Right now, the Denver Broncos are climbing the Mount Everest of adversity.
A rash of injuries has hit Denver, and it has affected critical players like Peyton Manning, Ryan Clady, Knowshon Moreno, Julius Thomas and Champ Bailey. Denver has had to go on without many talented players, and it has even had to go on without its head coach. Oh, and it is arguably in football’s best division.
Many teams would fold or struggle in those circumstances. Not the Broncos. Instead, they are 9-2 and have the top seed in the AFC.
However, the top seed is in question. New England came back from down 24 to beat Denver Sunday, and that raised lots of doubt in Denver. Many called the Patriots the team to beat, which, after beating the previous “team to beat,” was reasonable.
But it’s definitely not true.
Many would disagree, and that’s because of some chief concerns that come up with the Broncos. Many doubt their capability in important, cold-weather games, many doubt their defense, and many doubt their ability to hold onto the ball.
However, none of those concerns are as large as they seem.
That’s largely because the Broncos’ injuries have hurt them. One critical injury was Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie’s, which occurred on the last play of the first half against New England. After his injury, Tom Brady started to attack Denver’s backup-laden defense, accumulating 34 points in the second half and in overtime.
Understandably, the choker label got slapped on the Broncos once again. But what many refuse to consider is that in the playoffs, when the Broncos are nearly at full strength, these things won’t happen.
Denver’s top two cornerbacks, Bailey and Rodgers-Cromartie, were out against the Patriots. Chris Harris, Denver’s third cornerback, plays in the slot, so Denver had their fourth and fifth corners, Kayvon Webster and Quentin Jammer, guard New England’s wideouts.
Brady sensed blood in the water. But in January and, if the Broncos make it to the Super Bowl, February, that blood won’t be there.
Will Denver's defense return to form?
Assuming no more significant injuries hit the Broncos, Rodgers-Cromartie, Bailey and Harris would start in the playoffs. Harris hasn’t been dominant this year, but Matt Miller of Bleacher Report rated him as the third-best cornerback in the league before this season. He’s definitely a great player who can competently guard any slot receiver.
Bailey is old and, frankly, overpaid, but his leadership, solid cover skills and smarts will still pay dividends. Rodgers-Cromartie has the athleticism to run on deep routes and make plays, and his cover skills are also great. With those guys in coverage, the pass rush will be more effective, and the Broncos can focus their safeties on tight ends.
In short, the whole defense will be much better.
It will also be able to fix its main Achilles' heel, which is defense against tight ends. With three defensive starters out, Rob Gronkowski gashed the Broncos with a 90-yard, one-touchdown performance. He did that because Denver couldn’t afford to double-team him.
With Rodgers-Cromartie and Bailey in the game, they could.
Those corners would also help the pass rush. In the first half, Von Miller was an absolute beast. He had two sacks, a touchdown and a forced fumble. After Rodgers-Cromartie went down, despite nearly the same quick pressure, Miller failed to record a sack.
Why? Because Brady always had an open receiver right away.
Luckily for Denver, both corners should return in Week 13. The Broncos, who had the second-best defense in 2012, will have that defense down the stretch. That defense won’t surrender a lot of points, and it will continue to add to its mark of 20 turnovers forced.
And with that defense, Denver should play like the team that rolled off 11 straight easy wins last year.
The offense will also help. Denver has scored at least 27 points in every game this year, and that’s mostly thanks to Manning. Its offense is on pace to shatter records, as Manning has 36 passing touchdowns and three others (Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Moreno) have 10 touchdowns.
Can Denver's offense be trusted?
The offense hasn’t been as effective in the cold, as Manning struggled at frigid Gillette Stadium Sunday. But according to Pro Football Focus, even in his worst game of the year, he posted a decent plus-1.9 game grade.
Manning did that without Julius Thomas, who would have gashed New England’s secondary. When Thomas returns, Denver’s offense will be much more dangerous.
And it will overcome the adversity provided by Mother Nature as long as the Broncos can do a better job protecting the ball and catching passes.
Protecting the ball has eluded Denver this year, but the problem is being overblown. Many think Denver’s penchant for fumbles and struggles in cold weather will cost it, but it’s worth noting that backups Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball and C.J. Anderson have combined for five fumbles. That’s not even including two fumbles on handoffs.
Moreno, on the other hand, hasn’t lost a fumble this year. Denver is giving other backs more carries to spell him, but Moreno will receive the vast majority of the touches in the playoffs. He won’t lose the ball, and he will help the offense run effectively and control the ball.
It’s not guaranteed that Manning will completely stay away from turnovers, but the fact that he has just seven interceptions (he is on pace for about 10 in 16 games) all year is encouraging. In addition to protecting the ball, he also could shatter multiple passing records, so defenses definitely have to account for him. They do that by emptying the box.
Consequently, the Broncos can run all day. They did it in New England, and they scored 31 points even with receivers dropping passes and Manning struggling mightily. They can mix up their play-calling to keep defenses guessing, and once they hit a rhythm, they can’t be stopped.
Not even the weather can stop them. Last year, Manning threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs. The Broncos lost in the game, which was played in 13-degree weather, but Manning was actually solid.
So yes, Manning can play in the cold. And yes, as his Super Bowl ring shows, he can win big games.
Are the Broncos the team to beat?
Expect Manning to prove the doubters wrong and finally have it all come together in the cold. On top of that, expect Moreno to be great, and expect Denver to score at will and defend well.
Once everyone returns to full strength, Miller will be able to wreak havoc on quarterbacks, Denver’s secondary will be able to shut down passing targets and the offense will be able to run with all of its targets.
In the playoffs, it will do the same. The Broncos will learn from their loss to New England, and they will be able to conquer the cold and win down the stretch.
Because when the Broncos are at full strength, no one and nothing can stop them.