahee was clearly having another solid season. His 952 total yards from scrimmage (731 rush, 221 receiving) were on pace to be as good and maybe even better than last season.
The knee injury sustained against the Chargers forced Denver to place McGahee on injured reserve, but if they get deep enough in the postseason, he could return to the team.
McGahee did lose four fumbles this season—one in particular was very costly in the team's loss to New England in Week 5.
Knowshon Moreno: B+
When McGahee went down with injury, it was assumed the team would turn to their rookie Ronnie Hillman. Instead the coaching staff decided to go with Knowshon Moreno, who they had made inactive for seven straight weeks following a fumble in Week 2 against Atlanta.
Inserted into the starting lineup in Week 12 against Kansas City, Moreno gained 85 yards on 20 carries. He also caught four passes in the game. It was the kind of performance that let the coaching staff know they could rely on Moreno, and that they did.
He would go on to post back-to-back 100 yard rushing games against Oakland and Baltimore and finished the season with 525 yards rushing and 167 yards receiving. Most importantly, he never fumbled after that night in Atlanta.
Chris Gronkowski: C
The Broncos' fullback, Gronkowski doesn't do much to get his name in the box score, having just one reception on the season. He does serve as a good lead blocker on run plays, but nothing more. The team signed free agent running back Jacob Hester in November—a player that is somewhat of a hybrid between fullback and running back—and he got many more snaps than Gronkowski down the stretch.
Demaryius Thomas: A-
After two very lackluster, injury-filled seasons, it seemed Denver may never see the full potential in their former first round pick, Demaryius Thomas. That changed in a hurry this season.
Thomas finished the year with 94 catches for 1,434 and 10 touchdowns, blowing his numbers from his first two seasons away.
Thomas did make some drops, but he has also gained the confidence of Manning as his favorite target. Thomas had Pro Bowl numbers and will become a force at the wide receiver position for years to come.
Eric Decker: A
Not since 2004 have the Broncos had two 1,000-yard receivers in one season. Eric Decker combined with Thomas to do that this year.
Decker, who only had 50 receptions for 718 yards in his first two seasons, caught 85 passes for 1,064 yards in 2012—his 13 touchdown receptions were second most in the league.
Brandon Stokley: B+
When training camp started, Stokley figured to be a player on the bubble of making the team. Not only did he make the team, he was a very important piece of the offense as the third wide receiver.
His past relationship with Manning was evident as he caught 45 passes for 544 yards and five touchdowns. Manning looked for Stokley several times in key moments of games and Stokley, in his second stint in Denver, was almost always up to the task.
Jacob Tamme: B
The tight end position was key for the Broncos this season due to the fact that Manning gets so many players involved in the passing game. Playing with Manning during his time in Indianapolis, Tamme had success in 2012, catching 52 passes for 555 yards and two touchdowns.
Joel Dreessen: B
Dreessen, like Tamme, was brought in as a free agent. He was a perfect compliment to Tamme and developed a quick connection with Manning. On the year, Dreessen made 41 catches for 356 yards and five touchdowns. It was the most receptions for Dreessen in a season in his now seven year career.
Ryan Clady: A
Zane Beadles: B+
Dan Koppen: B+
Chris Kuper: B-
Manny Ramirez: C+
Orlando Franklin: B
The Denver Broncos have developed one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. They gave up just 21 sacks on the season, second fewest in the NFL. If Manning has the time to stand in the pocket and throw, he is deadly.
Running the ball, Denver tried to hit the gap between center and guard on nearly 60 percent of their run plays this season, gaining 4.2 yards per carry on those plays, good for 10th in the league. Dan Koppen started 12 games at center after JD Walton fractured an ankle in Week 4 against Oakland. Koppen proved to be an upgrade at the position.
Starting guard Chris Kuper played in just seven games this season as he battled injuries, opening the door for Manny Ramirez to get extended playing time.
Ryan Clady will be going to the Pro Bowl for a fourth time and Zane Beadles may have been the most improved player on the entire team.
Elvis Dumervil: A-
Despite an offseason incident (via Yahoo.com) that landed Dumervil in the news negatively, he came out and had a solid 2012 campaign.
Dumervil had 11 sacks and forced six fumbles, continuing to be the disruptive force that he has become for opposing offenses. In Week 3 against Houston, he was able to sack Matt Schaub in the end zone for a safety. With those numbers, Dumervil was selected to the Pro Bowl for a fourth time.
Kevin Vickerson: B+
Denver ranked third in the league against the run, giving up just 91 yards a game on the ground. A big reason why was Vickerson.
On the season, Vickerson made 40 tackles, five of which went for a loss of yardage. He also got to the opposing quarterback for two sacks after not making any in 2011.
Justin Bannan: B
Bannan was also instrumental in Denver's tough run defense and made 42 tackles on the year. He also had a forced fumble to go along with a fumble recovery.
Derek Wolfe: A-
Wolfe was a young rookie who many felt was drafted too high and would have to acclimate himself to the NFL. Instead, he made a quick impact and had a great rookie season, justifying being selected where he was.
Wolfe made 40 tackles and had six sacks, one in each of the team's final three games. With a defense already possessing Dumervil and Von Miller, the pass rush for Denver is going to be good for a long time.
Von Miller: A+
Aside from Manning, Miller is the best player on the team and his 2012 season was reflective of that.
Miller earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl in his second season after setting a franchise record with 18.5 sacks, breaking the mark of 17 put up by Dumervil in 2009.
Miller is a terror for opponents and a player that could challenge for the defensive player of the year each and every season.
Wesley Woodyard: A
While Dumervil, Miller and Champ Bailey get the accolades, Woodyard quietly had a tremendous season.
Pushed into the starting lineup due to the nine game suspension of D.J. Williams, Woodyard responded by leading the team with 117 tackles. Along with that, he also had 5.5 sacks, three interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Woodyard is all over the field on defense and one could make the argument that he deserved a spot in the Pro Bowl.
Keith Brooking: B
Brooking was signed as insurance just before the season started and ended up starting 14 games for Denver. At 37 years old, he proved he still had something to add to an NFL team.
Brooking took the starting middle linebacker job from Joe Mays and tallied 54 tackles and a forced fumble. He recorded his first and only sack of the season in the regular season finale against Kansas City.
Joe Mays: D
Joe Mays started in just four games before the team opted to go with Brooking. He had just 20 tackles on the year before being placed on injured reserve due to a knee injury.
He was also fined $50,000 and suspended (via ESPN) one game for a hit on Schaub in Week 3. 2012 was a forgettable season for Mays and with the depth at the linebacker position for Denver, he very likely won't be back in 2013.
Champ Bailey: A
Champ Bailey is still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Despite just two interceptions, the same number he has had three seasons in a row now, Bailey still comes up to put his helmet on a ball carrier and opposing teams still throw the other way more often than not.
Bailey was rewarded with a 12th Pro Bowl selection, an NFL record for defensive backs.
Chris Harris: A-
This is a guy who is ready to be a breakout player. Due to Tracy Porter not being able to suit up multiple times this year, Harris was given extended work and the coaching staff probably won't go back on it.
Harris had 61 tackles, three interceptions and 2.5 sacks on the season. He returned an interception 98 yards in Denver's win over Baltimore, recording the longest interception return for a touchdown in franchise history.
Tracy Porter: C-
Agreeing to a one-year contract in the offseason, Porter was one of the first free agents Denver signed. It looked like a brilliant move in the season opener against Pittsburgh when Porter intercepted a ball thrown by Ben Roethlisberger and ran it in for a 43-yard touchdown to seal the victory.
But, that may be the lone highlight in Porter's tenure as a Bronco, as he has missed 10 games this year due to various injuries.
Porter has been one of the few disappointments this season and as a result, might be looking for a new team next year.
Rahim Moore: B
Moore still needs to work on his pass coverage, but he is slowly turning into the player Denver hoped he would.
Moore finished the year with 72 tackles, one sack and one interception to go along with seven pass deflections. He is becoming the type of hard-nosed safety Denver thought they were getting when they drafted him out of UCLA. Aside from Beadles, Moore may be the next most improved player on the team.
Mike Adams: B+
With Quinton Carter going down early in the year with a season-ending injury, Adams, another free agent signing, stepped in and played very well.
Adams' 80 tackles was second most on the team and he found a way to be effective both against the pass and the run. Adams routinely came up from his safety spot to make tackles on running backs and was also good at dropping back to defend the pass, coming up with 11 pass deflections.
Matt Prater: B-
Matt Prater still has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, but it could have been more accurate this season.
Prater missed six of his 32 field goal attempts but still scored a career-high 133 points. He only scored 87 points in 2011 and 76 points the year before that.
Britton Colquitt: B+
Colquitt finished third in the league with a 42.1 yard net average in punting, but only 17 of his 67 punts were downed inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
He did have just four touchbacks. Only five punters in the league had less.
Trindon Holliday: B
Trindon Holliday is turning into one of the most explosive players in the league. After being cut by Houston early in the season, Denver claimed him to help improve what was easily their biggest weakness.... kick returning. It worked.
Holliday returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns on the year. His 105-yard kickoff return to open the second half against Cincinnati was the longest touchdown of any kind if team history.
The only thing that brings his grade down is his shaky ball security, which was likely the reason the Texans let him go.