Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
I'm not sure when it happened – probably sometime after the Michael Jordan era – but suddenly it's considered more of a failure to make the championship game or round and lose than not make it at all.
Think of LeBron James. The fact that the Heat got to the NBA Finals and lost to a great Spurs team is a cause for a million memes making fun of James. He'd have gotten less of a hard time for losing in the Eastern Conference finals than actually advancing to the championship round. That makes no sense, but it's true.
The Denver Broncos know all about it.
I remember general manager John Elway taking question after question at the NFL scouting combine that painted the Broncos as an utter failure. There was almost an accusatory tone to the inquiries, whether it was about the Broncos being soft or what massive overhaul needed to happen for them to win a Super Bowl.
You'd think some 4-12 teams had a better 2013 season.
That has continued through the offseason, where "The Broncos can't win a big game!" has become this strange thing to say. Last I checked the AFC championship game against New England last season was a big deal. And yeah, the Broncos lost 43-8 against the Seahawks, but to act like the Broncos became some horribly flawed Pop Warner team in the two weeks after beating the Patriots is disrespectful to a great Seahawks team that played a nearly flawless game against Denver.
The Broncos lost the Super Bowl. And, they lost it badly. It doesn't mean they weren't very good last season, and it doesn't mean they're fatally flawed and can't win this upcoming Super Bowl.
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Just like the Patriots, if injured players are counted the Broncos are adding six blue-chip stars from the end of last season. They signed cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and get back All-Pro outside linebacker Von Miller and All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady. That's a mighty boost to a 13-3 team (with those three losses by a combined 16 points) that was the AFC's No. 1 seed for a second straight year.
Peyton Manning is coming off the greatest regular season in NFL history, setting single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns while winning his fifth MVP. If Sanders adequately replaces Eric Decker and running back Montee Ball is ready to take a bigger role after Knowshon Moreno's departure, the highest scoring offense in NFL history will be just as potent. The defense will be better too, especially if Miller is healthy.
The Broncos have been treated like utter failures this offseason for losing big at the Super Bowl, when 30 other teams weren't good enough to make it that far. While they've been getting ripped for that game, the Broncos were building a team that's even better than last year's model.
2013 review in less than 25 words: The Broncos went 13-3, scored an NFL record 606 points and made it to the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Talib is an upgrade over Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Ware is an upgrade over Shaun Phillips, Ward is much better than anything the Broncos had at safety, and Sanders should put up similar numbers to Decker. The Broncos lost some other contributors, but as a whole the roster is much better with an influx of top-end talent.
Best offseason acquisition: Tough call. I might say Talib is the best player of the fab four free agents, but Ward isn't far behind and he fills a huge void. The Broncos were below average at safety last year, but in comes Ward, who is a prototype for the position in this era. He is athletic enough to cover big and fast tight ends and a great run supporter. If you're chalking up Ware's disappointing six sacks last season to injuries and think he's in for a full rebound at age 32, I wouldn't argue against him being the pick either. Let's put it this way: The Broncos spent a lot this offseason, but they spent wisely.
Achilles heel: All offseason, fans waited for the Broncos to fix the middle linebacker situation, and they never did. They looked at some free agents, but didn't sign any. They were tied to a number of inside linebackers in mock drafts, but passed on them all until taking Lamin Barrow in the fifth round. Nate Irving holds the job now. The former third-round pick has just four career starts in three years because he hasn't proven he's capable of being a full-time starter yet.
Position in flux: The Broncos made some changes on the offensive line. They lost guard Zane Beadles in free agency, and Chris Clark played well in Clady's absence, so they shuffled the deck a bit. Massive Orlando Franklin moves from right tackle to left guard, probably a better fit for him and a move that gives the Broncos a devastating left side of the line. Clark, who the organization has liked for a while, takes over at right tackle. Assuming Franklin can make the transition and Clark doesn't come back to earth a bit, the line should be better.
Ready to break out: Ball won't be a surprise breakout. Moreno wasn't a great back, but put up good numbers because Denver's passing game is so dangerous and Manning is masterful at calling the right run play at the right time. Ball is a much more talented runner than Moreno, but he struggled in the other parts of the game as a rookie. He'll be better in all areas in his second season. Denver doesn't have a ton behind Ball either, so he'll get more than enough carries to put up huge numbers.
Stat fact: Manning has 491 career touchdown passes, and is just 17 behind Brett Favre for the all-time career record. One of the game's all-time greats is going to break one of the sport's bigger records, and there has been little fanfare attached to it. If Manning keeps along at a good touchdown pace, he should own the record about Week 6 or 7.
Schedule degree of difficulty: The Chiefs were the biggest beneficiaries of a weak schedule in 2013, but the Broncos weren't far behind. That will change this season. Denver switches to play the NFC West in its non-conference games, which is rough. It also plays at New England, which might have a huge impact on the AFC playoff seeding. Denver goes from one of the easiest schedules in the NFL to the second hardest, based on 2013 records, which makes its road back to the Super Bowl a lot tougher.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: Winning the Super Bowl. Don't buy the inane narrative that the Broncos can't win a big game. Obviously they're capable. On paper the defense should be better than last year, which helps. It's hard to imagine the offense scoring more than 600 points again, but even with some serious regression they'll still be the highest scoring in the NFL.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: The floor for the 2014 Broncos is high. It's impossible to see them missing the playoffs, unless backup quarterback Brock Osweiler is prominently involved. But the Colts have a significantly easier schedule than the Broncos, and the Patriots are fantastic and host Denver in November. All of that means the Broncos aren't guaranteed a first-round bye even if the Broncos are clearly a better team than Indianapolis, and probably slightly better than New England. Playing a first-round playoff game before having to win at Indianapolis and New England would be a huge challenge, and that might happen.
The crystal ball says: Manning said it often during the playoffs last season, that just getting to the Super Bowl is an enormous challenge and accomplishment. The Broncos might be a better team than last year, but it just takes one Joe Flacco-to-Jacoby Jones miracle to ruin a season. The Broncos are the best team in the AFC and therefore I'll pick them to go to the Super Bowl, but I also wouldn't be surprised if a tough regular-season schedule results in them losing in the AFC playoffs.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals
14. St. Louis Rams
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
11. Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Cincinnati Bengals
9. Green Bay Packers
8. Indianapolis Colts
7. Chicago Bears
6. Philadelphia Eagles
5. New Orleans Saints
4. New England Patriots
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