They have spent significant dollars in free agency to upgrade a defense that surrendered 27 of the Seattle Seahawks' 43 points in the Super Bowl. Injured players such as Ryan Clady and Von Miller have returned to the fold. The superficial assumption would be that Denver is a much better team than the one Seattle walloped in February.
Dig a little deeper, and there are legitimate questions about whether the improvements the Broncos targeted in the offseason have actually translated onto the field.
When the Seahawks Are on Defense
The Broncos' record-breaking 2013 offense averaged 42.9 points per game in their first eight games and scored at least 33 points in each game. They have not scored 33 points or more in any of their last five games, dating back to the playoffs last season.
In fact, they enter this game against the Seahawks averaging fewer points (27.5) than the Seahawks (28.5), despite Seattle's offense only seeing the field for 40 snaps and 17 minutes against the San Diego Chargers.
Manning appears to be playing even more efficiently than last year. His passer rating is up from 115.1 to 126.5, but he is well off his 2013 pace in a few key areas. Most notably, his pass attempts per game are down from 41.2 last year to 31 per game this year, and his yards per game have followed suit. He is averaging 255.5 yards per game this year compared to 342.3 last year.
The culprit does not appear to be a drop-off in his play or even in the passing offense. The running game is not what it was with Knowshon Moreno off to Miami, and the defense is struggling to get off the field.
Denver is ranked 24th in rushing yards and 25th in yards per carry, according to TeamRankings.com. They will face a Seattle run defense that ranks fourth in the league in opponent yards per carry (3.1), and that has consistently played better in front of their rowdy hometown fans.
Manning is always difficult to sack, but Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons and Michael Bennett made the pocket very uncomfortable in the Super Bowl by bull rushing in nearly every passing situation.
Manning rushed some throws, and that led to two interceptions. Throwing interceptions is one of the only differences in Manning's game on the road compared to when he plays at home. He has 25 more interceptions over the course of his career on the road than at home in two fewer games, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Seattle has been a house of horrors for opposing quarterbacks where their lightning-quick pass-rushers can get a jump on linemen, and their All-Pro laden secondary can feast on mistakes. Even the best in the game have been unable to overcome the atmosphere and the Seahawks defense. Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are a combined 0-5 in CenturyLink Field since 2012.
When the Seahawks Are on Offense
Lost in all the talk about Seattle's poor defensive performance last weekend was the second straight impressive outing from the offense. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks lead the NFL in points per play and are third in yards per play, according to TeamRankings.com. Their vaunted running game is more explosive than it has ever been. How explosive?
They had 108 yards rushing on just 13 carries this past week. Even subtracting Percy Harvin's long touchdown run left the team at nearly five yards per carry.
J.R. Sweezy, Max Unger and James Carpenter are combining to create one of the most powerful interior run-blocking units in the NFL. Kansas City found some success running up the middle, despite losing star Jamaal Charles early in the game. Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin and possibly even secret weapon Christine Michael will present a much stiffer test for a Broncos run defense that is mediocre so far.
Denver's defensive line, outside of Terrance Knighton, is built to rush the passer.
The linebacker unit is still missing starter Danny Trevathan. He was among the best defenders for Denver in the Super Bowl, when he tallied 12 tackles and a tackle for loss. Brandon Marshall has stepped in with 18 tackles and a sack in his two starts, but he was caught out of position a few times against the Kansas City Chiefs, leading to long runs.
Seattle receivers were an underappreciated part of the Super Bowl victory and are likely to have mismatches to exploit, even with Aqib Talib joining the Broncos secondary.
The Seahawks can go five- or six-deep at the receiver position and also have tight-end threats in Zach Miller and Luke Willson. Although, look for at least one tight end to be left in to help rookie right tackle Justin Britt against Von Miller much of the game.
Key Matchup: Wes Welker vs. Marcus Burley
John Breech of CBSSports.com reports that Welker is expected back this week when the NFL and NFLPA can agree on the revised drug policy. Denver will eagerly look to isolate him against the Seahawks' unproven nickel corner. Burley has some good and bad moments in his first start versus San Diego, but he will undoubtedly have his biggest professional test this week.
Key Matchup: Doug Baldwin vs. Bradley Roby
Percy Harvin will demand attention in the slot, leaving Doug Baldwin facing the rookie corner when Seattle is in three-receiver sets. Baldwin has yet to get untracked in his new split-end role and could easily be overlooked by a Broncos defense thinking about Lynch and Harvin.
Key Matchup: Kam Chancellor/K.J. Wright vs. Julius Thomas
Stopping Thomas will be a point of pride for Wright and Chancellor after Antonio Gates had a field day in San Diego. Thomas is a great athlete, but there is only one Gates.
Key Matchup: Demaryius Thomas vs. Richard Sherman
Much has been made of the Seahawks' unwillingness to allow Sherman to follow the opposing teams' top receiver around the field. This may be the game to break that rule. A Thomas-Sherman matchup would be epic.