Denver's bold acquisition of Peyton Manning changes everything. John Elway now has the elite pocket passer he covets to direct an efficient aerial attack. Couple that with a dominant running game and a defense that sparked last season's six-game winning streak, and you have the formula for a Super Bowl contender.
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Huge questions remain, such as "Can Manning stay healthy?" and "Can Manning be successful outside his comfort zone in Indianapolis?" Nonetheless, expectations have been raised, and anything less than an appearance in the AFC Championship Game would likely be considered a disappointment.
After bringing on Manning, the Broncos traded fellow quarterback Tim Tebow -- who was at the center of 2011's wild ride -- to the Jets. Manning is not Denver's only big pickup. The Broncos also brought in a couple of Manning's old buddies, wide receiver Brandon Stokley and tight end Jacob Tamme. Other additions of note are fellow pass-catcher Andre Caldwell and cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence. But it is Manning's play that will determine whether this offseason was a smashing success or a progress-halting blunder.
Defensive end Elvis Dumervil is one part of a feared Broncos pass rush.
After trading out of the first round, Denver reached for Cincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe with the No. 36 overall pick. While Wolfe will see plenty of action as a rookie, the hope is that Denver's other second-round pick, quarterback Brock Osweiler, will not play meaningful snaps until about 2015. Ronnie Hillman will be in the mix at running back and Philip Blake will battle for playing time on the interior offensive line, but this draft was more about depth and development than anything else.
The Broncos face a grueling gauntlet to start the season. The first six weeks bring contests against the Steelers, Falcons, Texans and Patriots, in addition to divisional match-ups against the Chargers and Raiders. Things don't get much easier after the Week 7 bye, as games with the Saints, Bengals and Panthers precede a pair of division clashes with San Diego and Kansas City.
The good news is if the Broncos can stay in the playoff race going into December, things get much easier. Of their final five games, only a Week 15 clash in Baltimore looms as potentially daunting. Denver hosts the Chiefs in the season finale, a game that could potentially determine the division winner.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Peyton Manning, quarterback. Which four will show more? The elite form that helped Manning win four MVP awards or the neck injury that resulted in four surgeries? If it's the former, the Broncos are in business.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Elvis Dumervil, defensive end. It's the pass rush that makes Denver's defense go. Dumervil and wingman Von Miller bring the heat off the edges and make big plays to get the defense off the field.
WILL WIN DIVISION IF ...
The Broncos need to get a full 16 games from Manning, which is asking a lot of a 36-year-old quarterback who has undergone four neck surgeries. If he can stay healthy and return to the form that earned him four MVPs, Denver is the favorite in the West. However, if Manning misses time or is unable to rediscover his peak form, the Broncos could wind up in the division cellar.