Many thought 2013 was the Denver Broncos' best chance to win it all, and they appeared to be right.
Then, the Broncos were embarrassed in the Super Bowl by the Seattle Seahawks. Their 43-8 defeat showed general manager John Elway that the team needed improvements, so he went out and signed several talented players.
Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware and Emmanuel Sanders are now playing for the 2013 AFC champions. With the influx of new talent, Denver is primed to contend for a championship once again—barring an injury to Peyton Manning.
But with Manning's age and a flurry of expiring contracts, will the team be able to compete after the 2014 season?
Manning's production in 2013 was uncanny. He threw for 55 touchdowns and broke a plethora of records, and the Broncos offense scored 606 points (another NFL record). The offense did a great job in the AFC playoffs as well, controlling the ball efficiently in wins over San Diego and New England.
In the Super Bowl, however, the freight train that was the Broncos offense was brought to a screeching halt by the Seahawks. It turned the ball over four times and showed that a great offense isn't enough to win the Super Bowl.
That's why Denver went out and bolstered its defense.
Ward, Talib and Ware will all add much-needed physicality. The Broncos are seen by most as a finesse team, but their new additions—especially Ward and Talib—should help them change their identity.
If Denver's new defensive parts mesh as the team expects them to and the team can avoid injuries, it should coast through the anemic AFC in 2014. But what about 2015? What about the years after that?
Manning is 38 and could retire after the 2014 season. He has an incredible love for the game, but at some point, he will just be too old to produce. He didn't show any signs of old age last year, but he definitely could in 2014.
Even if Manning keeps playing in 2015, he won't be the same as he was in 2013. First, he will be 39 in 2015, meaning he almost certainly won't throw 55 touchdowns again. He likely won't in 2014 either.
He will still play at a remarkably high level, but it's unrealistic to expect a repeat of the 2013 season.
In other words, for the Broncos to win a Super Bowl in 2014 and in the future, the defense will have to chip in more than it did in 2013.
Luckily, that shouldn't be a huge problem. In 2013, Denver had to start the likes of Tony Carter, Kayvon Webster, Paris Lenon, Mike Adams and Duke Ihenacho. Now, the team's defense is laden with stars.
Ware and Von Miller will team up to wreak havoc on quarterbacks, Ward will help stifle opposing running backs and Talib will come through as the playmaker the Broncos desperately need in the secondary.
Additionally, Danny Trevathan, Terrance Knighton, Chris Harris and others will continue their stellar play. Denver has few defensive holes and its defense should resemble the 2012 group that finished second overall in total defense.
The Broncos are a well-rounded team that's becoming increasingly fit to challenge hard-nosed teams like the Seahawks. All the pieces are in place for them to contend for a championship in 2014.
However, in the NFL, there's a salary cap. The Broncos can only keep so much talent on the roster, and in 2015, they're going to have to make some difficult decisions.
Miller, Harris, Knighton, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Orlando Franklin are all scheduled to hit the open market in 2015. Even though salary-cap wizard Elway has the team in great shape, the Broncos are unlikely to keep all of these players.
According to Over the Cap, the Broncos have about $95 million committed to current players in 2015. Luckily for them, the 2014 cap number was $133 million. As NFL.com noted, that number should increase in 2015.
Denver would have to go through some serious hoops to retain its players and add outside talent, but if anyone can do it, it's Elway. The 2015 offseason will make a monumental impact on the team's future.
Either way, as long as Manning is on the team, the Broncos will have at least a shot at winning it all. His production might slightly decline in 2014 and 2015, but his game is mostly predicated on reading the defense and making accurate throws.
While his arm strength might continue to decrease, his smarts won't.
Plus, even if the Broncos lose some contributors in free agency, they can still add more with their large cap space. Somehow, Elway has reeled in a boatload of talent at a reasonable price, and these talented players will keep the Broncos in contention until Manning leaves.
In other words, if Manning's still on the team, the Broncos will still have a shot.