The Denver Broncos came so close.
Denver was tabbed by many as Super Bowl favorites, and there weren’t many reasons to pick against the white-hot Broncos. Denver was on a remarkable 11-game winning streak, and it had won all of those games by eight points or more. The Broncos had beaten the Baltimore Ravens 34-17 during that streak, and they were looking to end Ray Lewis’ career and send the Ravens home.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos came out strong, stopping the Ravens and striking first on an 89-yard punt return by Trindon Holliday. However, the Ravens turned the tide, and the game was a back-and-forth battle despite lots of miscues from Denver. The Broncos appeared to have the game locked up in the fourth quarter, but magic happened next. Baltimore had some fateful plays, and they won a thriller and went on to win Super Bowl 47.
All the Broncos could do was think about what could have been and how to improve on it in 2013.
Denver couldn’t be stopped when they were hot, though. The Broncos stormed back from down 24 points on Monday Night Football in San Diego, and they dropped 35 points on the helpless Chargers in that game; all in the second half. If the Broncos continued to score like that and if they continued to get pressure on the quarterback, they definitely could have triumphed over the Ravens, Patriots and 49ers en route to a Super Bowl championship.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, that didn’t happen.
Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil teamed up to lead a defense that surprised many pundits. Denver’s defense is known for surrendering 38 points and a Hail Mary miracle against Baltimore, but people forget that the Broncos placed second in total defense.
In addition, Miller and the Broncos tied for first in sacks, as the Broncos brought down the opposing quarterback 52 times. Miller set a franchise record with 18.5 sacks of his own.
Dumervil bolted for Baltimore after an odd fax fail, but Denver’s defense is still strong. Wesley Woodyard led the team with 117 tackles, Champ Bailey was able to take on some premier receivers and lock them down (although Torrey Smith gave Bailey trouble in the playoffs), Chris Harris emerged as a shutdown corner, Rahim Moore had a solid season and Denver’s defensive tackles exceeded expectations.
Even without Dumervil, the Broncos will be fine. Denver was able to add Sylvester Williams to the defensive line, and he should be able to help compensate for the loss of Dumervil (even though the two don't play the same position). Williams is a versatile defensive tackle who can chase the quarterback, as he had six sacks in his last year at North Carolina.
The defense needs to continue to produce for the Broncos, but that’s not going to be too hard. Bailey is aging, but he still held Smith to three catches in the playoffs and limited star receivers such as A.J. Green. Harris is a capable corner, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can step in and make an impact with his size and athleticism.
If Rodgers-Cromartie and Bailey can team up to guard outside receivers and Harris can take over as the primary slot corner, Denver's pass defense can be extremely effective. If Miller, Williams, Woodyard and others can continue to get to the quarterback, Denver's defense can be one of the best in the league. And if the defense is good, the offense won't need to do much.
Denver's offense can explode, though. Manning threw 37 touchdowns in 2012 and had a tremendous 3.4 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio. He is undoubtedly a star quarterback, and he is surrounded by playmakers. Decker caught 13 touchdowns in 2012, and Thomas racked up 1,434 receiving yards.
And Welker? In 2011, he accumulated 1,569 receiving yards.
Denver's offense is complete. They have arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL, and they have a talented offensive line. Louis Vasquez, Denver's newest offensive lineman, allowed two sacks in 2012, and Ryan Clady was franchise-tagged by the Broncos. Oh, and Zane Beadles, in addition to Clady, was a Pro Bowler in 2012.
These lineman can pave holes for Montee Ball and Willis McGahee, Denver's probable top two running backs. McGahee averaged 4.4 yards per carry (YPC), and with Wisconsin in 2012 Ball averaged 5.1 yards per carry (YPC). Ball had a tremendous season in 2011, when he averaged 6.3 YPC.
Ball is a guy who can shoot through a hole with his acute vision, make one cut and get deep into the open field. The Broncos had Moreno, McGahee and Ronnie Hillman run up the middle a lot in 2012, even though none of those guys are power runners. Ball can find holes easily and burst through them, and he's dangerous once he finds space.
The Broncos have depth at running back, and they have a player with lots of potential in Ball. The Broncos added depth and filled holes in the draft, and they also added another solid player during the draft. Shaun Phillips, a 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end, was signed to a one-year deal. Phillips, who registered 9.5 sacks in 2012, will start at defensive end for Denver and will try to fill the hole left by Dumervil's departure.
And he'll do a great job.
Denver is a talented team with no holes and no shortage of talent. The team is hungry after last year's tough ending and they have a lot more talent due to the offseason and the draft. As long as Manning is at the helm, the Broncos have a chance at winning the Super Bowl, and because the Broncos have such a great supporting cast their chances of winning are higher.
There are lots of other great teams in the NFL, but the Broncos will definitely contend. As long as they can keep defense on their toes with quick passing and as long as they can get to the quarterback, the Broncos will be fine.
And as long as they can do that, they can win it all.