Greatness is rare in the NFL. It’s just a function of the sport. It’s really hard to put together a team of 53 guys that’s significantly better than 31 other teams of 53 guys. It’s not like basketball where you can luck into three great players who give you dominion over the league for half a decade.
You need almost everything to break your way to reach that level. You need one legendary unit, a great coach, a deep bench, and no real weaknesses. You need to have a roster that looks like it took three days of Madden trading to get. Most of all though, you need the intimidation factor.
It’s not enough to beat everybody. You have to come into games with your opponents expecting to get beaten. Badly. You need pundits openly questioning whether it’d even be possible for you to lose. You need people talking about you in reverential tones even before the season ends.
That’s why the ’99 Rams weren’t quite great. People saw them as more of a great story than a great team. Ditto for the ’92 Cowboys (nobody respected Aikman enough to put him on that pedestal), ’94 49ers, and ’72 Dolphins.
We’ve seen exactly five great teams in the history of the NFL: the ’78 Steelers, ’85 Bears, ’89 49ers, ’91 Redskins and ’07 Patriots. Now we’re here again.
I have no idea how the Broncos ended up at No. 3 on these power rankings. At some point in October we’re going to have a staff meeting where I demand to see everyone’s ballots and anyone who voted them past fourth is getting fired. I went to Evan Kendall, our Chief Publisher, and Matt Levine, the NFL Section Editor, with the idea to do them this way specifically so this exact article would go up on Opening Day, just hours before the Broncos inevitably decimate the Ravens. Just like they’re going to decimate everyone else.
Lost in the collapse against Baltimore last year is just how good the Broncos were. They were the best team in the league, and it wasn’t particularly close.
After their Week 5 loss in New England the Broncos didn’t lose a single game. Think that’s impressive? It gets better. They didn’t win a single game by less than a touchdown. Only three times was their margin of victory in single digits, and only twice did they fail to score 30 points. So basically, once Peyton Manning was healthy and back in rhythm, the Broncos didn’t lose a single game nor did they play a close one.
This year’s team is significantly better. Wes Welker is somewhere between 900 and 1100 times better than Brandon Stokley as a slot receiver. Montee Ball would’ve been a top-10 pick if teams believed he had a chance to play more than four or five years. Not a problem for Denver. The defense added plenty; forget about Elvis Dumervil (of his 11 sacks last year, only two came before the game was out of reach. He was entirely expendable).
Forget about all of that for a minute. Peyton Manning is the ultimate creature of habit. He’s not fresh off of neck surgery like he was last year. He’s used to his teammates and his city. There will be no adjustment period this year. The Broncos we saw from Week 6-17? Those are the Broncos we’re getting this year, only better.
The team’s best players outside of Manning and Champ Bailey, sorted by age: Von Miller (24), Demaryius Thomas (25), Eric Decker (26), Ryan Clady (26). All of them are going to get better, just like Wesley Woodyard (26), Zane Beadles (26) and Derek Wolfe (23).
This is a young team. All of these guys are just about ready to hit their prime. That’s a scary thought, you know, considering they went 13-3 last year and added several significant players in free agency and the draft.
Also on Denver’s side is their schedule. The AFC West lucked into a once-in-12-years draw of the AFC South and NFC East. Besides Houston, not one of those teams poses a major threat.
Baltimore (on whom my feelings are quite clear) and New England (without Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski) are their placement games. The rest of the AFC West would finish in the bottom half of the SEC.
But their greatest asset? They have the intimidation factor.
My biggest memory of last year’s team wasn’t Rahim Moore’s slip (which cost me about 40% of my liver function and more money than I’m comfortable revealing). It was the moments leading up to kickoff in Week 17.
With a Houston loss, the Broncos needed only to beat the Chiefs to clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Peyton Manning had this look in his eye, this seriousness mixed with certainty that said, “We’re gonna win this game by 30, just try and stop us, good effing luck.”
The Broncos raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead, won by a final score of 38-3, and that was that. They easily could have rested their starters at halftime. The Chiefs weren’t coming back. The Broncos wanted to make a statement to the rest of the league. This was their year, just try and stop them, good effing luck.
[Do you want to put your NFL knowledge to the test with weekly fantasy football? Sign-up for FanDuel.com using promo code TSP for a 50% deposit bonus!]
Were it not for the Ravens having some absurdly good luck, the Broncos would’ve won the Super Bowl last year. They’re going to win it this year. And frankly, barring injury, I don’t think they have a real challenger.
Put football reasons aside for a moment. There's a certain symmetry to Super Bowl winners. Ray Lewis winning in his last season, Peyton not winning his first until he beat Brady in the playoffs, the Giants beating the Patriots after their awesome Week 17 game in '07, and so on.
I've said it before and I'll say it again — sports storylines don't just go away without resolution. The monkey on Manning's back, exacerbated by last year's playoff loss to Baltimore, is his play in cold weather. Well, this year's Super Bowl is in New York.
Wouldn't Peyton winning the first ever cold-weather Super Bowl be the perfect exorcism of those demons? Wouldn't that be the right way to close the book on the ridiculous "Peyton Manning isn't clutch" arguments forever?
Let's take it a step further. Eli Manning didn't just win his second Super Bowl in Indianapolis, he won it in the stadium Peyton built. There was a period, albeit brief, where people thought this gave Eli some sort of claim to the title "Best Manning." Wouldn't those ridiculous claims be best put to bed by Peyton winning title No. 2 in Eli's house?
This preview was originally going to end with an argument about just how big of a deal it would be if someone actually managed to beat Denver. They are on paper the best team since the '07 Patriots, and when I originally conceived this piece I thought they had a very legitimate shot at 16-0.
And then things started getting weird. Executives were arrested for DUI's, Von Miller was suspended, and half of the team got hurt. Sure, most of them will be fine and sure, Von Miller will be back, but some of that original luster is gone. There's a chink in the invincibility factor that'll be hard to reclaim. They've gone from unbeatable to just very, very, very good.
For the record, I still do think the Broncos have a chance to win 16 games. I think that when you have Peyton Manning and a weak schedule, that's always in play. But for now, I'll hold off on the premature coronations.
All I'll say is that the Broncos are the best team in the league. Barring the emergence of a legitimate receiver in New England they're going to be playing in Super Bowl XLIII. And frankly, I haven't yet heard a good argument for why someone there will beat them.
By: Sam Quinn