Leading up to the start of the 2015 NFL season I will be previewing last year’s playoff teams and their chances for making it back to the postseason
Record: 12-4 (1st, AFC West)
Key Additions: Owen Daniel (Free Agency from Baltimore), Shane Ray (23rd overall pick, 2015 NFL Draft)
Key Losses: Julius Thomas (Free Agency to Jacksonville), Wes Welker (unsigned)
In Denver things seem the same but different.
In 2014 the Broncos won 12 games, the AFC West, and a first-round bye in the playoffs after accomplishing those same things in 2013. Their offense was still prolific statistically, averaging 30 points per game and leading the NFL in passing yards. Peyton Manning was breaking records, Emmanuel Sanders broke out in a big way his first year in Denver, and the Broncos even found they have a running game with C.J. Anderson.
So why did it feel different? Well, Peyton Manning broke down in a way rarely seen from him even by second-half fade standards. It would be too simple to consider it strictly age as Manning was dealing with numerous injuries, but the bottom line was clear: as Manning goes, so go the Broncos. Their loss to the Colts wasn’t as much of a shock as the way they lost. The Broncos entered the postseason 8-0 in Denver and with home-field advantage; to have never led by more than a possession after the first quarter against a Colts defense that was 18th against the run and 12th against the pass was inexplicable.
After the season Denver decided to move on from head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase, while defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio took the head coaching job with the Oakland Raiders. Gary Kubiak was hired as head coach and brought in Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator and Rick Dennison as offensive coordinator.
What Went Right
Hello run game.
I can’t say for certain that C.J. Anderson is the real deal, best back in Denver (Hillman looks awfully good), but what I can say is that Anderson was one of the best running backs down the stretch last season. With Denver needing to rely less on Manning’s arm Anderson picked up the slack and went above and beyond what was expected.
Another revelation was just how good Emmanuel Sanders actually could be when given the opportunity. How good was Sanders? Not only did he rack up over 1,400 yards receiving, but he scored nine touchdowns despite not scoring one until game six of the season.
You read that right. He went five full games without a score and still finished with nine on the season.
Let’s not forget about the defense either: the Broncos fixed what ailed them on the defensive side after that humiliating Super Bowl loss to the Seahawks. They were the third best defensive team in the NFL as far as total yardage was concerned.
What Went Wrong
Remember when I said everything seemed the same but different? Denver didn’t have the feel of a team marching toward Super Bowl redemption as the season wore on. Manning looked like a shell of his former self down the stretch and it showed in all other facets of the team.
Better put: if this offense doesn’t get it done, this team is sunk.
Now you might say that’s true for every team, but I would counter it’s especially true for the Broncos because this team is built to win immediately. You saw it first hand in the playoffs last season against the Colts. How such a collection of skill players could only muster 13 points at home in a playoff game shows the importance of what Manning brings to this offense.
You hate to say “Manning not performing at an elite level at age 38” was what went wrong but this is the offense that was built.
Why Am I Skeptical?
Skepticism remains because I’m just not sure if Peyton Manning is one of the top-5 Quarterbacks in the NFL right now. I’ll pause here to allow space for you to toss expletives my way.
Feel better? Good, now let me explain.
I evaluate Quarterbacks differently, and that means that track record and statistics don’t always influence my opinion. Manning’s numbers belie what I believe is a top-5 Quarterback in the NFL: his physical attributes just aren’t getting any better. Once November hits Manning isn’t the same Quarterback and that’s been true of his entire career. Interceptions go up, average yards/attempt go down, as do his rating and completion percentage. This is not me saying Manning isn’t great, I’m just pointing to something that can no longer be considered a “trend.”
That explanation leads me to this question: at 39 years old is that going to get better or worse?
I will not be betting against the Broncos making the playoffs. While I think San Diego, Kansas City, and Oakland are all much improved and ready to challenge, I like Denver’s overall makeup best in the division. Denver still has the best defense in the AFC West (although some feel differently), and I think of all the hires Denver made bringing in Wade Phillips to lead a veteran group was the smartest. I also like the decision to lean on the ground game more. C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, if healthy, have a chance to really finish games for the Broncos.
Everything is in place for the Broncos in 2015, just so long as the man running the show holds up.
Record Prediction: 10-6, make playoffs
Disagree? Let me know about it follow me on Twitter @DACubbage for more opinions about life, sports, and the art of Wang Chung.