Experts' Picks (Consensus: first)
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 Despite losing Von Miller for six games, they have the best quarterback and the most settled depth chart in a division with three rebuilding projects underway.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 Losing Von Miller for six games could result in a slow start, but their schedule is easy enough for them to win 11 games.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 Hard to imagine how a Peyton Manning-led offense could be challenged for a division title.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The Broncos are the class of the AFC. Anything less than a Super Bowl appearance would be a major disappointment for Peyton & Co.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 Losing Von Miller for six games will hurt a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.|
Five things you need to know about the Broncos:
1. Points will depend on protection: When the Broncos are in their three-wide receiver set, they are a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. They have size, speed and dynamic route-runners all over the formation in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. The challenge will be to protect quarterback Peyton Manning long enough for the team to use the whole field in the passing game. If they become nothing more than a quick-hit look because Manning has to get the ball out quickly, they won't be everything they should be on that side of the ball.
2. Manning feels good: The future Hall of Famer was in uncharted waters last season as he came back from multiple neck surgeries and a missed season in 2011. He was his usual 4,000-yard self on the stat sheet but did have some difficult days along the way. He has said he feels more comfortable in his surroundings in Denver this time around, and his teammates say they see a noticeable difference in his passes as well. The laser shot he threw to Decker in Seattle during the preseason, a 10-yard heater that looked fairly innocent in the box score, was not the kind of throw he showed very often in '12.
3. It was a wild offseason: The Broncos' strength of character will be tested in the coming months. After an offseason filled with platitudes from both near and far about their Super Bowl potential, the Broncos had a bumpy ride through the summer with two front-office executives -- Tom Heckert and Matt Russell -- arrested for drunk driving, a six-game suspension for linebacker Von Miller to go with Miller's arrest on an outstanding warrant and a slew of on-field injuries. Potential and expectations have dragged down many a Super Bowl favorite over the years, and the Broncos will have to fight the hype for much of the year in a city that simply wants the regular season out of the way.
4. They want to run: Sure, they have Manning and plenty of front-line pass-catchers in a hang-on-tight no-huddle look. But first-year offensive coordinator Adam Gase wants to add some ground-game pop into the offense, and he'd like to expand the team's array of run plays to do it. The Broncos brought Alex Gibbs, who is one of the league's leading authorities on the zone-run game, back to the coaching staff, and Gase wants the Broncos to run with more consistency and effectiveness outside the hashmarks this time around. Last season the Broncos didn't often stress opposing run defenses on the perimeter, so they often found eight-man fronts waiting for them.
5. Miller is on the fence: Miller is potentially a remember-when talent for the Broncos -- former longtime defensive coordinator Joe Collier said Miller has a chance to be the team's best-ever defensive player -- but his off-the-field maturity and decision-making are in question these days both inside and outside the Broncos' complex. This season, after he returns from a six-game suspension, will go a long way toward seeing which side of the equation Miller chooses. Will he be a player people talk about because of what he does in the years ahead or another flash of potential who leaves people wondering what might have been?
-- Jeff Legwold, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
Last year, a league-high 87 of Welker's 118 receptions came when he was lined in the slot, and he also led the NFL in receiving yards (1,033) and first downs (57) from the slot. And no QB in the NFL is as accurate as Manning when throwing to slot receivers. In 2012, Peyton completed a league-best 71.7 percent of his passes to players lined up in the slot for 13 touchdowns, tied for second most behind Aaron Rodgers' 14.
Manning will be looking to reach the playoffs for the 13th time in his 16th NFL season. If he succeeds, he will break Brett Favre's record for most postseason appearances by a starting QB. Other milestones in Manning's reach in 2013 are second place on the NFL's career passing yards list (he needs 1,874 to tie Dan Marino) and second on the career pass attempts list (he needs 565 to tie Marino).
" A six-game suspension will cut into Von Miller's production in 2013, and so will the loss of Elvis Dumervil. Over the past two seasons, Miller has registered a sack on 3.2 percent of drop-backs with Dumervil on the field but just 1.1 percent with Dumervil on the sideline.
" Who will lead the effort to turn around a rushing attack that led the NFL in 2011 but ranked 16th in the league in 2012? The favorites for the starting tailback job are Ronnie Hillman, a third-round pick in 2012, and Montee Ball, a second-round pick in 2013. Denver is the only team to draft two running backs in the first three rounds over the past two years.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
WR Wes Welker (15.2 avg. AV since 2010)
The NFL's most prolific pass-catcher over the past eight seasons, Welker (average of 1,462 yards per season since 2011) will stand out even next to fellow 1,000-yard WRs Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
-- Pro Football Reference