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7 Reasons the Denver Broncos' Super Bowl Window Remains Wide Open

Why Peyton Manning and Co. Could Be Hoisting the Lombardi Trophy a Year from Now

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With the Denver Broncos' Schedule Toughening, Protecting Peyton a Must
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New Denver Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning leads his team in a match-up with the visiting Tampa Bay …

COMMENTARY I That calendar on the refrigerator tells you it's been more than 2 weeks since the Denver Broncos' season came to an unceremonious end in the AFC Divisional playoffs, but the gut-wrenching, how-the-hell-did-that-happen loss to the Baltimore Ravens still lingers.

The sour taste flared up when you watched Peyton Manning represent the AFC in the wrong Bowl -- the Pro instead of the Super.

It hit home when the morning-show DJ made that crack about safety Rahim Moore's late-game coverage gaffe.

And it really sunk in when you flipped over to NFL Network and saw the Ravens' Ray Lewis -- and not the Orange and Blue's Von Miller -- fielding questions at Super Bowl XLVII Media Day.

Sigh.

The offseason really hasn't arrived yet, and you're still at a loss, wondering how you're going to get through the next 6 months until the start of training camp.

But take heart Broncos fans: All was not lost with the loss to the Ravens. The world-championship window still is open -- wide open -- and your favorite horsemen are as good of a bet as any team to reach Super Bowl XLVIII a year from now in New Jersey.

And in honor of the QB who delivered the Mile High City's last Lombardi Trophy -- John Elway, Denver's current executive vice president of football operations -- we give you seven reasons why the Broncos will be at the forefront of the Super Bowl chase come next fall:

Peyton Manning

Sure, Manning still is on the wrong side of 35 - and heading the other way - but it was easy to forget that the 2012 season was his first in Denver and first action overall after undergoing four neck surgeries during a 16-month layoff.

He was playing in a new city with new coaches and receivers in a new environment -- playing the majority of his games outdoors for the first time -- and despite all of that, Manning posted the second-best numbers of his 15-year career in completions (400), yards (4,659), TD passes (37) and passer rating (105.8).

Imagine how much better Manning will be after 6 more months of nerve regeneration in his neck and a full offseason and training camp cementing his rapport with his now-familiar coaches and teammates.

Aligned stars

Despite the read-option rage and the trendy new breed of running quarterbacks, the air remains the preferred method of travel in NFL games.

Consider the league hit all-time highs in passing attempts (17,788) and completions (10,833) in 2012, and those resulted in more single-season yards (118,418) and TD passes (757) than any campaign since, well, there's been an NFL.

And if it's more of a passing league than ever, it only stands to reason that the four most important responsibilities on the field, respectively, belong to the guy who throws the passes, the guy who protects the passer's blind side, the guys who rush the passer and the guys who cover the passer's top targets.

Last time we checked, the Broncos possessed Pro Bowlers -- as well as some all-pros and future Hall-of-Famers -- at each of those four positions: QB (Manning), left tackle (Ryan Clady), defensive end/outside linebacker (Elvis Dumervil and Miller) and cornerback (Champ Bailey).

Perfect blend

To get to the top in the NFL, you need the experience and wisdom of the veterans sprinkled among the athleticism and stamina of the youngsters.

With an average starter's age of 26.47 years in 2012 - which ranked 22nd among the league's 32 teams - the Broncos had the ideal blend this past season, and that figures to be the case again next year with young studs such as Miller (entering his third season), receiver Demaryius Thomas (fourth) and guard Zane Beadles (fourth) complementing vets Manning and Bailey (16th for both).

Cap room

Starting out with upward of $18.5 million in 2013 salary-cap space, the Broncos are in relatively solid shape.

Half of that will likely - and should - go toward a new deal for Clady, but there's plenty of room for other signings and fortifications, especially if Manning is willing to adjust his team-high cap figure in a franchise-friendly gesture.

AFC Worst

Considering their sad joke of a division, the Broncos will enter 2013 somewhere between heavy favorite and near-lock to win the AFC West.

Any doubters only need to check the 2012 standings, which revealed that the Broncos' three division foes -- the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs -- were a combined 13-35, including a ghastly 7-23 outside the division.

In 2012, the Broncos swept through the West for the first time in 14 years, and repeating the feat next season would shock no one, giving them an immediate leg up on fellow AFC contenders in tougher divisions.

Been there …

For a blueprint on how to bounce back from a devastating playoff upset, the current Broncos need to look no farther than the front office and Elway himself.

Elway, as you may recall, has been there, done that late in his career with the 1997 Broncos, using the shocking '96 playoff defeat to the second-year Jacksonville Jaguars as motivation to win the Big Game the ensuing season. For good measure, the Broncos followed with another title in '98 - Elway's 16th and final season.

History lesson

Finally, recent NFL history also is on the Broncos' side.

Fact: Six of the past seven NFL champs have suffered a home playoff loss to a lower-seeded team in one of their previous three seasons, Only the 2009 New Orleans Saints didn't fit the profile, but if this season's San Francisco 49ers win it all, the trend will grow to seven of the past eight.

It just goes to show that it's not only possible for good teams to regroup, refocus and rededicate themselves to becoming great -- they have actually done so with recent regularity.

Ken Pomponio has spent the past 25 years as a sports journalist who has been published extensively in print and online. He has closely followed the fate of the Broncos dating back to the pre-Orange Crush days of the 1970s.

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