Denver Broncos: Reliving the Season That Came Up Just Short

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Denver Broncos: Reliving the Season That Came Up Just Short
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The 2013 Denver Broncos ended their season as AFC champions but fell just short of becoming Super Bowl champions.

It was a record-setting season for the Broncos offense. Every week of the year, it seemed like another record was being broken by Peyton Manning and company.

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The Broncos are one of the most storied franchises in the NFL, and their return to dominance has once again been led by vice president of football operations John Elway.

Denver's last Super Bowl championship was won with Elway as the starting quarterback. As an executive, Elway has worked diligently to construct a Super Bowl-caliber team in his image.

Last year, the team fell short of winning it all. After finishing with a 13-3 record, the Broncos entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They ended up losing in double overtime to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Elway opened 2013 talking about how that game should resonate with the team this year. The team was talking about making it to the Super Bowl since it reconvened for minicamp. Head coach John Fox openly stated earlier in the season that anything less than a championship would be a disappointment.

Most teams don’t even like to admit there’s an actual game called a Super Bowl, let alone talk about winning it all. The Broncos have no such superstitions. Instead, they work by a Fox mantra—“when you expect a lot, you get a lot.”

Let’s examine the highs and lows, and take a look back at the Broncos’ crusade to Super Bowl XLVIII.

 

Free Agency

The Broncos made several key transactions when free agency began. Most of these players stepped into starting roles with the team, and they helped get the Broncos to the playoffs as the AFC’s top seed.

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They opened up free agency by signing offensive guard Louis Vasquez. He was signed on March 12, 2013, to a four-year, $23.5 million contract. Vasquez was arguably the biggest free-agent addition for the Broncos. His performance this year was key in springing running back Knowshon Moreno for his first 1,000-yard season.

In addition to boosting the ground game, Vasquez also helped provide incredible protection for Manning. Among those who started 16 games, Manning was the least sacked quarterback in 2013 (18 times), and Vasquez allowed zero sacks despite playing every offensive snap this year.

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On March 13, 2013, the Broncos signed wide receiver Wes Welker to a two-year, $12 million contract. The New England Patriots were unable to work out a deal with Tom Brady’s favorite receiver, and Denver gladly picked him up in free agency.

Welker’s addition was an incredible boost for the passing game. During training camp, Welker showed ankle-breaking moves on the practice field. When the regular season began, it didn’t take long for Welker to make an impact.

He opened the season with nine catches for 67 yards and two touchdowns against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1. Welker finished the year with 10 receiving touchdowns, a career best for the veteran receiver. He set this number despite missing three games due to concussion problems.

The same day they signed Welker, the Broncos also added cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He signed a two-year deal, but the language in the contract essentially guaranteed the veteran would be a free agent in 2014.

Rodgers-Cromartie was a quality starter for the Broncos all season long. He regained the confidence he seemed to lose during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles. He finished the year with 25 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions in 2013. While other players in the secondary have been injured or benched, Rodgers-Cromartie was a steady force the defense could rely on every week.

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Later in the offseason, the Broncos added pass-rusher Shaun Phillips. He agreed to join the team on April 27, 2013, by signing a one-year, $1 million deal.

Phillips was signed to replace Elvis Dumervil. The team lost Dumervil to a fax-machine problem, and it needed a pass-rusher to play opposite Von Miller. With the six-game suspension of Miller, Phillips was soon asked to be the top pass-rusher for the Broncos.

He responded strongly, finishing with 10 sacks and 29 tackles in 2013. Phillips wanted a chance to compete for a Super Bowl, and his play helped the Broncos make the big game for the seventh time in franchise history.

Another quality addition near the start of free agency was defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. “Pot Roast” was benched in 2012 as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Many felt he could get back on track in Denver, where he would be reunited with defensive coordinator (and former Jaguars head coach) Jack Del Rio.

Knighton signed a two-year deal worth $4 million. He performed well to begin the season, and Knighton seemed to improve as the season went on. He’s a (literally) big part of a Broncos run defense that only allowed one 100-yard rusher (Ryan Mathews, Week 15) this season.

 

The Draft

Coming off a 13-3 season in 2012, the Broncos were set to pick near the end of the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. Many fans wanted the Broncos to address the defensive line, running back and cornerback positions at some point in the draft.

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With their first-round pick (28th overall), the Broncos selected defensive tackle Sylvester Williams out of North Carolina.

Williams was known as a hard-working player with a blue-collar work ethic. He’s big, physical and can be dominant off the snap with a quick first step. The rookie struggled to make an impact early in the season. He was inactive for a few games in the first half of the season, usually when the team faced a mobile quarterback.

He began the season guessing which shoulder of his opponent to attack, and many times he was wrong. Williams would then try to run around the play. This may have worked in college, but the game is too fast to do that in the NFL.

After the season-ending hip injury to Kevin Vickerson, the Broncos turned to Williams as a starter. He started guessing wrong less often and even racked up a couple of sacks near the end of the regular season.

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In the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Broncos selected running back Montee Ball out of Wisconsin.

He was known as a classic grinder between the tackles with a nose for the end zone. Ball finished his career as the NCAA Division I/FBS leader in rushing touchdowns (77) and total touchdowns (83).

Some felt Ball would be able to win the starting job by the start of the regular season. Instead, he worked with the first team only about 25 percent of the time during a majority of offseason workouts and training camp.

Ball began the regular season sharing time with Ronnie Hillman as the primary backup behind starter Knowshon Moreno. Fumbling and pass protection issues made for an up-and-down season for the rookie.

As the year went on, Ball showed improvement as a runner. He held onto the rock, and he was more decisive with the ball in his hands. If Moreno leaves the team in free agency, then Ball could be the lead back for the Broncos in 2014.

In the third round of the 2014 NFL draft, the Broncos selected cornerback Kayvon Webster out of South Florida.

I graded Webster as a fifth-round pick before the draft, but a run at the position caused the Broncos to take him higher than I expected.

Webster had the size and strength to match up well against bigger receivers in the NFL. In college he had a nose for the football, and he was known as an impact tackler.

The Broncos were excited to see Webster in action, and he was a standout player for the team in training camp. He eventually earned more playing time with Champ Bailey missing several weeks due to a Lisfranc injury.

Webster struggled with more playing time, and he was regularly targeted by opposing quarterbacks when he was on the field.

The other four picks the Broncos made in the 2013 NFL draft—linebacker Quanterus Smith (Western Kentucky), wide receiver Tavarres King (Georgia), offensive tackle Vinston Painter (Virginia Tech) and quarterback Zac Dysert (Miami, Ohio)—failed to make an impact.

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Smith was put on season-ending injured reserve with a knee injury he suffered during his final year in college. King was released and picked up by the Carolina Panthers during the regular season. Painter was activated for depth reasons near the end of the year. Dysert, an Elway favorite, worked as the third-string quarterback behind Manning and Brock Osweiler.

After the draft, the Broncos picked up a quality group of undrafted free agents. This group included two players the team became especially high on: running back C.J. Anderson and linebacker Lerentee McCray.

Anderson was active for about half the games this year, and he worked as the team’s third-string back behind Moreno and Ball. McCray was a standout player in training camp, but a preseason ankle injury caused him to be placed on season-ending injured reserve.

 

Distractions and Obstacles

Last year, the Broncos rolled to a 13-3 record by ripping off 11 straight wins to finish the regular season. Each one of those victories came by at least seven points, and the team was never really challenged on or off the field.

This season things were much different. Denver’s offseason was first mired in off-field problems around early July.

Director of player personnel Matt Russell and pro personnel director Tom Heckert were suspended for drunken-driving arrests. The lengths of the suspensions varied, but the Broncos came out strongly against their actions while also promising to get both the counseling they needed.

Training camp also came with a huge distraction. Linebacker Von Miller was suspended for the first six games of the season due to violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

The team was already dealing with the loss of Elvis Dumervil in free agency to the Ravens. A fax-machine problem led to a contract snafu, and Dumervil moved on instead of accepting a restructured contract from the Broncos.

Head coach John Fox missed four games this year due to heart surgery. He collapsed on a golf course near his North Carolina home during the team’s bye week. Fox had to undergo surgery to repair a valve in his heart.

After the surgery, Fox released a statement through the team.

I am truly thankful for every single thought and prayer that was directed my way. My recovery is progressing well — I am feeling better and getting stronger each day. I will begin the next phase of my recovery in Charlotte and continue outpatient appointments with doctors, who will clear me to return to Denver when the time is right.

In addition to these distractions and obstacles, the Broncos had to deal with plenty of injuries as the season marched on.

 

Key Injuries

The Broncos spent most of the offseason with Chris Clark starting at the left tackle position. All-Pro Ryan Clady spent most of the offseason recovering from surgery to repair his injured pectoral muscle. Clady didn’t make his debut for the Broncos until Week 3 of the preseason.

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The Broncos were able to sign Clady to a new long-term deal in June before the deadline to sign franchise-tagged players. They rewarded his play with a five-year deal worth $52.5 million. Clady began the season as the starting left tackle, and the team was happy to have him protecting the blind side of Manning.

In Week 2 against the Giants, Clady was lost for the season with a Lisfranc injury. Clark was again thrust into the starting lineup, and the offseason experience certainly helped his play during the regular season.

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After their Week 11 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, free safety Rahim Moore had surgery to repair lateral compartment syndrome. This injury restricts blood flow and is more common outside of football, but it is rarely seen in the NFL. The team decided to put him on the injured reserve/designated to return list.

The Broncos suffered another injury to a key starter in their Week 12 loss to the New England Patriots. Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson suffered a hip injury, and the team promptly placed him on season-ending injured reserve.

“Big Vick” had been creating plenty of interior pressure as a starter next to Knighton. Without him, the team asked guys like Sylvester Williams and Mitch Unrein to do more. They also signed free-agent defensive tackle Sione Fua after the Vickerson injury.

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Week 12 was the final game that Derek Wolfe played in. On the way to play against the Chiefs in Week 13, Wolfe suffered seizure-like symptoms on the team bus. He was later put on season-ending injured reserve.

In their Week 16 game against the Houston Texans, the Broncos lost Miller due to a torn ACL in his right knee. The team had plenty of experience playing without Miller since he was suspended for the first six games of the regular season. They had to go back to leaning on that experience after this injury.

The team suffered another crushing blow when they lost starting cornerback Chris Harris to a knee injury against the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs. 

Without Harris, the team had to look to a thin group of cornerbacks and shuffle around the lineup yet again.

 

Week 1 to Week 6 (Without Von Miller)

Denver got off to a hot start with a huge win over the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in Week 1. The final score was 49-27, but it seemed like an even larger rout. Manning threw seven touchdowns against the Ravens, and Julius Thomas burst onto the NFL scene with a two-touchdown performance.

In Week 2 the Broncos traveled to play at MetLife Stadium against the New York Giants. It was Manning versus Manning as Peyton played his little brother Eli. The Broncos came out on top 41-23, but lost Clady for the rest of the year with a Lisfranc injury.

The Broncos came back to Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Week 3 to play their first division game against the Oakland Raiders. They faced a mobile quarterback for the first time of the year, beating Terrelle Pryor and the Raiders 37-21. They scored in the first quarter for the first time of the 2013 season.

In Week 4 the Broncos played against Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles. They had to control another mobile quarterback in Michael Vick, and they came out with another victory. They easily beat the Eagles 52-20, the first of three times they would eclipse 50 points in a game this year.

In Week 5 the Broncos barely got by the Dallas Cowboys 51-48. They almost lost their first game of the year, but Danny Trevathan sealed the road victory with a fourth-quarter interception of Tony Romo.

Their last game without Miller came at home in Week 6 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. They won 35-19, but Manning was under constant barrage that Sunday. The Jaguars didn’t win, but they gave the rest of the league a blueprint to beat (or compete) with the 2013 version of the Broncos. Hitting Manning as much as possible was a big portion of their recipe.

 

Week 7 (Von Miller Returns)

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Miller returned to the lineup against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7. He failed to record a sack, but did finish the game with two quarterback hits and one tackle for a loss.

Manning returned to the town where he started his NFL career and cemented his NFL stardom. Before the game, the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd actually gave Manning a warm welcome upon his return.

The Broncos failed to adequately protect Manning, and they suffered the first loss of the year 39-33. Robert Mathis started the game going against right tackle Orlando Franklin. When that didn’t work, he moved over to attack Chris Clark on the left side.

Clark struggled to stop Mathis, and the veteran pass-rusher finished the game with two sacks and four quarterback hits. That pressure, coupled with physical play from the corners on the outside, allowed the Colts to come out on top.

A fumble near the goal line by Ronnie Hillman knocked his season off track, and he wasn’t relied on as much since then.

 

Week 8 to Week 17

The Broncos began the second half of the regular season with a 45-21 win over Washington. This was their third game of the year against a mobile quarterback, and they did a good job of keeping Robert Griffin III in check.

The Broncos had a bye in Week 9, and the major health scare to Fox was the main story thrust into the headlines.

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Del Rio’s first game as the team’s interim head coach came on the road in Week 10 against San Diego. The Chargers held the Broncos to their lowest score total of the season, but Denver came out on top 28-20.

San Diego essentially tried to play keep away from Denver, and it controlled the time of possession nearly 2-to-1. This became another strategy that other opponents would try against the Broncos.

The Broncos followed up that game with another contest versus a divisional opponent. In Week 11 they matched up at home against the then-undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. The final score was close at 27-17, but the Broncos were able to easily control the game.

Starting free safety Rahim Moore was put on the injured reserve/designated to return list after this game.

In Week 12 we got a playoff preview as the Broncos traveled to play the New England Patriots. They jumped out to a 24-point lead, but lost the game 34-31 in overtime.

The game was billed as Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, but it ended up being more Knowshon Moreno than anyone expected. Moreno finished the game with a whopping 37 rushing attempts for a career-high 227 rushing yards. The Patriots played a soft coverage up front, daring the Broncos to beat them with Moreno.

The Broncos lost Vickerson for the year in the game against the Patriots. This was also the final game of the year for Wolfe.

The final game Del Rio worked as the interim head coach was once again against the Chiefs, this time on the road.

Arrowhead Stadium is one of the toughest places for an opponent to play, but the Broncos passed the test with flying colors. They ended up beating the Chiefs 35-28.

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Fox returned to the team for the Week 14 matchup against the Tennessee Titans. Manning had to endure plenty of questions that week of practice about his ability to play effectively in cold-weather games.

Manning answered the doubters by throwing for 397 yards and four touchdowns in 20-degree weather against the Titans. The final score, 51-28, showed how dominant the Broncos offense was that Sunday.

This victory sealed the 20th playoff appearance for the Broncos in their team history. After the game, Manning had a special message for those pushing the narrative of his cold-weather struggles.

In Week 15, the Broncos wrapped up the Thursday Night Football games on NFL Network by taking on the Chargers at home.

This game helped set the tone for the rest of the season as Denver lost 27-20.

The Broncos once again lost the time of possession battle as the Chargers held the ball for around 40 minutes. Denver also allowed the first (and only) 100-yard rusher of the season as Ryan Mathews was able to pound it on the ground for 127 yards against the Broncos.

Denver refocused and finished off the season with two road games.

In Week 16 it traveled to Houston to play a Texans team in disarray. It was an easy 37-13 win for the Broncos. This is the week the Broncos lost Miller for the season due to a knee injury.

With this victory, the Broncos won the AFC West three years in a row. They also now have the most AFC West division titles (13) in NFL history. Fox became just the fourth head coach in NFL history to win a division title in each of his first three seasons with a team.

In this contest, Manning threw his NFL-record 51st touchdown pass in 2013. This passed the old mark (50) set by Tom Brady in 2007.

After the game, Manning commented on his record-setting performance:

I really feel like it’s a team accomplishment, certainly an offensive accomplishment. But a lot of people played roles in this. I think it’s a unique thing and neat thing to be a part of NFL history, even though it may be temporary.

The Broncos wrapped up the regular season with a road game against the Raiders. This game (and Manning’s regular season) was over by halftime. The Broncos won easily 34-14.

Manning set another single-season passing record by throwing for 5,477 yards in 2013. His 265 yards against the Raiders helped put him over the top. Manning also extended his record for touchdown passes in a single season, finishing the year with 55.

  

Playoff Run

The Broncos had a first-round bye, which allowed their players to rest their bodies while the Wild Card Round was decided.

On the bye week agenda:

  1. Get everyone healthy and fresh
  2. Wes Welker returns from his second concussion
  3. Begin preparing for a rematch from the regular season

 

San Diego

This playoff game was a rematch from the regular season, except two things would be different this time around.

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First, the Broncos had tight end Julius Thomas back in the lineup. He missed the Week 15 game against the Chargers that the Broncos lost.

Thomas proved to be a difference-maker for the team, especially on the final drive late in the game. The third-year tight end led all Broncos receivers with six catches for 76 yards.

The other difference was time of possession. Denver only had around 40 minutes combined in the first two games against San Diego. This time around it won the time of possession battle, finishing with over 35 minutes of possession.

This game saw a fourth-quarter surge by San Diego, most of the Chargers' passing game production coming after cornerback Chris Harris was lost to a knee injury.

Keenan Allen had a big fourth quarter and finished the game with six catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns. It’s an amazing stat line considering Allen didn’t snare his first pass until the third quarter.

The Chargers defense could not stop Peyton Manning when it counted, and Philip Rivers could not keep pace. The Broncos ran away with it, winning 24-17 to advance to the AFC title game for the first time since 2006.

After the game, Manning had one thing on his mind.

Manning's call of "Omaha" before the snap against the Chargers drew a lot of attention after the game. In fact, Manning called the name of the Nebraska city 44 times in the divisional round of the playoffs.

 

New England

After losing to the Patriots on the road in Week 12, the Broncos got to face New England from the altitude of Denver.

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The Patriots had transformed into a run-heavy team since the last time these two faced off. Tight end Rob Gronkowski had been lost for the year to a knee injury, and the team began to feature the ground game after that. This meant the Broncos would have to contend with veteran running back LeGarrette Blount.

Entering this game, Blount had rushed for 355 yards and six rushing touchdowns over his last two games. The Broncos defense knew that in order to stop the Patriots, it would need to stop Blount.

It did just that, holding Blount to six yards rushing on five carries.

Tom Brady was forced to go to the air more than he’s comfortable with this group of receivers. He finished the game with 277 yards passing and only one passing touchdown.

Watching that game from the press box, I saw several throws that were off. 

The last time these two teams played, Moreno had a career-high 227 yards rushing. The Broncos knew that was not a recipe for success, and when they needed to move the chains late in the game, it was Manning and the passing game that was featured.

Manning finished with 400 yards passing and two touchdowns, while Moreno finished with only 59 yards rushing. Moreno did miss part of the game due to a rib injury.

After the game, several Broncos players expressed how much the crowd helped them seal the win. 

The Broncos would advance to play the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. 

 

Seattle

Two weeks of hype led up to the Super Bowl, and most everyone was focused on the NFL’s No. 1 offense going up against the league’s best defense.

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In the first half, it was the defense that clearly came out ahead.

The Seahawks defense scored on the very first play of the game. Manny Ramirez snapped the ball before Manning expected it, and the ball sauntered to the back of the end zone. Moreno fell on the ball and was downed by the defense.

That play was just one of the many bad things that happened to Denver’s offense in the first two quarters.

The Broncos failed to get a first down in the first quarter of the game. In fact, they didn’t get a first down until there was 10:34 left in the second quarter. The Broncos finally got a drive going, converting three 3rd-and-1 situations when disaster struck again.

Cliff Avril pushed right tackle Orlando Franklin back into Manning as he was releasing the ball. The pass sailed like a wounded duck, and linebacker Malcolm Smith returned it 69 yards for a touchdown.

Before the first half was over, the Broncos were moving to score when another drive fell short. A turnover on downs was the way the Denver offense went into halftime.

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The second half opened up with more of what we saw in the first half. On the opening kick, wide receiver Percy Harvin returned the kickoff for a touchdown.

With the score 29-0, the Seahawks weren’t done there. A touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Jermaine Kearse helped make the score 36-0 with 3:11 left in the third quarter.

Denver finally got on the board with a 14-yard touchdown catch by Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos picked up the two-point conversion to make the score 36-8. That was too little, too late, but at least the Broncos did not get shut out.

Even in a crushing loss, the Broncos offense was still setting records. Manning set a record for the most completions in a Super Bowl with 34. Thomas set a new record with 13 catches in the Super Bowl. He finished the game with 118 yards receiving.

The Seahawks defense swarmed all over the Broncos, and Denver failed to stand up to the punishing style of its opponent. Seattle won the game in the trenches as its defensive line was able to easily dominate Denver’s offensive line.

Now, we’ll have to see if Manning can pass his physical to continue playing in 2014. Last year, Elway told the team to keep the bad taste in their mouth from the Ravens loss. This humiliating loss will be impossible to forget.

 

Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. All contract information for individual players is from Spotrac.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey. 

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