The Denver Broncos currently sit at the top of the AFC. The road to the Super Bowl is in their hands with a month left in the regular season. If Denver wins their next four games, the Broncos will win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
In order to advance to the Super Bowl, the Broncos will have to take down the best in the AFC. We’ve seen them play a few of the top teams in the conference so far this season.
Two such games resulted in Denver's only losses. In Week 12 they lost 34-31 on the road in overtime to the New England Patriots. In Week 7 they lost 39-33 to the host Indianapolis Colts. They may have to face one or both of these teams in the playoffs. Playing these teams in Denver instead of on the road could lead to a different outcome.
Outside of Denver outlasting Dallas in a 51-48 shootout, the nonconference schedule for the Broncos this year has been fairly uneventful. The NFC East isn’t exactly representative of the best that conference has to offer. It’s very unlikely that any team from the NFC East could make the Super Bowl this year.
So how does Denver compare to the best in the NFC? Let’s take a look.
The Saints are currently 9-3 this year, and they are tied for the top spot in the NFC South. Two games against the Panthers over the next three weeks will help determine whether or not they stay there.
Sean Payton was suspended all of last season due to his role in Bountygate. He returned to the sideline with a vengeance this season.
The Saints' offense has the ability to go toe-to-toe with the high-powered Denver passing attack. Brees is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in NFL history.
If the Saints played the Broncos in the Super Bowl then all the talk would be about these two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Brees would be able to pick on the Broncos with ease. This game would likely come down to who had the ball last.
Stopping the Saints' ground game isn’t that much of a concern. They simply don’t have much of a commitment to running the football. They also use a three-headed running back-by-committee approach to split touches.
Pierre Thomas is the closest thing they have to a lead back. He’s strong between the tackles and can be used effectively as a receiver out of the backfield.
Darren Sproles is a great change-of-pace back. He’s fantastic on screen passes and draw plays where he can use his quickness and incredible foot frequency to rack up big yards. Mark Ingram is their banger between the tackles.
Brees has plenty of weapons in the passing game. None is more dangerous than tight end Jimmy Graham.
The Broncos linebackers are where Brees should try to exploit mismatches in coverage. Graham could easily get open against guys like Wesley Woodyard or Danny Trevathan. His size/speed combination is elite, and he’s an incredible target in the red zone. Graham is huge, has a large wingspan and knows how to box out defenders.
The Broncos can only hope to contain Graham, as shutting him down for 60 minutes is nearly impossible.
Expect Drews to target veteran Marques Colston on quick slants, and use rookie Kenny Stills to stretch the field vertically.
The game could be changed by the way the Saints defense is playing. Rob Ryan has taken over the defense this season, and he has them playing at a high level.
The Saints have suffered several key injuries on defense this year, but their scheme has allowed them to keep playing strong.
Pressure is the name of the game with Ryan’s unit. The Saints are first in the league in sacks-per-attempt percentage (9.8). This is well above the league average of 7.3 percent. Guys like Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks can wreak havoc as pass-rushers. Junior Gallette can also bring plenty of pressure from the edge.
Linebacker Curtis Lofton cleans up in the middle. He has high football intelligence and can quickly diagnose plays. New Orleans' secondary features rookie enforcer Kenny Vaccaro. He can wrap up ball-carriers quickly and is known for making big hits.
The Saints' pass defense currently ranks fourth in the league, allowing an average of only 206.67 yards passing per game. But going up against Manning and the Broncos would more than likely force New Orleans to diverge from what they normally do.
If the early-February weather at MetLife Stadium is decent, then Manning could have 206 yards passing by halftime.
The Panthers are also 9-3 and tied with the Saints for the lead in the NFC South. They began the season 1-3 but have since reeled eight straight wins.
They have had a few quality wins this season, including a Week 10 win on the road over the San Francisco 49ers. The Panthers followed that up by beating the Patriots in Week 11.
If the Panthers met the Broncos in the Super Bowl, the headlines would write themselves. Broncos head coach John Fox spent nine seasons as the head coach in Carolina. He was fired after the 2010 season, and current head coach Ron Rivera took over in 2011.
The first pick of the new regime was quarterback Cam Newton. We’ve seen this young quarterback grow up and mature as a passer during his third year in the league.
The Panthers have the front seven on defense to make life difficult for an offense like Denver's. However, their secondary is suspect, and they can be picked on through the air.
I asked Frank Schwab, from Yahoo! Sports, about this matchup:
I think of all the possible NFC matchups, the Panthers might be the best one for the Broncos. Carolina doesn't have the depth in the secondary to cover Denver's weapons in the passing game. Carolina has covered up that deficiency this season with a great line that can create pressure without blitzing (which would be a problem for Denver) and two exceptionally fast linebackers in coverage, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. But I just don't see Carolina competing well enough on the perimeter to beat Denver. And as much as I like Cam Newton, I don't think he has the weapons to exploit a vulnerable Broncos secondary.
The Panthers' offense is built on a run-heavy scheme. Newton runs this system to perfection with his ability as a runner highlighted by the offense's design. He has incredible arm strength and can make tight-window throws to areas of the field.
Newton does not try to do too much anymore. He works within himself and is very calm in the pocket. If a play breaks down then Newton is a threat to make a big play from anywhere on the field because of his scrambling ability.
Carolina likes to soften up a defense with a strong ground game. They have a talented trio of running backs, though none is the featured guy. DeAngelo Williams runs with great balance, burst and speed. Jonathan Stewart is a natural runner who is tough to bring down when he builds a head of steam. Fullback Mike Tolbert is a good receiver out of the backfield, and he has a nose for the end zone.
After the run has been established, Newton will then try to hit guys like Brandon LaFell or Ted Ginn deep off of play-action. Veteran Steve Smith is the best receiver on the team, but he’s no longer the player he used to be. Smith can be used effectively on short or underneath routes where his run-after-the-catch ability can shine through.
Defensively the Panthers are extremely strong. Their front seven on defense is arguably the best in the game. Charles Johnson can collapse the pocket to create pressure on the quarterback. I wanted the Broncos to draft him in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft. Instead, they chose Jarvis Moss.
In the 2013 NFL draft the Panthers added two gifted players to their defensive line. Star Lotulelei was their first-round pick this year. He’s almost superhumanly strong and a disruptive player in the middle. Kawaan Short was their second-round pick this year. He’s stout, quick and active as a run-defender.
The Panthers have arguably the best cover linebackers in the league. Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine. He has a nose for the ball, and he possesses the strength and speed to get there in a hurry. Thomas Davis can do everything. He’s smart, physical and can stay with backs and tight ends in open space.
Their secondary features former Broncos cornerback Drayton Florence. Carolina has young players back there, like Josh Norman, who are still learning on the job. Against Denver these guys would be put to the ultimate test on the league’s biggest stage.
The Seahawks currently have the best record in the NFL. They are 11-1 and sit atop the NFC West. Seattle has one of the best home crowds in the game, and they are likely to win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Playing in Seattle throughout the postseason will help pave its way to the Super Bowl.
It would be fun to see Seahawks' head coach Pete Carroll in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks are a young team with a ton of confidence. There would almost certainly be some great quotes during Media Day before the Super Bowl.
The Broncos versus the Seahawks would be an old division rivalry. The Seahawks used to be a thorn in the side of the Broncos when they were in the AFC West.
It would be strength against strength at the highest level. This game would feature the league’s best offense against the league’s best defense.
The Seahawks could be the toughest team to beat in the NFL. They have tremendous talent at every level on both offense and defense.
Russell Wilson, their second-year quarterback from Wisconsin, is developing as a pocket passer. His accuracy from the pocket or on the run is elite. His 64.9 percent completion rate ranks seventh in the NFL. Wilson goes through his progressions like a savvy veteran, and he distributes the football to many different receivers.
Marshawn Lynch is one of the toughest running backs in the game today. He is strong between the tackles, runs with authority and can dominate a defense. His 447 yards after contact rank second in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson (557). Lynch also has more speed than some think. He has the will and determination to break off a big run on any carry.
The Seahawks would greatly benefit from a healthy Percy Harvin for the playoffs. Harvin has missed most of the season with a hip injury, and he’s still not at full strength.
The Seattle defense is one of the best in the league. They are No. 1 in the league in yards allowed, allowing an average of only 284.5 yards per game. Their defensive line can stuff the run and get after the quarterback, ranking 13th in the NFL in rush defense. Seattle allows an average of 107.2 yards per game on the ground.
In free agency this offseason, the Seahawks added both Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to a defense that already featured elite-level pass-rushers like Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin. They have depth in their front seven, and thus their pass-rushers are kept fresh as the game goes on. Seattle makes opposing quarterback extremely uncomfortable on most every snap.
Seattle’s pass defense is the best in the league. They allow an average of only 177.33 yards passing per game, and their average of 5.25 net yards allowed per passing attempt also ranks first in the NFL.
The leader in the secondary is Richard Sherman. The third-year corner can take away half of the field. Sherman also has the size to get physical with and frustrate opposing receivers.
Another star in the secondary is fourth-year safety Earl Thomas, who was selected in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft with a pick that at one point belonged to the Broncos. Denver traded that pick away to Seattle in the 2009 NFL draft so they could move up and select cornerback Alphonso Smith in the second round. Smith is out of the league while Thomas is one of the NFL's best safeties.
The Broncos have a long way to go before reaching the Super Bowl. They first must win out to ensure home-field advantage through the AFC postseason tournament.
In the playoffs the Broncos must advance through the AFC’s best. This will be a tough task, and the weather outdoors could slow down the Broncos elite passing game.
If the Broncos make it to the Super Bowl they are likely to play in another cold weather game. The Super Bowl is being held at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Snow and cold temperatures could be the biggest obstacle the Broncos must overcome in order to win a Super Bowl.
The other obstacle will be the team they face. A game against the Saints, Panthers or Seahawks would present a huge challenge for Denver on both sides of the ball.
No matter what happens to the Broncos on their quest for a championship, we know it’s going to be a fun and wild ride.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Records and statistical information provided by the Denver Broncos.