The Denver Broncos are as likely as any team to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
These 2013 team previews have been constructed with a typical beginning, middle and end, but the whole concept is starting to make this analyst feel jaded about how a NFL season actually unfolds. So consider this the conclusion and we will work backwards like Seinfeld once did for an episode.
When it’s a non-playoff team, we look at how they can make the playoffs. When it’s a playoff team, we look at how they can win the Super Bowl.
But as the 2012 playoffs proved once again, the regular season means very little these days for winning a title. As long as you get into the tournament, you have a chance. Anything can happen in one game, and the Broncos know that as well as anyone with last postseason’s most epic loss to the championship-winning Ravens in double overtime.
It’s not even April and you can book Denver in 2013’s tournament. You can expect a minimum of12 wins and one home playoff game. That was still the real Peyton Manning last year and the league’s most consistent player will continue to get it done with the same offense he always runs.
But knowing if we are going to get three to four strong team performances from the Broncos or the next Rahim Moore-type play highlighting an unspeakable playoff defeat is the mystery.
The Broncos are in the position they were in back in 1997. No one is going to care about their regular-season triumphs. Fair or not, they will be judged by the result in the playoffs.
Denver has holes just like every team. The difference is this team can still compete with anyone regardless of deficiencies. It will be hard to improve on some of the specific successes from 2012, but as long as it ends better in the playoffs, no one is going to care if the Broncos are not the top seed in the AFC.
Besides, what good does that top seed do for anyone these days? You have to somehow time it right so that you are playing your best football in the playoffs. The Broncos will give it another shot this year, and as long as they are seeded in the top four they will be in good shape.
This is usually where I would suggest the sting of last year’s loss will be enough motivation, but the game just does not work that way. One wrong move and that can be your season.
How does one improve on something like that? You just have to play fundamentally sound football. Denver failed to do so one time too many in 2012.
Broncos Must Elevate Game Against Elite Competition
The new-look Broncos with Manning in his return from neck surgery did a lot of things right last season. Their games followed a few different patterns.
Denver often started slow, but dominated in the second half. The 299 second-half points scored by the 2012 Broncos are an NFL record. The offense scored at least 20 points in all but one game; that was 17 at Kansas City in a game Matt Prater missed two field goals.
Denver had the best record in the league at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. The Broncos were 3-1 when it was a one-score deficit in the fourth quarter. Manning broke the record for comebacks after completing a 24-0 second-half comeback in San Diego.
When Denver fell behind by three scores, there was still a comeback attempt to make for a tight finish. This team cannot be held down for long.
The 11-game winning streak with every win by at least seven points tied the NFL record (1942 Bears and 2005 Colts). Yet all three of those teams did not win a playoff game. Denver became the fifth team since the 1970 merger to not have any games decided by fewer than six points (until the three-point playoff loss that is).
In an MVP-deserving season, Manning went 13 straight games with a passer rating of at least 90.0; tied for the second-longest streak in NFL history. He led the worst 8-8 team in NFL history to one of the league’s elite teams. The scoring differential increase for Denver was the third highest in a 16-game season.
How do you really improve on a season like that?
Well, most people would say the numbers were inflated by playing a weak schedule. The AFC West combined for as many wins as Denver’s 13. There goes six of the 13 wins right there.
When Denver played elite teams like Atlanta, Houston and New England early in the season, the Broncos trailed by at least 20 points every time, losing to all three.
That is not a sign of a team holding up against quality competition.
To their credit, the Broncos destroyed the Ravens in Baltimore (led 31-3 at one point) in Week 15. Yet even that game had warning flags. Manning passed for a season-low 204 yards as the Ravens got decent pressure and were not gashed by the run. Denver’s offense had a season-worst seven three-and-out drives. No other team forced more than four.
This was in a game that Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard and Dannell Ellerbe were inactive. All three started in the playoff rematch. All three are also out of Baltimore now.
But it was also the first game for Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator after the team fired Cam Cameron. Joe Flacco threw a pick-six before halftime that really swung the game for Denver.
So you can see why things would be different in the playoffs when the Ravens had their full complement of defenders.
Baltimore returns to Denver in the 2013 regular season, and looking at the list of opponents, the Ravens may be the only team capable of winning at Mile High.
On the road, the Broncos will try to avenge losses to Houston and New England. Going to Indianapolis and the Giants will be marquee games for Manning’s personal life, though it is going to be those key AFC games against the Patriots and Texans that likely decide the playoff seeding.
Denver cannot afford to fall behind by such big margins to those teams again.
But at the end of the day, it will come down to the postseason. Despite their struggles with top teams last season, Denver played the Ravens tough for 76:42 in what was always a one-score or tied game.
The outcome could have swung on so many different plays that day, but that blown coverage by Moore still stands out the most. Despite the pick-six that should have been pass interference, a misapplication of the Tuck Rule and a sloppy 10-penalty day, it was still shaping up as another typical 2012 Denver finish.
Manning had the game-winning drive in hand. The seven-point win was less than a minute away. The game-clinching interception, which Denver got from Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Andy Dalton in the regular season, was up for grabs.
But an unbelievable gaffe by a second-year safety changed it all. The Broncos drop an interception in overtime, Baltimore holds onto Manning’s bad throw, the rest is history.
When you were that close to hosting the AFC Championship, you cannot overreact to a loss. Denver still has enough of the right pieces to win it all next time.
Defense: Overcoming “The Elvis Dumervil Fax-up”
Baltimore has already taken advantage of another incredible Denver-related mistake. One piece not returning is Elvis Dumervil after his agent missed the deadline with a fax of his contract, forcing the Broncos to release him.
Instead of getting Dumervil at a reduced price, the Broncos will look to block him this season when they play the Ravens (which could be the season opener).
It is hard to believe this would even be possible in this era of technology, but Denver now must work out a backup plan. Dumervil made up a strong pass-rushing duo with Von Miller. While Miller is still going to be great, he is only one player.
Dumervil had 11 of Denver’s league-leading 52 sacks, though he was invisible in the playoff loss. Well, he did have two offsides penalties. Flacco had all day to throw against what was statistically the best defense in the league at putting the quarterback under duress.
If Denver wants to maintain that type of pass rush, the best option may be 33-year-old Dwight Freeney. Like Dumervil, he will not offer much against the run, but he can still rush the passer and will come at a cheaper price.
This is hardly a deathblow to the Broncos’ defense, but it was a situation that could have easily been avoided. No pass-rusher is bigger than a whole defense.
No matter who replaces Dumervil, the idea of Denver as an elite defense takes some getting used to given some paltry units in past years. The defense did very well against the scrubs of the league like Cleveland and Kansas City, but the better quarterbacks and offenses often had their way against the Broncos in 2012 and just about every other year in recent memory.
There is no franchise that has been more decimated in the postseason by opposing quarterbacks than the Broncos this century. Just check the last six playoff losses:
A 144.5 defensive passer rating and 38 points per game? It would be seemingly impossible to allow those numbers in the playoffs. John Elway sounds determined to build a team around Manning to win a Super Bowl based on his experience of doing it at the end of his career.
Someone remind Elway, his defense, allowed these numbers on its seven-game winning streak that resulted in two Super Bowl titles (1997-98): six touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 67.2 passer rating and 14.9 points per game.
As teams like the 2012 Ravens and 2011 Giants continue to show, you need a defense that can stifle the best offenses in the game in the playoffs (even on the road) if you want to win a championship.
Jack Del Rio’s defense has not come anywhere close to showing it is capable of doing so for a full month in the playoffs. Keeping Dumervil should have been a bigger priority as they are now stuck with a hole to fill and a conference that will still feature big-game quarterbacks who need to hit in January.
Expect Denver’s defense to decline statistically from last year.
The Most Dangerous Team in the League?
The Broncos might have been the most dangerous team in 2012, but that is only if you count the danger they were to themselves.
Denver could not get out of its own way early in the season, losing all 10 of its first 10 fumbles, which is a big reason the team started 2-3 before the 11 straight wins to clinch the No. 1 seed. Even at season’s end the team was minus-one in turnover differential.
But this offense, which was already second best to New England, can be even better and more efficient in 2013. The keys are better ball security, the addition of Wes Welker in the slot and John Fox must let Manning be more aggressive.
First, let’s look at the drive stats (regular season) for Denver’s 2012 offense under Manning. No offense to rookie Brock Osweiler, but those drives where he came in with a huge lead to mostly hand the ball off are of no interest to us. Included is an approximate 2012 ranking based on the drive stats at Football Outsiders.
The numbers for moving the ball and scoring were elite, but the turnovers (TO%) and average starting field position (LOS/Dr) leave much to be desired. Field position is out of the offense’s control, but turnovers are all on them.
Denver’s ball security was atrocious at points of the season. Manning had that horrific first quarter in Atlanta with three interceptions thrown to the same spot, but he protected the ball well the rest of the season. The bigger issue was fumbling, with 12 lost fumbles by the offense alone.
Here is a breakdown of Denver’s 173 drives:
On 82 drives the Broncos were able to score, miss a field goal or run out the clock. That leaves 91 drives when they had to give up the ball.
Twice they turned it over on downs, including an awful fake field goal against Oakland and Willis McGahee, who had four of the team’s lost fumbles, dropped an easy pass on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter against the Patriots. McGahee also fumbled in that quarter, sabotaging another classic finish in the Manning vs. Brady rivalry.
Manning was sacked in the end zone for a rare safety against San Diego. He lost two fumbles on sacks, which is something he has not done in a season since 2005.
Denver went three-and-out 35 times (20.2 percent), which is slightly higher than that of the offenses led by rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson last season.
However, 13 of those three-and-out drives were with a lead of at least one touchdown and often late in the game. Offenses do like to get conservative with a late lead.
When Denver was not shooting itself in the foot, this offense was very difficult to slow down.
Denver officially ranked third in the league at converting on third down, though it was actually second once you remove those pesky kneel downs.
The Broncos did well at running the ball in short-yardage situations, though they did stall about eight drives in the regular season, a problem in the playoff loss. Adding guard Louis Vasquez is a sign the Broncos are strengthening the interior of their line.
Welker can really help in situations when the team needs 1-7 yards to convert. That was his bread-and-butter zone in New England.
Manning did not have his best season on third-and-long, but he also could have been more authoritative in those situations. Sometimes it was dictated by score and game situation, but Denver actually handed the ball off seven times when it was 3rd-and-13 or worse.
In the 14 times Manning threw in that situation, he converted six times (42.9 percent). That was easily the best percentage in the league with the league-average conversion rate only being 13.6 percent.
As Fox should know, putting the ball in Manning’s hands is almost always the best move in any situation.
Denver could rightfully be accused of conservatism last year, such as having a league-low five attempts on fourth down in 2012. One was that fake field goal against Oakland. In four-minute offense situations, Denver went 10 runs and no passes from Manning.
None of those drives were more criticized than one late in the playoff loss before the Moore disaster. If you know a first down or two will put your team in the AFC Championship, are you going to let Ronnie Hillman carry the ball five straight times or let Manning throw a couple of passes?
The only limitation this offense really has is the lack of an athletic tight end. Still, Manning will complete a high rate of passes to Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen with the occasional big gain.
The potential for this offense is scary. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are still young receivers that not have reached their full potential. For as deadly efficient Manning was to Brandon Stokley last year, imagine how good he can be with Welker, who has shown he can handle a large workload with durability.
With a draft still to come during which Denver can look at upgrading the linebackers and secondary, this is clearly one of the league’s most talented teams and should be a must-watch this season.
But will it be enough to finish games in the playoffs?
Next time the offense should be given the opportunity to end a game on its own terms instead of even giving the defense a chance to have a Moore meltdown. Maybe that is the only improvement necessary for Denver.
What more (or Moore?) can the Broncos really improve on?
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.