DENVER -- The Denver Broncos closed out the regular season with a 27-20 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday in Sports Authority Field at Mile High. At 12-4, the Broncos won the AFC West for the fifth year in a row and move on to the playoffs as the AFC's No. 1 seed.
Reasons to be excited: Judging by the roar of the home crowd with just more than eight minutes left in Sunday’s game, as the sun was starting to slide behind the Rocky Mountains, it is quarterback Peyton Manning’s return under center. Manning sparked a comeback against the Chargers, and while he isn’t 100 percent with his left foot injury -- coach Gary Kubiak said this past week Manning wouldn't be 100 percent until into the offseason -- he looked as if the more than six weeks off did him some good. Nine of the Broncos' victories have been decided by seven or fewer points, and they have wins over Green Bay, Kansas City, New England and Cincinnati. Perhaps the biggest exclamation point of all may be the team’s defense. The group’s power, speed and adaptability was on display again Sunday. The Broncos allowed just one 100-yard rusher this season (Jamaal Charles in Week 2) and just one 300-yard passer (Ben Roethlisberger in Week 15).
Reasons to be concerned: The Broncos' offense has consistently struggled up front. Over and over again, personnel grouping after personnel grouping, they have allowed defensive backs to blitz out of the slot untouched -- they did again Sunday when Chargers cornerback Steve Williams sacked Brock Osweiler and forced a fumble -- and rushers on delayed blitzes from off the ball have routinely come free. Defenses have targeted right tackle Michael Schofield and have come after the team’s guards inside. (The Broncos did put Tyler Polumbus in at right tackle, in Schofield’s place, when Manning entered the game.) Too often at important times, they have lost the battle at the point of attack. Injuries, too, are a concern, including whether Manning’s foot can hold up to what appears will be an increased workload. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware also left Sunday’s win with a knee injury; he has missed five games with a back injury as well. The Broncos can use the week off that came with Sunday's win.
How far they can go: The defense, which spent the regular season in the No. 1 spot in most of the league's statistical categories, gives the Broncos a chance to go far. The issue is going to be an offense that has had its ups and downs. If the Broncos can’t protect the passer -- no matter who it is -- or carve out some running room, it won’t matter how well the Broncos defense plays. There is also the matter of kicker Brandon McManus, who down the stretch missed a kick -- field goal or extra point -- in five consecutive games.