The Denver Broncos have a 9-2 record, and they are considered one of the top Super Bowl contenders in the league. The road to the Super Bowl could go through the Mile High City if the Broncos take care of business over the last month of the season.
We've seen the Broncos score points on a record pace this season. Peyton Manning is likely to put up career-best numbers this year if he continues on this blistering pace.
The ground game has been featuring a resurgent Knowshon Moreno in 2013. So long as Moreno can stay healthy, he could finish with the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his career.
The passing game has arguably the best trio of wide receivers in the league today. Wes Welker has been a fantastic addition this year. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are both still putting up solid numbers in this high-powered passing attack.
Julius Thomas has been healthy for most of the season, and he's finally playing up to his enormous potential. The third-year tight end is one of the most difficult players to cover because of his size/speed combination.
The Broncos offensive line has played well most of the season, despite the loss of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady in Week 2.
The run defense has been one of the best in the league in 2013. They have a swarming unit with players in the front seven who can all fly to the football.
The Broncos secondary has been torched at times this year. Champ Bailey has missed most of the season, but he's almost ready to return to the football field as we enter Week 13.
Their special teams are strong at kicker and punter. Matt Prater is almost automatic, and he's only missed one field goal this year. Britton Colquitt has a strong leg and can pin opponents deep when the team needs to play the field-position game.
Trindon Holliday is a mixed bag as a return man. He can score anytime he touches the ball, but ball security problems make him dangerous for both teams.
The Broncos have a Super Bowl window so long as Peyton Manning is their quarterback. Let's take a look at what they must do in order to secure the Lombardi Trophy this season.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
Honestly, there could be 10 slides in a row that all said this. Protecting Manning is the most important task the Broncos have.
In recent weeks, the Broncos have done a better job blocking for him. They are also using different play designs to ensure that he gets rid of the ball even quicker than before.
Manning leads the NFL with the best average time in the pocket at 2.35 seconds. That time has improved from 2.5 seconds earlier this season.
The Broncos are using more shotgun formations to keep Manning further away from the pass rush. We've even seen them use a moving pocket and rollouts to move Manning away from defenders.
The entire team knows its Super Bowl hopes ride on the health of Manning. It'll continue to do everything it can to keep him healthy and upright.
On my ESPN radio show Ridin Shotgun, I called Knowshon Moreno the second-most important player on the Broncos roster (behind Manning of course).
The fifth-year pro ranks in the top 10 of running backs across the NFL in rushing yards (824), rushing touchdowns (nine), receiving yards (342) and routes run (231).
He most importantly is the best pass protector in the Broncos backfield. Ball security is also not a problem for Moreno, and he has yet to fumble this season.
Moreno has only one 100-yard game this season, but it was a huge 224-yard performance against the Patriots in Week 12. However, in that game where he received a career-high 37 carries, Moreno was banged up with an ankle injury.
If he misses any playing time, the Broncos would be in trouble. Not because the other backs wouldn't be as effective running the rock but because of the attitude that Moreno runs with.
Some label the Broncos as a finesse team, but with Moreno rushing the rock they have swagger and a physical element to their offense.
Montee Ball was the team's second-round pick in 2013, but fumbling problems have caused trust issues this year. Speaking of trust issues, the team has made Ronnie Hillman inactive since a Week 7 fumble against the Colts. C.J. Anderson was an undrafted free agent this year, and he's the most powerful back on the roster.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase talked about how the young running backs need to play better.
We have no other options. I mean, nobody is coming through that door. At some point one of these three guys, these young guys, they have to step up. We have to be able to not have [RB Knowshon Moreno] go 37 carries a game. So one of these guys has to step up and hold on to the ball and do what they’re supposed to do and that’s a challenge to them. Somebody is going to step up. Hopefully, [RB] Montee [Ball] decides, ‘Hey it’s not going to happen anymore.’ We have to get that fixed—we’re working on it every day. What we’ve seen so far isn’t good enough. But nobody is walking through that door so we have to fix it, and they have to do it during a game.
With or without Moreno, this team needs to make sure to keep running the ball effectively if it wants to win the Super Bowl.
Ever since the Broncos played the Jaguars in Week 6, we've seen teams play press coverage against the Broncos each week. Some have labeled the Broncos a finesse team, so opponents are being more aggressive against the wide receivers on the outside.
The Broncos receivers must respond, and be the bully themselves. Teams will continue to use this method against the Broncos for the rest of the season. It's past time for the Broncos to show more physicality on the edge.
Instead of complaining when a pass interference flag is not thrown, guys like Eric Decker need to rough up their opponents and beat the press at the line.
Demaryius Thomas is one of the biggest and strongest receivers in the game today. He doesn't need to shy away from contact at the line or down the field. It would be nice to see him rip away more contested catches on deep targets or in the end zone.
Defenses are going to try and rough up Wes Welker at the line of scrimmage to break up the timing with Peyton Manning. Welker needs to respond by getting feisty on underneath routes to prove that he's not one to be pushed around.
The Broncos have a world-class group of wide receivers. In order to win the Super Bowl, we need to see a more physical style of play coming from this talented trio.
Julius Thomas has burst upon the NFL scene this year. The third-year tight end has become one of the most dangerous players in the game today.
I remember watching Thomas during the week of practice for the 2011 Shrine Game in Orlando, Fla. Mike Schottey and I were in awe of his raw, natural talent back then as he dominated on the practice field.
Thomas was a basketball star at Portland State, but he had a limited résumé when it came to playing football. I felt his physical skill set would get him selected in the fifth round, but the Broncos decided to make him a fourth-round pick that year.
An ankle injury (and subsequent surgery) essentially cost him the first two years of his pro career. Entering training camp this year, there were plenty of questions swirling around the young tight end.
Thomas has been everything the team envisioned when they picked him. His size/speed combination is elite, and Thomas creates mismatches almost every time he's on the field.
He was banged up in the Week 11 game against the Chiefs with a knee injury and had to miss the Patriots game the following week.
Getting Thomas back on the field will be a huge boost for this team. Keeping Thomas healthy could help them get to, and win, the Super Bowl.
Okay, you get the point here. The Broncos offensive line has been playing better over the last two weeks. The design of the offense has also greatly helped the protection of their future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Chris Clark replaced Ryan Clady in Week 3 and has had his fair share of ups and downs. In recent weeks the team is being more cautious with Clark on the edge.
They have started using more backs to chip on Clark's side. The Broncos will even motion a tight end over to Clark's side from time to time.
The interior of the offensive line has been incredibly strong.
Zane Beadles was a Pro Bowl player last year, and he's playing at that same level this season. He plays with a nice blend of strength and aggression at left guard.
Manny Ramirez had played fantastically as the starting center this season. He has a strong hold on the starting job even though last year's starter, J.D. Walton, is now healthy.
Louis Vasquez was a key free-agent addition this offseason. He's strong, aggressive and has the athleticism to be used as a pulling guard from the right side.
Right tackle Orlando Franklin has done a better job against edge rushers. He's always been a road grader as a run blocker.
The offensive line knows the road to the Super Bowl must include a well-protected Peyton Manning.
The Denver Broncos have had one of the best rush defenses in the NFL this year. The Broncos currently have the fifth-ranked rush defense in the league. They only allow an average of 94.8 yards rushing per game in 2013.
They will now be playing without Kevin Vickerson. The veteran defensive tackle was lost for the season with a hip injury he suffered in the Patriots loss. We'll see how guys like Mitch Unrein and Sylvester Williams respond now that they'll be asked to do more.
Unrein is a seasoned veteran who plays well as a reserve defensive tackle. He has a strong build and is known for playing with a high motor.
Williams was the Broncos first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. He has a blue-collar work ethic, and Williams can be quick off the snap. So far this season he has struggled, and Williams has been inactive for four games in 2013.
We'll see if the team can continue to play strong against the run without Vickerson. There will be more pressure on defenders in the second level going forward.
During the playoffs, we see a more physical style of play across the NFL. This usually includes more running the ball, especially if the weather is cold.
Denver needs to continue playing strong run defense if it wants to win the Super Bowl.
One weakness of the Denver Broncos I write about each week is the struggle of the linebackers in coverage. Opponents have identified this as the primary weakness in the Broncos defense.
Going forward, we should continue to see guys like Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan attacked in coverage. Both are speedy linebackers, but they have been known to lapses in coverage from time to time.
The Broncos linebackers are always cleaning up in run defense, and they will often play near the line of scrimmage. This causes depth problems that opponents exploit.
During the playoffs in the AFC, the Broncos may have to face the likes of Rob Gronkowski (Patriots), Coby Fleener (Colts) or Dennis Pitta (Ravens). All are talented players who can put up big numbers.
Denver needs to clean this up as best as it can, especially if it does make it to the Super Bowl and face an opponent like the Saints. If that was the matchup, the team would then have to try and slow down superstar tight end Jimmy Graham.
In order to win the Super Bowl, the Broncos linebackers must improve their play in coverage.
The Broncos pass defense has been under constant barrage this season. They currently have the 30th-ranked pass defense in the NFL. The Broncos allow an average of 283.2 yards passing per game.
One big reason why they get torched through the air is opponents have to quickly abandon a balanced attack and start throwing in order to keep up with the Broncos' high-powered offense. The numbers can become a bit skewed because of this.
However, they still need to improve the play they get in the defensive backfield. Had it not been for secondary breakdowns last year, the Broncos could have already won a Super Bowl title with Peyton Manning under center.
The return of Champ Bailey should help. He has missed most of the season due to a foot injury. Even when he did play earlier this season, he did not look like himself.
Hopefully Bailey looks better now that he's had more time to heal. His presence will bring a calming influence to the rest of the players in the secondary.
If the Broncos want to win the Super Bowl then they'll need improved play from their secondary.
Ball security has been a bad problem for the Broncos this year. It has been a big problem for running backs on the team not named Knowshon Moreno.
Moreno has zero fumbles this year, and it's one of the biggest reasons why he's the most trusted back on the roster.
Montee Ball was selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft. Many expected him to be the lead back at some point this season. That hasn't happened yet, as Ball has struggled with ball security, losing three fumbles so far this year. Ball only had two fumbles in his college career where he had over 1,000 touches.
Ronnie Hillman spent most of the offseason as the team's first-string running back. Entering preseason he was at the top of the depth chart, but Hillman lost the job due to two lost fumbles in August.
He still began the regular season as the primary backup behind Moreno but lost that spot on the depth chart after losing a fumble near the goal line against the Colts in Week 7. Hillman has been inactive ever since.
C.J. Anderson was picked up as an undrafted free agent this year. He's powerful and runs with a quick burst when changing direction. Anderson bobbled an exchange (Peyton Manning credited with the fumble) during the game against the Patriots, and he may find himself last on the depth chart because of it.
The Broncos have a well-oiled machine on offense. One thing that could rob them of victory is fumbling.
In order to win the Super Bowl, the Broncos must improve their ball security and hang onto the rock!
This could be the biggest question mark for the Broncos. With an outdoor Super Bowl (likely in the cold weather of New York), the Broncos have to start playing better when the temperature is near freezing.
Over the course of his career, Peyton Manning is 0-4 in the playoffs when the temperature dips below 40 degrees.
Manning struggled in the coldest game he's played this year. In Week 12 against the Patriots, there was a kickoff temperature around 20 degrees.
Manning finished the game with his lowest passing total (150 yards) of the season. The Broncos lost the game in overtime 34-31, and the doubters about Manning's ability in the cold weather came out in full force.
In order to quiet these critics, Manning must simply play better. His receivers also need to be aware of this situation, and they must make sure to catch most any target thrown their way.
The way the Broncos play in cold weather will determine whether or not they win it all in 2013. This will be a test they must pass. Mother Nature will place this obstacle in front of them at some point, and they simply must respond with a laser-focused effort.
If the Broncos want to win the Super Bowl, they must play better in cold weather.