The Denver Broncos want to win the Super Bowl. They have talked openly about the Super Bowl since minicamps started in May. This team knows what they are capable of if they play up to their potential.
Unlike last season, the Broncos have had to overcome plenty of obstacles this season.
Last year they won 11 games in a row heading into the playoffs, winning all games by seven or more points. This year the Broncos lost to a divisional foe, the San Diego Chargers, in Week 15.
In 2012 the Broncos stayed relatively healthy during the season, losing players like Willis McGahee to injury. This season, the Broncos have had to play without All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady since a Week 2 injury.
Now, the team has lost linebacker Von Miller for the rest of the year to a knee injury.
In addition, the team lost Champ Bailey in the preseason to a foot injury that has kept him out of most of the regular season. They also lost Derek Wolfe to a mysterious illness about a month ago that he has yet to come back from.
Superstar wide receiver Wes Welker is also going to miss a handful of games in the final month of the season due to his second concussion of the year.
It’s clear the Broncos have had a much tougher road in 2013. Despite the rocky path, the team has a chance to finish the regular season as the top team in the AFC. If they beat the Raiders in Week 17, the Broncos will enter the postseason with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
With their roster depth challenged, certain players become even more valuable. These injuries have also opened doors for reserve players to be cornerstones for what the team has built in 2013.
Let’s take a look at which Broncos players are the most important for a playoff run.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Record/Statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
There could be several slides that just say Manning’s name. He’s the obvious choice as the most important player on the Broncos’ roster.
Manning has set a new single-season record for touchdown passes in a season (51), and he’s on the verge of breaking the record for most passing yards in a season, as well.
He’s the centerpiece of the offense, and the team’s Super Bowl hopes hinge on his health and effectiveness. This is why protecting Manning is the top priority for this team as they navigate through the postseason.
The Broncos had trouble protecting Manning earlier this season. In the first eight games, Manning was sacked 11 times. However, over the last seven games they've only allowed Manning to be sacked six times.
The offensive line will need that type of effort in the postseason if they want stay on the winning track.
Manning has proven with his production (even in cold weather) that he is at the top of his game. The Broncos can win the Super Bowl if Manning is well protected and allowed to fully attack any opponent in the way.
The team would turn to second-year quarterback Brock Osweiler. I believe in Osweiler’s long-term potential, but asking him to lead this team to a Super Bowl would be a tall order.
Osweiler has a rocket arm, and he can make every throw possible in the NFL. He’s also cleaned up his release point and footwork from his playing days in college.
Osweiler has upside, but it may be too soon to ask him to lead this team—especially in the postseason.
Moreno has been the heart and soul of the offense in 2013. That’s somewhat surprising given the success Peyton Manning and the passing game have had this year.
It’s Moreno’s attitude that is incredibly vital for this team’s success.
He runs with a ton of emotion, and Moreno gives the team a bully mentality when running the football. His “take no prisoners” style helps give the Broncos toughness and edge their high-powered passing game can’t.
Moreno has rushed for over 1,000 yards in a season for the first time in his career. He’s also become the first Broncos back to have over 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in the same season.
In addition to being a strong runner between the tackles, Moreno is also a fantastic receiver out of the backfield. He can be effectively used as a receiver on screen or swing passes.
Most importantly, Moreno is the best pass protector in the backfield. He understands where a blitzing defender may come from, and Moreno has sound technique as a pass-blocker.
This goes back to the most important piece of the puzzle for the Broncos. The team must protect Manning if they want to advance in the playoffs.
The Broncos would put rookie Montee Ball in the starting lineup. We've seen Ball go through some highs and lows during his rookie season.
He's become more decisive as a runner as the season has gone on. Ball has a nose for the end zone, and he can be relied on when the team is near pay dirt.
Ball has always shown great ability as a receiver. He can make plays in open space, and is difficult to bring down when he builds a head of steam.
However, the rookie is still struggling as a pass protector. He’ll miss pass-rushers and that leads to more hits on the most precious commodity on the team. Ball struggles to adequately protect Manning.
Thomas sits at the top of that trio as the most talented wide receiver on the roster.
His size/speed combination is elite, and Thomas can take over a game at any time. Thomas is strong enough to push around smaller defenders tasked with covering him, and he’s also fast enough to outrun opponents if he’s given a bit of daylight.
Thomas is Peyton Manning’s favorite target. Manning has thrown 134 passes his way this season, with 86 of those being caught. Thomas has 1,317 receiving yards so far in 2013, and he’s also caught 12 touchdowns.
The Broncos have a fantastic corps of receivers, but nobody on the roster can do what Thomas does. If Thomas was lost we could see Andre Caldwell put in the starting lineup on the outside. This would leave Welker in the slot position, and Decker would stay on the outside.
Without Thomas, the team would lose his dangerous run after the catch ability on screen passes. They would also be without his big play ability as a deep receiver who can stretch the field.
The Broncos have a quality group of tight ends on the roster, but none is more important than Julius Thomas. The third-year tight end has transformed into a star this year.
He came out of Portland State in 2011 as a former basketball star with only one season of college football experience. Thomas impressed me during the week of practice for the Shrine Game that year, and I felt he would be an intriguing fifth-round pick.
The Broncos felt even more strongly about Thomas, and selected him in the fourth round that year. An ankle injury cut his first two seasons short, and Thomas entered 2013 in a make-or-break season.
He now has more touchdown receptions in a season (12) than any other tight end in Broncos history. Thomas was able to break this record despite missing two games earlier this year.
His yards after catch per reception (5.95) rank second in the NFL for tight ends. He has run 402 routes, and Peyton Manning has targeted Thomas 83 times.
Thomas creates mismatches almost every time he’s on the field.
He’s too big for safeties to cover. Thomas uses his basketball skill set to “box out” smaller defenders when the ball is coming in.
He’s too fast for linebackers to cover. Thomas is able to regularly attack the deep middle seam of the defense. This ability to stretch the interior of the field means opposing safeties always have to be mindful of where he is.
That bracket coverage helps other receivers get open. Manning is able to quickly decipher who is open, and he can distribute the ball to any pocket on the field.
Denver has three very capable tight ends behind Thomas on the depth chart, but none of them can create mismatches the way that Thomas does.
We’d likely see Jacob Tamme get more playing time as the “move” tight end if Thomas was out. Virgil Green could also see an increase in targets. Right now, Green is used mostly as a blocker.
Joel Dreessen would also get an increase in playing time. He’s a good red-zone threat and a sound blocker.
Any combination of those three would do a decent job, but they wouldn't be as dangerous as Thomas is when he’s on the field.
The Broncos lost All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady in Week 2 against the New York Giants. Since then, we've seen Chris Clark take over as the starter.
Clark struggled in the Week 7 game against the Colts when he had to go up against Robert Mathis. In that game, Mathis compiled two sacks, and was able to harass Peyton Manning most of the game.
Since that time, the Broncos have worked hard to make sure Clark has help if facing an elite rusher. They’ll use a tight end on Clark’s side to double team an opponent if necessary. The Broncos may also use a running back to chip a rusher that Clark is blocking.
Clark has earned the trust of the team as the blindside protector for Manning. The team has been playing without Clady for most of the year, and Manning has put up career-best numbers. That is a strong sign that Clark has been playing at a high level most weeks.
The Broncos have depth problems on the offensive line. If Clark were lost for the season we could see different players tried at left tackle.
They could put in veteran journeyman Winston Justice at that position. The Broncos may also try to kick left guard Zane Beadles outside to the tackle position.
“Pot Roast” is a mountain of a man who eats up a lot of space in the middle of the defensive line.
Playoff football sees a transformation as teams try to run the ball more. Stopping the run starts up front with the defensive line. As teams try to run the ball against the Broncos, they can be stuffed if Knighton frustrates interior linemen.
The Chargers used a ball-control approach against the Broncos twice this year. One game was a win, one game was a loss, but both contests were close. Sometimes the best defense against Peyton Manning is an effective offense that controls the clock.
San Diego had nearly 40 minutes in time of possession against the Broncos in both games. This prevented Manning and the high-powered passing game from getting into a rhythm offensively.
Some teams may try that formula when playing the Broncos in the playoffs.
Denver needs to do whatever they can to get the football to Manning as much as possible. This means stopping the run, and keeping the chains from moving in short-yardage situations.
That task goes first to Knighton and the defensive line. The Broncos’ run defense hasn’t been as stout since Kevin Vickerson was lost for the year with a hip injury. Knighton is now the senior member at the defensive tackle position. He needs to use his experience to guide 2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams.
The Broncos have to clean up several problems defensively as they enter the postseason. With strong play from Knighton, that would eliminate one of their areas of need.
The Broncos are already thin at defensive tackle with the loss of Vickerson. Williams has already been thrust into the starting lineup with lukewarm results.
Without Knighton we’d see more from part-time player Mitch Unrein. He’s a quality reserve player who can give the team a spark off the bench. Giving him more playing time may not be the best recipe for success, though.
With Von Miller lost for the season due to a knee injury, the team needs Shaun Phillips to elevate his game.
On Monday, Broncos head coach John Fox commented on the loss of Miller.
It's a blow. That's like losing a guy like [T] Ryan Clady earlier in the season [or WR Wes] Welker. Anytime you take any of those caliber of players, it’s a blow. But 'next man up' kind of approach. Our guys will deal with it and we have to—[LB] Nate Irving stepped in fairly early in the game yesterday and did a very good job. We'll sort it out, figure out what we've got to do. Even with the possible loss, moving, all those things. But those take a couple of minutes to move on and we’ll sort that out as we go.
They've played without Miller for the first six games of the season as he was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. During that time, we saw Phillips step up and produce.
In those first six games, Phillips recorded 5.5 sacks. Since that time over the last nine games, Phillips only has 4.5 sacks.
The Broncos need better production from Phillips in the playoffs if they’re going to get to and win the Super Bowl.
They’re already thin at the pass-rusher position. In addition to Phillips, the Broncos will also need more from guys like Robert Ayers and Malik Jackson.
Ayers looked good in the game against the Texans, but some question whether or not he can be consistently effective.
Jackson has emerged as one of the team's best young players on the defensive side of the ball. His game is not refined, but he's learning better technique and improving every week.
The Broncos would be greatly aided if they could get Wolfe back from his mysterious illness.
The Broncos secondary has little depth, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the most important player back there. Most of the time, opposing quarterbacks stay away from targeting Rodgers-Cromartie. This is reflected in his numbers.
Rodgers-Cromartie has three interceptions this year, with one of those returned for a touchdown. He has nine pass break ups so far in 2013. Rodgers-Cromartie has a nose for the football, and he does a good job timing his break on the ball.
He has 12 disrupted dropbacks (sacks plus passes defended plus interceptions plus batted balls) this season, with most of those coming in the fourth quarter. These types of plays can heavily influence the outcome of a game at the most critical time.
They have depth problems in the secondary. Without Rodgers-Cromartie we’d see Champ Bailey asked to do more than the part-time role he currently has.
Bailey is playing as a slot corner right now, and perhaps that's the best spot for him at this time.
On Monday, Chris Harris talked about Bailey's performance against the Texans, "I think he did pretty well. That’s a lot of work in the slot. You have to blitz, you have to communicate with linebackers and safeties and it’s good to have a guy like Champ that's smart and can be able to play that position easily with me staying outside and covering.”
Without Rodgers-Cromartie, we’' see an increase in playing time for guys like Kayvon Webster (when healthy) and Tony Carter. That's not a boost for the defense as both are known to struggle from time to time.
During the playoffs, the Broncos may see themselves in a tight game that comes down to a last-second field goal. This is where the importance of Matt Prater is especially highlighted.
Prater set a new NFL record by hitting a 64-yard field goal in Week 14 against the Titans. That kick was Prater’s 20th kick of at least 50 yards in his career. Prater has made 20-of-26 attempts of at least 50 yards during his time in the NFL.
That accuracy on long-distance kicks would come in handy if the team needs to win a game late or in overtime.
The Broncos would be in deep trouble without Prater. They’d have to turn to street free agents to try out for the kicker position.