This was with Peyton Manning still shaking off the rust after coming off four neck surgeries and a full season missed.
This was with the Broncos going through an adjustment period from Tim Tebow to Manning in the course of one season, where the offense had to adapt from a running quarterback to the greatest passer of all time.
The result—a 13-3 record and a No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
The Broncos improved in every conceivable passing category from 2011 to 2012 in drastic fashion—in points per game (25th in 2011, second in 2012), passing yards (31st in 2011, fifth in 2012) and passing touchdowns (18th in 2011, third in 2012).
Entering 2013, the Broncos return their offensive nucleus from 2012 along with the best slot receiver in the league in Wes Welker and a rookie running back—Montee Ball—who could prove to be Denver's franchise running back.
This Broncos offense is stacked.
What can we expect from this stacked Broncos offense in 2013?
Manning Will Be Better
Manning was coming off nearly two years' worth of rust when he debuted as Broncos quarterback in September of the 2012 season.
What that resulted in was Denver experiencing one of their best regular seasons in franchise history, while Manning finished runner-up in MVP voting.
The veteran quarterback had the second-best season of his career while throwing for 37 touchdowns and accumulating a 105.8 quarterback rating.
The difference in 2013 compared to last year when Manning first arrived in Denver? Via Jeffri Chadiha of ESPN.com:
"Everything is different now," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "Back then you didn't know for certain what he could do."
The Broncos know what Manning can do now. After shattering numerous franchise passing records formerly held by his boss—executive vice president John Elway—there are no questions as to if Manning can remain an elite quarterback entering 2013.
With an improved offense that now features Welker, and two other 1,000-yard receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, the sky is the limit for the 2013 Broncos.
Why the Passing Game Will Be Better
Outside of Manning entering his second full year back from four neck surgeries, the Broncos replace one of the better slot receivers in the league—Brandon Stokley—with the best one: Wes Welker.
"I’d be lying if I told you we have not studied what worked well for Wes in New England," Manning said. "There’s certain pass patterns and certain things that he’s done so well for so long, you’d be crazy not to copy some of those and bring those to your offense."
One of the many short-yardage routes that Welker ran so successfully in New England was the option route. Kyle Montgomery of MileHighReport.com goes into detail about Welker's ability to run the option route:
One thing Wes Welker did notoriously well in New England that we can expect the Broncos to bring over is the option route. Welker would burst off the line without a set direction to go, instead being charged with reading and reacting to the coverage in front of him to decide which route to take. He and Brady were so aligned in the way each read these coverages, they anticipate the same route a vast majority of the time, producing one of the most lethal short-yardage passing games the NFL has ever seen.
Denver will have three receivers who are capable of being No. 1 options in most offenses. They'll return Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen as their tight ends, with third-year tight end Julius Thomas possibly playing a bigger role this upcoming season.
With Dreessen recovering from knee surgery, it's opened up opportunity for Thomas.
The third-year tight end who was drafted with a fourth-round selection by John Fox in the 2011 NFL draft, has struggled to make it onto the field due to injuries over his first two seasons. He's played just nine games through two years.
However, the athletic ability that made him a two-sport star in college—he played basketball in college—gives the Broncos hope that he can develop into a version of Antonio Gates.
Via Andrew Mason of DenverBroncos.com: “He is a great athlete. A big target,” said Manning. “If you can’t complete a ball to Julius, as a quarterback, something is wrong with you.”
The Broncos utilize the three-wide look very often, and there's no question they'll do so more often this year with the addition of Welker.
With so many capable receiving options, the Broncos won't struggle to score points. Five receivers caught at least 40 passes for the Broncos in 2012—a franchise first.
Now with a receiver—Welker—who averaged 112 receptions over the past six years in New England, Denver's biggest struggle won't be moving the chains—it will be who to throw the football to.
That's a good problem to have.
The Montee Ball Effect
The Broncos drafted Ball with the second-round selection with the hope being that he would be Denver's franchise running back one day.
Well, that day is now.
The Broncos released Willis McGahee in June, their starting running back over the past two seasons. Because 2012 draft selection Ronnie Hillman is seen as a change-of-pace back while Knowshon Moreno is likely to play more of a role on third downs, that means Ball will see the majority of the snaps at running back.
Manning made it clear during OTAs that he and the rest of the Broncos will depend upon Ball in 2013. Via Lindsay Jones of USA Today:
"We're just kind of going through plays, going through games, getting him comfortable hearing audibles at the line of scrimmage. Because we are going to count on him in a big way this year," Manning said. "He's a rookie, but coach (John) Fox isn't going to bring him along slowly."
Ball is solidly built at 5'10" and 214 pounds. As seen in the highlights video, the University of Wisconsin product shows the ability to gain extra yardage with his blend of speed and strength when he gets to the second level and above.
Considering that he's the NCAA's all-time leader in career touchdowns (79), it's no surprise that Ball has a penchant for being a playmaker.
By adding a young playmaker at the running back position, it opens up many possibilities in the offense—in play-action and goal-line scenarios, especially.
Despite the negative news regarding J.D. Walton's possible season-ending surgery and the ongoing saga regarding Ryan Clady and his franchise tag, the Broncos have the most talented offense entering the 2013 season.
There are no weaknesses pertaining to the skill positions—they're all stacked. Denver has the best quarterback in the league and the best trio of starting wide receivers.
These two qualities combined with an above-average set of tight ends, featuring a possible breakout candidate—Julius Thomas—and a young running back in Ball, who could be this year's Alfred Morris, makes this offense capable of exceeding last year's offense, which scored 30.1 points per game.
With last year's stinging defeat in the playoffs to the Baltimore Ravens still fresh in the memory of many within the Broncos organization, and the talent level that's on this offense, this is a team that can threaten offensive records.