Continuing our focus on the least impressive division in the AFC, we now take a peak at the new-look and highly anticipated Denver Broncos.
No team in the NFL made a bigger splash in the offseason than Denver, as executive vice president John Elway quickly emptied he wallet in order to bring Peyton Manning to the Mile High City.
There is a new sheriff in town, folks, and he has arrived with a five-year, $96 million contract for one reason only— to lead the Broncos back to the promised land for the first time since Elway did it in 1997 and 1998.
Last year was a crazy one for Denver, with Tebowmania taking over a city (and country) like we have never seen before.
For a guy who only completed 53 percent of his total passes, the way people raved and roared about Tebow was more overpowering than anything Manning has ever experienced. Well, aside from the Colts' Super Bowl parade back in 2006, but that was only for a few hours.
The point is that Manning enters a situation in which he is distinctly unfamiliar with. Accustomed to being the hero and savior of an entire state, No. 18 now faces the challenge of coming in and replacing one.
While this new relationship between future Hall of Fame quarterback and overdue city is extremely enticing, it is important to remember that Manning was released by his old team for a specific reason— the former Colts' quarterback is 36 years old and missed the 2011 season due to a string of serious neck surgeries.
And on a side note, let's not forget that prior to this injury the eleven-time Pro Bowler had never missed a game since entering the league in 1998. This was a reminder that nothing in the NFL is guaranteed, which presents the following question: Will Manning get injured again?
No one wants this (except maybe the Saints), but it is obviously a realistic concern for the Broncos' organization. They understand that their season is tanked if Manning goes down.
A separate worry that has been surfacing is whether or not he will be able to throw the long ball accurately? Manning has never been known for his arm strength in the first place, but he has clearly always been able to have good ball placement on deep passes.
The answer to this question remains to be seen, but signs are looking promising as his arm strength has continuously improved throughout the first three games of the preseason.
After watching Peyton's third preseason game in which he picked apart the 49ers' starters on defense, which is one of the best units in the league, Broncos' fans should feel rejuvenated.
The four-time MVP looked like his old self, finishing the first quarter 10-12 for 122 yards and two touchdowns. He also proved reports wrong that said he was having trouble throwing to his right.
On first down and 10 from their own 46-yard line, Manning stepped up in the pocket and delivered a 17-yard strike into double coverage. Demaryius Thomas snagged it along the right sideline, beating two Pro Bowlers from a year ago, cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson.
Then, later in the quarter on third down and two, the Broncos' quarterback threw a beautiful 38-yard pass down the right sideline to Lance Ball, which was followed by another perfect throw on the right to Eric Decker for a 10-yard touchdown.
The fact that Manning was able to make the 49ers' defense look like the Broncos' practice squad is a scary sight for the rest of the league, especially for the AFC West. Although it was only one quarter, it is fair to say that this is not a fluke because we are talking about one of the best quarterbacks the league has ever seen, period.
Another factor that Denver's new leader brings is he makes the wide receivers look better than they are, which is a frightening thought when you think about Thomas and Decker because they were able to showcase their skill set with Tebow at the helm.
Remember last year's wild-card round when the Broncos beat the Steelers on the first play of overtime? That was Thomas catching a 20-yard pass from Tebow before stiff-arming Ike Taylor and running an extra 60 yards for a touchdown, finishing the game with a monstrous 204 yards receiving.
At the other wide receiver position Manning has another deadly weapon in Decker. The Minnesota product is entering his third season, along with Thomas, and was the go-to guy in the passing game for most of last year.
In the preseason game against the 49ers, Decker displayed excellent route-running ability and hauled in two touchdown passes in the first quarter. It is unclear whether he or Thomas will be the No. 1 option this year, but either way the Broncos have two studs at wide receiver.
Helping out in the passing game as well will be two of Manning's old targets from Indianapolis, Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme. Stokley will be the slot receiver and has superb chemistry with Manning, while Tamme was one of the Colts most sure-handed targets in 2010, racking up 631 yards and four touchdowns at tight end.
Balance is an important part of any offense, which John Elway has expressed multiple times, and the Broncos will undoubtedly have it. In 2011, Denver had the best running game in the NFL, averaging 164.5 yards per game.
Willis McGahee led the attack, rushing for 1,199 yards and averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He is also an effective receiver in the screen game, which Manning has always relied heavily on, and has a knack for picking up the blitz.
On plays where McGahee needs a rest, look for the Broncos to bring in backup running back Lance Ball, who had his best season last year and showed in the 49ers' game that he is a receiving threat as well.
Offense is not the only side of the ball that Manning's presence helps— the Broncos' defense is also licking their chops. Last year, time and time again, the defense had to bail out the atrocious offense and pray that Tebow would have some fourth quarter magic (which he often did).
This is not how any team prefers to play, however, as the defense in 2011 was on the field for far too much of the game. With Manning steering the ship, Denver will actually have the lead at times throughout the game, which will work wonders for the Broncos' two stellar defensive pass-rushers, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.
Coming into his second season, Miller is trying to improve on a year where all he did was win the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, make the Pro Bowl, and be named to the All-Pro team. With 11.5 sacks a season ago, look for that number to increase given the fact that opposing teams are going to have to throw more to keep pace with Manning.
Miller's partner in crime, Dumervil, is coming off a strong season himself with 9.5 sacks, but his production noticeably slipped from his 2009 season before suffering a torn pectoral muscle that kept him out all of 2010. Given the fact that the year before the injury he led the NFL with 17 sacks, it would not be surprising to see the Louisville product add 12 or more sacks to his resume in 2012, especially with defenses having to focus so much attention on Miller.
With all of the pieces coming into place for Denver, and the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs, considered the favorites to win the AFC West, have struggled mightily in the preseason, the Broncos must be feeling especially confident that the division crown is within reach despite their brutal schedule.
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