For 16 regular-season games and two postseason games, the Denver Broncos appeared to have the greatest passing offense ever assembled. And then they ran into the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, and suddenly the Broncos looked like mere mortals.
Looking ahead at the 2014 season, it’s hard not to let that ugly showing in the Super Bowl overshadow the 18 games that came before it: When you get thumped like that, it’s hard to view you as a championship-caliber team.
And yet the Broncos remain the favorites to come out of the AFC, and their aggressive approach to free agency this year may have made them an even better team than they were in 2013. Here are our questions about the Broncos for the coming season:
1. Is Peyton Manning ageless?
Peyton Manning is 38 years old. Father Time catches every athlete eventually, and athletes rarely improve in their late-30s.
And yet the numbers say Manning was better last year than he had been in any of his previous 14 NFL seasons — and for that matter better than any quarterback in NFL history: Manning had absurd totals of 5,477 passing yards, with 55 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. He couldn’t possibly improve on those numbers, could he?
Probably not. But Manning will benefit from the NFL’s new emphasis on illegal contact, which will force defensive backs to let receivers to run free in the secondary. Manning had his best year in Indianapolis the last time the NFL made illegal contact a point of emphasis, and he should have another big year this year. Manning may not be ageless, but he’ll remain near the top of his game this season.
2. How much better can the new defense be?
The Broncos made huge moves in free agency to bolster their defense, adding pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. All three players should provide the Broncos significant improvements at their respective positions.
Also improving the Broncos’ defense will be the return of Von Miller, who was suspended for the first six games of last season and then missed the end of the year with a knee injury. If Miller is back to his 2012 form, when he played in all 16 games and recorded 18.5 sacks, he and Ware may be the most fearsome pair of pass rushers in football.
Denver was the No. 1 seed in the AFC last season despite having a mediocre defense. The new additions could give Denver one of the league’s best defense this year, which should be scary to the rest of the AFC.
3. Do Sanders and Latimer make up for Decker’s loss?
The Broncos lost Eric Decker, who caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns, in free agency. But they also signed Emmanuel Sanders away from Pittsburgh and spent a second-round draft pick on Cody Latimer. Adding two talented receivers might actually make the Broncos’ receiving corps better than last year, despite the loss of Decker.
And that’s without even mentioning that the Broncos’ top receiver, Demaryius Thomas, should be motivated by entering a contract year. And we haven’t even gotten to tight end Julius Thomas, who burst onto the scene last year but is still very inexperienced and could get better with another year of playing in Denver’s offense.
If Wes Welker can stay healthy and doesn’t show signs of slowing down with age, the Broncos’ receiving corps could be even better than last year. Another reason for the rest of the AFC to worry.
4. How big a workload can Montee Ball handle?
As a rookie last year, Ball played well as the backup to Knowshon Moreno, carrying 120 times for 559 yards, an average of 4.7 yards a carry. This year the Broncos want Ball to carry the load in their running game.
Ball is currently recovering from an appendectomy, but he’s expected to be 100 percent before the season starts, and Manning has indicated that the Broncos expect Ball to be a workhorse this year. The Broncos could end up giving Ball even more work than Moreno had last year, when he carried 241 times for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Broncos’ offensive line may improve this year thanks to the return of left tackle Ryan Clady, who was lost for the season last year in Week Two. That bodes well for Ball’s production. Expect him to have a strong year.
5. Will there be a Super Bowl hangover?
Super Bowl losers tend to struggle the following year, and a Super Bowl loser hasn’t won the Super Bowl the following season since the 1972 Dolphins. Will the Broncos overcome the struggles that so many previous Super Bowl losers have faced?
It won’t be easy, and the Broncos’ schedule is tough. But with Manning at the helm, good veteran additions including Ware, Sanders, Ward and Talib, and veterans like Clady and Miller getting healthy, the Broncos have every reason to feel confident that they can get back to the Super Bowl. And, hopefully, play a lot better than they did against the Seahawks six months ago.