October 29, 2014

ZAKOUR | Denver’s Success Rides on Patriots Shoulders

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The Denver Broncos find themselves in a familiar position. Last season, before a 43-8 loss forcefully applied by Seattle gave NFL viewers some perspective, the Broncos were viewed by many as just as good as the Seahawks. They were a high-powered, record-setting offense. Led by the resurgent MVP in Peyton Manning, they were the most dynamic offense to cut through opposing defenses since the 2007 Patriots. Manning broke a hallowed record and looked unstoppable. Unchallenged in their division and the AFC playoffs, the Super Bowl was supposed to be a classic strength versus strength (and weakness versus weakness) as Manning tried to solve the Legion of Boom. Nate Silver, the 538 guy, said the Super Bowl was going to be a tie on the Colbert Report. A hot prop bet in Vegas was picking the first overtime in the biggest game in the United States.

But 5-0 was as close as they got. The Broncos’ great season was derailed entirely by the Seahawks dominance.

Yet, now the Broncos are back in the same spot, widely regarded as the best team in the AFC. The Broncos, 6-1, own wins over the Colts, Chargers and a thrashing of the 49ers. It’s clear that the Broncos are the best team in the AFC. Again. It’s hard to imagine any team going into Denver and knocking them off. And unlike last year, the Seattle Seahawks are in a rut.

Last season was a two horse race in the NFL for best team. The Seahawks and Broncos seemingly went win for win, each putting up identical 13-3 records. But this time, Denver could and should run away with it. The Broncos have yet to play the Patriots and Bengals, which may be losable games, but the Broncos are the only contender without any baggage. The Bengals are too volatile to trust (getting shutout by a Colts team that just gave up 50 didn’t help), while the Patriots have looked mortal and Brady can only work miracles for so long. If Denver can go into Foxborough and inflict a loss on the Patriots, the Broncos can clinch the one seed pretty quickly.

The Broncos addition of Demarcus Ware and Emmanuel Sanders has paid off dividends. Ware has shown the same pass rushing ability that made him a household name in Dallas and continues to remind everyone that he’s still a future hall of fame player. Von Miller is realizing his potential playing alongside Ware, as the two have combined for 16 sacks already this season. The Broncos pass rush has become weaponized.

Emmanuel Sanders is a threat in an already elite wide receiver core and Peyton Manning is on track to throw for 50 touchdowns again. The chances of accomplishing this feat, which was thought to be possible last year, have been bolstered with the signings of safety TJ Ward and Aqib Talib. Talib is capable of matching up with an offense’s best receivers, and both Talib and Ward do more than just cover, helping out in run support. So you get the point. The Broncos are good.

In fact the Broncos are so good, or rather seemingly so much ahead of the second best team, that it’s actually tough to see them not coming up with a Super Bowl title. We have to go to the NFC to find teams that seem likely to beat them. Could the Cardinals be their worst matchup? The Cards feature a dynamic defense, anchored by a stellar secondary in Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie and Tyrann Mathieu. While the Cardinals offense doesn’t strike fear, it is aggressively called by Bruce Arians and managed successfully by Carson Palmer. Oh, and Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Ellington are pretty good.

But let’s not overlook that other NFC West team, The Seahawks. Seattle is a bit of a mess right now, but things can change quickly. Moreover, if Seattle doesn’t dominate the rest of the way, they likely won’t get their home field advantage and are much more prone to get upended on the road. Peyton won’t have to worry about the Legion of Boom at all.

But things can change quickly. Beat the Pats on the road and the Broncos can stroll to home field. Lose this week, and it’s a bonafide race. It’s hard to imagine a bigger regular season game in terms of conference supremacy. This season matters a lot to the Broncos and Peyton Manning. Manning’s best last chance will probably be this year, even if his production shows no sign of stopping. He is 38, but may be able to pull an Elway, now his general manager, by winning it all in the last two years of his career. Manning has slowly made his case for the best quarterback in history and another super bowl victory would go a long way towards it. Luckily the Broncos have given him a team that can do it this season and next.