Just about every franchise has a team that it believes is one of the greatest. Last year, NFL.com did bracket-style fan voting for the top 64 teams in NFL history, and the 1976 Oakland Raiders edged the 2000 Baltimore Ravens by less than one percent. There is no shortage of great teams throughout NFL history.
With 12 games to go in the regular season, it looks like the 2013 Denver Broncos are emerging as this year's great team and with a little luck, maybe one of the best ever. More than a few great teams have had a great season tarnished by a lackluster showing in the playoffs, but the historic start still puts the 2013 Denver Broncos in elite company.
Denver's defense needs to improve statistically to get there, but with linebacker Von Miller slated to return from a six-game suspension in two weeks and cornerback Champ Bailey close to returning from a foot injury, that's almost a guarantee.
Winning the Super Bowl automatically cements a team's status as one of the best ever, even though we all know that anything can happen in the playoffs, and great teams often don't get some of the recognition they deserve. Something could freeze over, a safety can let a deep pass fly over his head with just a minute to play for the game-tying touchdown and one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game can throw an interception in overtime.
To be absolutely sure something like this won't happen (again), the Broncos had to get even better than last year. The signing of slot receiver Wes Welker has made the offense better than anything we've ever seen before, and the signings of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and linebacker Shaun Phillips are helping the defense tread water while their two stars are out.
It's tough to put into words how great the Broncos have been, but the numbers often do a much better job explaining it. Even though four games is a small sample, it has been so impressive that we can actually glean something from it. As it turns out, greatness on the level of the 2013 Broncos tells us a lot more than your average four-game sample size.
Because four games is only 25 percent of the season, it's tough to directly compare the Broncos to some of the great teams in history. Not only that, but some of the best teams in history played in totally different eras that would make direct comparison impossible and unfair.
However, points scored and points allowed seem to stand the test of time. Teams that score more than they allow in a game win and teams that don't, lose. You'd be hard-pressed to find a season where multiple teams with a negative point differential are above .500.
A great score differential can be accomplished with offense or defense, but the truly great teams in NFL history were good on both sides of the ball. However, defense has taken a bit of a backseat to offense in recent years.
Only four of the last 43 Super Bowl champs have had a below-average defense in points allowed, but all four of them have come in the last seven years. The 2012 Ravens were also barely above average, so the notion that defense wins championships in today's NFL is simply not true.
That said, having the top-ranked offense in points scored or top-ranked defense in points allowed do seem to be the most common traits of Super Bowl champions. About 26 percent of Super Bowl winners since the merger had the top-scoring offense, and 28 percent had the best defense in points allowed the year they won the Super Bowl.
The Offense's Performance in Context
The Broncos have scored 179 points through four games which is 17 more points than the 2002 Raiders scored in the first four games and the most in NFL history. Only five other teams have ever scored 150 or more points in their first four games and two of those teams made it to the Super Bowl.
Keep in mind that the Broncos are 4.25 points per game better than the next closest team on the list. The 2000 St. Louis Rams scored 160 points in their first four games, 4.75 points per game fewer than the Broncos this year. It's a historic start that actually does suggest that great things are to come for the Broncos.
Through four games the Broncos have the top-scoring offense, but they have also won games in impressive fashion. It's not as easy as the Broncos have made it look to get huge leads on opponents in the NFL, even if the Broncos haven't faced a stiff challenge.
Only 35 teams in NFL history have scored at least 37 points and won by at least 16 points four or more times. The Broncos have four such games through four games, which has never been done. The 2007 Patriots and 1992 Buffalo Bills did it three times in their first four games, and both of those teams reached the Super Bowl.
The 2007 Patriots set records for games won in the regular season, most points, point differential, first downs and touchdown scored. The 2013 Broncos are currently on pace to break all of them, and there aren't too many teams on their schedule that are likely to drag down their pace.
Of the 35 teams to score 37 or more points and win by 16 or more points four or more times, 17 of them made it to the Super Bowl. That's a whopping 48.6 percent of teams that have done what the Broncos have done in 2013 that reached the Super Bowl, and eight have won it. Keep in mind the Broncos have done it in just four games whereas those teams had a full slate of games.
Here's the other odd thing, 20 of the 35 (57 percent) of those teams have also had the top-scoring offense that year—including all eight Super Bowl champions. All of the offenses ranked in the top eight in scoring, and 32 of 35 were top five in scoring.
The Defense Needs to Step Up
Of course offense isn't everything, and the defense must contribute as well. So far, that's the one area where the Broncos have been a little less than great. The Broncos have allowed 91 points this season, which is just 15th in the league, even though most of those points have come late in games when the outcome has already been determined.
Despite the team's great performances, the defense is going to have to improve for the 2013 Broncos to be considered one of the best in NFL history. The 1972 Miami Dolphins had the top-ranked offense in points scored and top-ranked defense in points allowed. The 1996 Green Bay Packers replicated the feat of having the top-ranked offense and defense but lost three games during the regular season.
Many of the best teams in NFL history were able to accomplish the feat of having a top-five offense and defense multiple times, including the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers in the 1990s and the 1972 and 1973 Dolphins. The 1985 Bears also did it.
Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts twice finished with a top-five offense and defense in scoring, losing in the divisional round of the playoffs each time. Those two teams—in 2005 and 2007—were a combined 27-5. Tom Brady's Patriots also did it twice—in 2004 and 2007—going to the Super Bowl both years and winning in 2004.
If the Broncos don't improve significantly on defense, their closest comparisons are the 2009 New Orleans Saints, the 1991 Bills, the 2011 Packers and the 1999, 2003 and 2004 Colts quarterbacked by Manning. Only the Saints won the Super Bowl—coincidentally or not beating Manning's Colts.
Manning's Super Bowl victory did come with one of his worst defenses (ranked 23rd in scoring). The defense improving isn't a requirement, but it should make things a lot smoother for the Broncos.
A big problem has been the pass rush, which tied for the league lead in sacks in 2012 with 52 and has so far only generated 11 sacks. That's a 0.5 sack difference per game from last year to this year. It's hard to imagine that Miller wouldn't have helped create an additional 2.0 sacks through the first four games, so this problem could be solved in just two more weeks.
Bailey's absence hasn't been missed as much because the Broncos have a good overall secondary, but that doesn't mean the secondary won't improve when he returns to action. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bailey's replacement Tony Carter has been the second-worst defense player on the team behind defensive end Derek Wolfe.
Getting Bailey back will help the secondary, and getting Miller back will help the pass rush and should take some of the pressure off Wolfe, whose grade from Pro Football Focus is mostly negative for his work as a pass-rusher.
Overall, you have to like Denver's chances of improving on defense and emerging as one of the greatest NFL teams in history, but the games are not played on paper or with statistics. The Broncos are going to have to go out there and prove they are one of the greatest teams in history every week.
With Manning at quarterback, the Broncos have probably the best quarterback ever on their side, but the great teams were stacked with future Hall of Famers. With Welker, Bailey and plenty of other young stars, the Broncos could eventually have several players make it into Canton.
If all of Manning's weapons stay healthy, the offense should continue to put up huge numbers. The Broncos do face five top-10 defenses, but they also face five bottom-10 defenses and two defenses that are in the middle of the pack statistically.
The Broncos have scored 46.5 points per game on the poor defenses they have faced so far and 43.0 points per game on the two average defenses. Cobble that all together with the schedule and make some realistic assumptions, and the Broncos have a very real shot to break the 700-point barrier this season.
If the Broncos set offensive records, win gobs of games and somehow manage to get Manning his second Super Bowl ring, there is no doubt they will be considered one of the best in NFL history. Through four games, the Broncos are emerging as legitimate threats to do just that—especially if they can get more out of their defense.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics taken from Pro-Football-Reference.com.