The Denver Broncos were one of the most intriguing teams in the NFL last season under Tim Tebow. If it's possible, they're even more intriguing with Peyton Manning. The Broncos made the dramatic switch in moving from Tebow to Manning and they're banking on the former Colts quarterback to play like, well, the former Colts quarterback.
Manning's health is the key to the Broncos season. If he's healthy, he plays well and the Broncos probably win the division. If he's not healthy then the Broncos are in some serious trouble.
That's the short answer to the Broncos chances in 2012. The long answer starts with looking back at what happened last season...
Calling the Broncos 2011 season a roller coaster would be an understatement. The Broncos started the season with Kyle Orton under center and sat at 2-5 after Week 8, their season seemingly lost. But starting with the first game in November, and the move to Tim Tebow as the starting quarterback, the Broncos rattled off six consecutive wins to put themselves in position for a potential playoff berth. In the final three weeks of the season, the Broncos lost games by 18, 26 and four points to finish the season at 8-8, which was good enough for a division title. The Broncos held tiebreakers over both the Raiders and Chargers, who also finished 8-8.
Denver's strength under Tebow was obvious: rushing the ball. They were the No. 1 team in rushing attempts and yards, largely aided by Tebow's 660 rushing yards. The defense finished the season ranked 24th in the league but that doesn't do justice the role they played in the Broncos six-game winning streak.
Best Free Agent Pickup
When the free agent you signed is considered the greatest free agent in history, I think we can safely say it's the best move of the offseason. Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos two weeks after he was released by the Indianapolis Colts and he is the reason the Broncos are considered the favorites in the AFC West.
It's hard to make a more drastic change than going from Tebow to Manning. They are polar opposites on the field. The Broncos were able to win with a style that was best suited for Tebow's skills and from the early reports out of Denver it sounds like the Broncos will tweak their offense to best suit Manning's skills.
He's not a free agent but another notable offseason pickup is defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, former head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Broncos biggest area of improvement needs to be on defense, and Del Rio brings experience to the coaching staff on that side of the ball.
2012 NFL Draft
The Broncos hit on a couple of needs, and a depth move, with their first three picks in the 2012 NFL Draft. Denver moved out of Round 1 and picked up DT Derek Wolfe early in the second round. Wolfe hits on a need for the Broncos along the defensive line. QB Brock Osweiler was picked later in the 2nd round and he's considered the Broncos quarterback of the future. RB Ronnie Hillman, a 3rd round pick, will provide depth behind Willie McGahee, who rushed for 1,199 yards last season. Two 4th round picks, CB Omar Bolden and C Philip Blake, have the potential to start at some point.
The Broncos are the defending AFC West Champions, and it is hard to say - even for AFC West rivals - that the team got nothing but better during the off-season. We'll start with the obvious in Peyton Manning. The Broncos have upgraded the quarterback position 10-fold and in a league that quarterback play is everything, the Broncos now have one of the best ever calling the signals under center. Add to that improved weapons, especially at tight end in Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen and Denver's offense will much more efficient, and dangerous.
That wasn't the only upgrade. Jack Del Rio is at defensive coordinator after Dennis Allen was hired by the Raiders as their head coach. Del Rio has worked with John Fox in the past, and with two defensive minds like that put together on the coaching staff, Denver is well on its way to putting the D back in the defense.
While mostly quiet on draft day, the Broncos added depth to both sides of the ball. 2nd Round pick Derek Wolfe is going to surprise a lot of people and fans should keep their eyes on 3rd Round pick Ronnie Hillman. He is an explosive playmaker that broke all of Marshall Faulk's records while at San Diego State.
The AFC West may appear to be wide open, but the defending division champs improved as much as anyone and aren't going to give their title away without a fight....
They Make The Playoffs If...
Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning. There's more to it, but if Manning plays like the Manning of old then the Broncos will win the division. Considering the Broncos are the current favorites in the AFC West, most people expect Manning to return to the field just fine. The AFC West is an extremely tight division as it is but an elite quarterback surrounded by a cast of role players like the Broncos have should be enough for Denver to repeat in the AFC West.