Imagine yourself, just for a moment, as John Elway. And today is March 22, 2012.
You're basking in the glow of perhaps the greatest free agent signing in NFL history, answering the congratulatory phone calls, texts and tweets until your ears and fingers hurt.
But deep in the pit of your stomach, you're feeling uneasy. The world may never know exactly what you promised Peyton that made him choose Denver over San Francisco, but you can be sure that "Peyton, come to Denver and we'll be an above-.500 team" wasn't it.
You promised him a Super Bowl.
In fact, you may have promised him multiple Super Bowls in a relatively small window of no more than three to four years.
And here you are, only a year into your job as Team President, having inherited a 4-12 team with 4-12 talent and coming off of a nice season as an 8-8 team with 6-10 talent. The Tebow phenomenon and playoff win against Pittsburgh were a fluke and you know it as well as anybody.
So, you figure that the upgrade from Tebow to Peyton ALONE takes you to about 10-6 talent. A nice draft with Von Miller and a promising young Rahim Moore and Orlando Franklin probably puts you on the playoff bubble in what's looking like a weak AFC West in 2012. But the Super Bowl? Wow.
No doubt, you're hearkening back to the legendary words of Keith Bishop: "We got 'em right where we want 'em!"
How to Win with Peyton Manning
The realities of building a winner in today's NFL, with salary cap issues, free agency, the draft, constant injuries and deeply-rooted parity are monumentally challenging. However, in my humble opinion, the basic roadmap for building a winner around Peyton Manning is, conceptually, very simple.
Step 1: Keep Peyton Healthy
In this regard, Elway was in great shape. With elite LT Ryan Clady and promising RT Orlando Franklin, the Broncos had built a nice offensive line for Peyton. In addition to being stout at the tackles, Josh McDaniel draft picks Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton looked solid on the inside to compliment Chris Kuper.
Step 2: Give Peyton Toys
Again, Elway the visionary could see that he was in pretty good shape. Tim Tebow had a remarkable ability to make almost any receiver look bad, but Elway could see some promise in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. It was going to take some time to gel, especially with Peyton barely able to throw a football by March, 2012, but those two were at least a solid start.
Step 3: GET PEYTON THE #?&% BALL!!!!
On defense, helping Peyton is a matter of simple mathematics. Peyton Manning will score more points more often than pretty much any quarterback in NFL history. Give him the ball 12 times in a game, and you can probably bank on 30-35 points. Give it to him 8 times, and he'll probably give you 20 points. Simple math.
And how do you get Peyton the #?&% ball?
YOU STOP THE RUN AND TAKE AWAY SHORT PASSES.
Make teams beat you over the top and down the sidelines. Occasionally, a quarterback like Joe Flacco will catch lightening in a bottle and do just that, but it won't happen often, and the odds of your winning a shootout with Peyton Manning as your quarterback will always be in your favor. Just ask Tony Romo.
On that front, John Elway went against the grain in 2012. If you remember back to the 2012 draft, almost all of us were beseeching him to draft D-Linemen early. I know I was. He did draft Derek Wolfe (2nd round) and Malik Jackson (5th round), but that was hardly the haul many of us were hoping for.
Instead, Elway went into 2012 with a relatively rag-tag group that included guys like Justin Bannan and Mitch Unrein playing key rolls, but through a combination of scheme, desire and the ever-present Von Miller, the run defense put up impressive numbers and helped the Broncos to a 13-3 record.
Which Brings me to the San Diego Game
I'm not going to lie and say "I told you so", because I didn't. I picked the Broncos to not only win last Thursday, but to cover the 10 1/2-point Vegas spread.
But I was warning folks headed into the game. Mike McCoy is no dummy, and he's already laid out a roadmap for a very similar game when he beat Indianapolis on a Monday night (19-9 on October 14): Run the ball mercilessly, keep the clock running, shorten the game to eight possessions, play some hard-nosed defense and make the other guys one-dimensional on offense.
It worked to a "T". But how? Why? This is a defense that was built to stop the run, shorten opponents' drives and turn the ball back over to Peyton Manning. And they give up 177 yards rushing?
My simple explanation: Desire. The Chargers just, flat wanted this game more than the Broncos. They're a team with something to prove and they proved it. The Broncos, working on a short week and without a TON to play for (after all, they lost but still held onto the #1 seed in the AFC) and with limited time for Peyton to do his legendary game prep, simply showed up flat.
Stopping the run is one part talent, one part scheme and one part desire. With Vickerson out, no time to scheme and desire (apparently) in short supply, the meltdown against San Diego really shouldn't have come as a surprise. And let's face it. As much as we love to diss on Phillip Rivers, he's a Top 5 quarterback this year (perhaps even Top 3 along with Peyton and Nick Foles). That only complicated matters.
On To The Challenge
Folks, if you've been following the MHR vs. AP Defense Challenge, you're going to LOVE the current standings:
#1 (Yards per Possession): BRONCOS LEAD BIG (32.75 - 39.20). In fact, this metric is pretty much in the bag, unless KC can hold Andrew Luck to negative net yards or something goofy like that.
#2 (Points per Possession): TIED (2.06 - 2.06). I think if you stretch the number out to about 14 decimal points, the Broncos actually lead, but effectively speaking, we have a tie. The Chiefs show 24 points against Oakland rather than 31 thanks to Berry's Pick Six. Remember, defensive scores reduce your total.
#3 (Turnover percentage): CHIEFS LEAD, (20% to 15%). The Chiefs only get credit for 4 turnovers rather than 5 because the 5th one came during garbage time in the 4th quarter.
Two weeks to go and we are literally tied: 1-1-1.
Two Weeks to Go in the Challenge
At this point, it looks like the Broncos are going to win the "Yards per Possession" metric. With 350 less yards in two extra possessions, I don't see the Chiefs catching up.
Similarly, the Chiefs look pretty good on turnovers. Unless the Broncos end up facing turnover machines like Matt Schaub or Terrelle Pryor these last two week, the Chiefs should win that metric (wink wink).
So, it all comes down to points. Mano-a-mano. Tied. The Chiefs facing down Andrew Luck and Phillip Rivers. The Broncos facing two teams whose heads will be out on the golf course.
From my perspective, this is looking like an 18-inch gimmie putt for the Broncos. But somehow, it just wouldn't surprise me all that much to see John Fox pull out his pitching wedge and make things interesting.
So, I'll close with words of encouragement to John Fox.
Let me make this simple: Go into Houston and Oakland, and just GET PEYTON THE #?&% BALL!