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2013 Denver Broncos: Five Players to Keep an Eye On

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COMMENTARY | Momentum is a funny thing. It can end in a split second.

Or even double overtime.

The Denver Broncos tied for the league's best win-loss record in 2012 and took an 11-game winning streak into last year's playoffs. But it was all for naught as the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens pulled off a late comeback to tie the game and eventually handed Denver a shocking 38-35 setback.

It's been a different kind of spring and summer for the team, as the Broncos look to put last season's disappointment behind them. Sometimes, that's easier said than done.

Still, it's onto 2013 and here we will take a look at five players who could be critical to the team's success this upcoming season. While in some cases the obvious will be stated, in other instances the focus will be on a newcomer to the team or a performer looking to rebound from a disappointing year.

So here are five players to keep an eye on this season when it comes to the Denver Broncos:

QB Peyton Manning: Everyone who was wondering how the four-time NFL MVP would fare last season after missing all of 2011 got their answer in a resounding way. Manning captured league Comeback Player of the Year honors in part by throwing 37 touchdown passes, the second-highest total of his brilliant career. But the veteran signal-caller and his team had a rough time of it in the playoffs as Manning committed three turnovers in the double-overtime loss to the Ravens. How much is left in the prolific passer's tank (or arm)? We will find out sooner than later.

RB Montee Ball: Veteran running back Willis McGahee was released by the Broncos this offseason and former first-round draft choice Knowshon Moreno has failed to hold up to date. Denver has second-year pro Ronnie Hillman, but Ball might be the downhill runner the team needs. Only three teams in the league gained more yards than Fox's team last season, but the Broncos were just 16th in the NFL in rushing. More balance is certainly required and the team is hoping Montee is the right Ball to get rolling.

WR Eric Decker: Last season, Demaryius Thomas led the Broncos in receptions (94) and receiving yards (1,434). But it was Decker who totaled 13 touchdown receptions, the second-most scoring grabs in the league in 2012. The addition of prolific wide receiver Wes Welker (100-plus catches in five of his six seasons with the New England Patriots) would indicate that both Thomas' and Decker's totals could perhaps slip. But look for Decker to become Manning's favorite target in 2013.

OLB Shaun Phillips: Pro-Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller will miss the first six games of the season due to a league suspension. And the "fax" is/are that defensive end Elvis Dumervil is now a member of the Ravens. That duo combined for 29.5 of the team's 52 sacks (tied for the most in the NFL) in 2012. Now the one-time divisional rival from San Diego hopes to take up some of that slack. Phillips is a former Pro-Bowler who totaled 69.5 sacks and six interceptions in nine seasons with the Chargers.

SS Duke Ihenacho: The former undrafted free agent from San Jose State has been the talk of the preseason for the Denver defense, as the second-year pro has made his presence felt in the secondary. Of course, the last time we saw the Broncos' defense on the field for real they were busy giving up their share of rushing yards and three long touchdown passes from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the playoffs. Denver totaled only 24 takeaways last season and hopes to improve on that figure with the help of Ihenacho and others.

So what can we expect from the Broncos in 2013? Can the team make it three straight AFC West titles? And who else will play an extremely pivotal role in the team's fortunes this season? It's never dull when Peyton Manning is at the helm.

Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and is blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.

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