It is a truth in sports, and most especially in football, that the best team, the most talented team, doesn't always win. I say especially in football because, of the four major American sports, only football has a one-and-done playoff system. In the other sports, the 5-to7 games of a playoff series usually means that the better team ultimately wins based on the averages working themselves out. Football sees more upsets than any other sport, as we learned to our sorrow this last January.
Football is great because any team has a chance to beat any other on any given day. All you need to win a title is to get hot at the right time and get a couple of bounces (and lets call a spade a spade, or calls) go your way. Conversely, it also means you have the lowest margin for error.
If you asked 5 Bronco fans on the street why we lost to the Ravens last year, you would probably get at least three different answers. In truth, there was no one single reason why. It was a combination of things, from perhaps a little rust due to the off week, to the injuries to our backfield, to an unfortunate coaching decision at the end of regulation, to a bonehead play on defense, to the Ravens just having a better day..... the list goes on. What I am going to do is point out what I consider to be the single most important underlying causes for our loss, why I think it they been addressed, and why I think that means the AFC is ours to lose.
There is an enigma, a paradox to the Denver Broncos as they are constituted today. What is it, you may ask? It is the coexistence of John Fox and Peyton Manning. Foxball is basically the opposite of what Peyton Manning does. Foxball means getting a lead and protecting it on defense while running the ball to shorten the game on offense. Manning's style has always been high-octane, fast-paced, and heavily predicated on the pass. Thankfully, Fox has proved to be fairly flexible, which is what has allowed this collaboration to have the success that it has to this point. However, Fox's conservative nature has reared its head at times, which has resulted in plenty of garbage time points for our opponents, making a number of games closer than they should have been. This has been discussed a number of times on MHR as something of a concern.
The problem with Foxball is that this team was really not built for it. This was an offense built to gain yardage in chunks and score points quickly, not grind it out on the ground. And the running backs we had, while certainly capable ball carriers, didn't have the durability to last the season. We all know and have lamented Moreno's injury-prone history, and McGahee at his age and with the miles on his body has proven that, while still talented, he can't stay healthy for a whole season anymore. What this meant is that our running game was anemic at best when the playoffs rolled around. Here is where we come to what I view as the biggest underlying reason we lost: running the ball.
We ran the ball a lot in that game. Usually, that's not a bad thing, because usually it means you are in the lead. However, when you only average three yards per carry while your opponent is averaging 4, you have a problem. Late in the game, we saw Fox go back to his conservative nature and try to run the ball to kill the clock. That's great... when you can move the ball and get first downs running it. We were unable to do that.
It is easy to say "hey, we have Peyton Manning, we shouldn't have been running at all. Pass it every play!", but that is ignoring the fact that our coach is John Fox. Fox wants to run the ball, and while he has done an admirable job of letting Manning be Manning, ultimately, Fox decides what the game plan will be. Fox's game plans have the team run the ball late when we have the lead. That is just what he does. Unfortunately, our backs were not up to the challenge.
Here's where it gets good. Now I will tell you why the Broncos should win it all this year. For what the Broncos want to do, they picked the perfect running back. Listen, what has been our biggest problem with the running game in recent years, even when we led the league in 2011? Injuries. Running backs not staying healthy. Montee Ball was the most durable running back in college football. While he doesn't have the same explosiveness as some of the other backs drafted, he runs downhill, with power, he scores touchdowns, and most importantly, he stays healthy. This is a guy who will be there at the end of the year and who will punish tired defenses late in games. And they will be tired. Our offense is going to run them up and down the field all day long. They will be exhausted and frustrated, and then they will be bruised when Ball runs them over on (and here is the key word) SUSTAINED drives at the end of games.
There is also an X-factor in all of this. His name is Wes Welker. Welker's skillset makes him uniquely suited to the short game. The way in which the Patriots used him made him basically an extension of the run game. In fact, it made him the most effective part of their run game. He was used to sustain long drives by catching a 1-to-3 yard pass and making it a 5 or six yard game, while occasionally breaking a big one. The reason that this offense is now the most dangerous in the NFL is that between Welker and Ball, the Broncos now have the pieces to effectively do what Fox likes to do, namely move the ball in sustained drives and kill the clock, what at the same time maintaining one of the NFL's most dangerous vertical passing threats with DT and Eric Decker.
On paper, our offense is noticeably better, while on special teams, we have one of the most dangerous and electrifying return men. As long as our defense performs anywhere close to what they did last year, this is the best team in the league.In truth, most of the time when fans (of any team) predict a record of 13-3 for their team, they are usually experiencing the effects of too much Kool-Aid. In our case, we are coming off of a 13-3 season already, and at least in my estimation, we have improved this off season, so 13-3 is in my mind, a reasonable expectation. But I want to drink the Kool-Aid, so I will say this, and mean it more than I ever have before: 19-0 UNTIL WE AIN"T!!! GO BRONCOS!!!!!!!!!!!!!