You have heard the loose talk that Peyton Manning is finished, that his arm is a damp dishrag, that the Grim Reaper hovers above him in the pocket and pokes the football with his scythe every time Manning cocks to throw.
I'm not here to silence that talk because, well, when an athlete pushing 40 strings together bad games across two seasons and turns a bout with the flu into weeks of escalating middle-aged-guy maladies, there may be something to that talk.
Instead, I'm here to quote another pretty good quarterback: R-E-L-A-X. Manning doesn't have to be Manning 2004-06 or even Manning 2013 to give the Broncos a crack at the Super Bowl. He just has to be good: better than last year's playoffs, certainly, and a little sharper than last Sunday, but just good.
The Broncos have a Super Bowl-caliber defense. It's time for Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and coordinator Wade Phillips to lead the way.
The Broncos defense ranked third, 19th and second in the NFL in yards allowed over the last three seasons. They ranked fourth, 15th and fifth in defensive DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, so the yardage totals are no offense-assisted fluke. The Broncos typically fielded a Super Bowl-caliber defense under John Fox and coordinator Jack Del Rio, not some bend-don't-break unit that needed a two-touchdown cushion to win games.
Wade Phillips replaced Del Rio when Gary Kubiak replaced Fox. Phillips' Texans defenses finished seventh, seventh and second in the NFL during his three years with that organization (18th, fourth and sixth in DVOA). J.J. Watt was just a rookie the year the Texans finished second in the league in defense; Phillips built that Texans defense out of Antonio Smith, Connor Barwin, Johnathan Joseph and Brian Cushing, all very good players but not MVP types.
Phillips took over a Broncos defense with six former Pro Bowl selections on the roster: Von Miller (three Pro Bowls), DeMarcus Ware (eight), Aqib Talib (two), T.J. Ward (two), Chris Harris and former Texan Antonio Smith (one each). Young, early-round draft picks Sylvester Williams, Bradley Roby, Derek Wolfe and Shane Ray play complementary roles, as do scout's darlings like Malik Jackson and Brandon Marshall.
Give Phillips and the Broncos' defensive personnel to a team quarterbacked by Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers or even an Andy Dalton or Cam Newton, and most experts would pencil in at least 10 or 11 wins. We're conditioned to think of Peyton Manning teams as Peyton Manning teams. The Broncos have been built to be something more. This season, they may have to be.
Far too much can be made about the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. Del Rio's 4-3 was really a hybrid of many defensive fronts, as are most modern defenses, and Phillips switches from a 3-4 to a four-man front on most passing downs. Terms like "one-gap" and "two-gap" aren't much help, either. Del Rio was known for using more two-gap defensive concepts than most 4-3 proponents, Phillips is known for his "attacking" one-gap principles, and most discussions of defensive gaps are mixtures of oversimplification and jargon-spouting anyway.
Here's what's certain: Del Rio had to hammer some square pegs into round holes last year. Listing Ware as a defensive end was the most obvious example, though the least egregious. Ware lined up roughly where he usually lined up and did what he usually does last season, registering 10 sacks in the process.
But consider the case of Malik Jackson. At 6'5" and 293 pounds, Jackson is too lanky to play defensive tackle in a 4-3 but a little too big and slow for defensive end. Del Rio used Jackson mostly as a rotation defender, often platooning on early downs with Ware. Jackson responded with 30 stops (think "important tackles or sacks") by Pro Football Focus' count, 38 by Football Outsiders' count: very good—a little too good—for a part-time player.
Jackson is the perfect size and shape to play defensive end in a 3-4. He started at end against the Ravens, though a mid-game injury limited his availability. Jackson recorded three tackles (all of them "stops," according to Pro Football Focus) in just 27 snaps. Phillips' scheme makes it easier for the Broncos to get Ware, Miller and Jackson on the field at the same time, making it hard for opponents to protect the flanks of the offensive line.
Sylvester Williams is also in a more natural position this season. Last year, he was often used as a 3-tech defensive tackle next to Terrance Knighton. This year, Williams bulked up to 313 pounds and has moved to nose tackle. Williams is a penetrator by trade, but Phillips asks his nose tackles to slant hard and penetrate instead of gobbling up blockers so the linebackers can make plays. Williams could be seen blowing up the Ravens' interior blocking scheme several times Sunday.
About those inside linebackers: They are much healthier now than last year. Danny Trevathan missed most of last season, forcing Del Rio to shuffle between Nate Irving, the overmatched Steven Johnson and other emergency replacements.
Brandon Marshall had a fine year despite playing through foot injuries. The foot still limits him, but Marshall is another natural fit for Phillips' system. Now an inside linebacker, he can either penetrate or drop into coverage on early downs, and his coverage skills make him the Broncos' best nickel linebacker. With three linemen, Miller and Ware attacking the line of scrimmage, Marshall is free to roam and match up against the dangerous backfield receivers (think Jamaal Charles) the Broncos face.
There are two huge differences between Phillips and Del Rio: Phillips loves the big blitz, and he moves his cornerbacks around much more often to create favorable matchups. Phillips' changes have already benefited the Broncos defense.
Phillips often led the NFL in six-man blitzes when he coached the Texans defense. He rushed six or more defenders 17.8 percent of the time in 2012, the highest rate in the league, according to Football Outsiders Almanac. J.J. Watt blossoming into a 20-sack All-Pro? It doesn't matter to Phillips: He keeps blitzing.
Phillips got a lot of mileage out of a handful of big blitzes against the Ravens. Six defenders rushed Joe Flacco on the pick-six interception to Talib that turned Sunday's game around. Marshall also recorded a sack in the game. Miller and Ware combined to hit Flacco eight times, so it's not like the Broncos' base pass rush needs the extra boost. Again: That doesn't matter to Phillips.
Talib covered archrival Steve Smith on that interception and for much of the game. Chris Harris generally handled the Ravens' deep threats. Phillips rarely lines up his cornerbacks strictly on the left or right, the way Del Rio often did. Broncos cornerbacks lined up "by sides" 82 percent of the time last year, according to Football Outsiders Almanac. Phillips' Texans cornerbacks only lined up by sides about 55 percent of the time in most seasons, ranking dead last in using that tactic in 2012.
Phillips will match the physical Talib against bigger (or ornerier, in Smith's case) receivers while the quicker Harris shuts down deep threats. With Ward returning from suspension at safety, Phillips will have both more matchup opportunities and more blitz options. When facing an opponent with a weak receiving corps like the Chiefs, Phillips can get the one-on-one matchups he wants, whenever he wants them. That will allow him even more leeway when blitzing, creating a cycle that is going to get pretty vicious for opposing quarterbacks.
The New Reality
Back to Manning for a moment. The enduring image of a legendary quarterback losing the battle with Father Time is Johnny Unitas in his final years, lumbering about and throwing interceptions for the Chargers. The parallels are obvious: a former Colts legend, seemingly ageless for so long, suddenly struggling against both unfamiliar circumstances and his own declining skills.
Before Unitas left the Colts, he led them to Super Bowl V. Sort of. Unitas threw 14 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in 1970. The Colts offense that year was nothing to write home about, even by 1970s standards. But a defense led by Bubba Smith, Mike Curtis, Jerry Logan and Ted Hendricks produced 25 interceptions in 14 games and seven more in the playoffs. Those Colts won a lot of 14-6 and 13-10 games, culminating in a 16-13 Super Bowl win. Old Unitas still had value as a game manager.
OK, Old Manning is now two years older than Old Unitas. But you get the picture. Maybe Manning doesn't have many 34-point games left in him. But the Broncos defense has many 13-point games left in it. Do you think Manning still has enough of an arm to manage a game and protect a lead? Few quarterbacks in history have a better brain for the task.
Manning carried a lot of teams during his career. He can ease up a little this year. Phillips and the defense are ready to pick up the slack.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.