By Lenny Valdez - As we near the checkered flag of the NFL regular season, it's time to separate the pretenders from Super Bowl contenders .
Some of these aforementioned pretenders seem to be exposing themselves (a la Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys annual December implosion), while others seem to be seem to be fine tuning to peak in February in New Jersey (see the recent 49ers 4-1 run including a win over the Super Bowl favorite Seahawks).
Now what about our Denver Broncos you say? Starting with their season opener and an NFL record 7 TD throws against the defending Super Bowl champions, they seemed like an unstoppable machine destined to raise the Lombardi trophy once again for Peyton Manning. Fans were delirious a mere month into the season, debating a possible 16-0 season and their rank in the all-time pantheon of greatness. Fast forward to today and yes, the Broncos remain one of the top two contenders for the title, but many weaknesses have been exposed in this once unstoppable force. In addition, many questions have been raised:
What if Peyton gets injured?! - Well this is the absolute worst case scenario for Bronco fans, and we've been given a peak of how fragile this juggernaut actually is. Remember, they are one ankle sprain or concussion from mediocrity and (gasp!) the Brock Osweiler era. However, since we've made it this far, be it with a few bumps and bruises, I think it's safe to say that Peyton F#*kin! Manning (PFM) is making it through the season/playoffs healthy enough to play.
Can he play in the cold or adverse weather? Well....oh sorry, we're not supposed to talk about that anymore, I don't want to be considered a hater. "Sorry Mr. Manning, can I get you a cold beverage or rub you're ankle? Sorry for doubting your powers. What's that? Watch this funny video instead? Whatever you say sir!"
What happens if we need our running game to hold a lead? - This was a fair point early in the season, especially with no clear cut starter being established coming into the preseason in addition to the Broncos passing up on flashy Alabama RB Eddie Lacy, for the steady workhorse Montee Ball of Wisconsin. This one is yet to be determined. Knowshon Moreno has proven himself to bleed blue and orange as evidenced by his waterworks versus the Chiefs, not to mention his role as a leader and reliable ball carrier for this offense. The Broncos have been wary to overuse him, but have been forced to during the regular season due to the inconsistent and butterfingered play of the backups (Ball and Ronnie Hillman). Some wear and tear has shown on Knowshon as he's been slowed recently with sprains/bruises/strains, but Ball has shown in the past few games to be able to keep his hands on the ball and his recent performances have given coach Fox and OC Adam Gase reason to trust him. This two-headed attack is slowly forming into what the Broncos envisioned when they drafted Ball, and hopefully, for the Broncos sake, it continues to gain steam as they hit the playoffs. Not to mention the defense (which we'll discuss next) seems determined to keep the team in shootouts week in and week out. Holding a lead doesn't seem to be an issue as much as keeping pace with the others teams scoring!
Is this what you call a championship defense? - Let's be honest and answer that with a resounding "NO!" Is this the Orange Crush of yesteryear? More like the Orange Slush. However, if you mean a defense that will carry you to a championship, that is an entirely different question. That's not how this Broncos team is built. They are built with a bend but don't break mentality as they surrender yards, but hopefully only FG's while PFM, Orange Julius, Black & Decker (hey, they're self ordained nickname, not mine) , and Wes "Spidey" Welker rack up the TD's to crush the competition. Granted this defense has suffered numerous injuries to key contributors (Vickerson, Champ, Raheem), but last time I checked, you don't get sympathy points for injuries in the NFL. The secondary is currently decimated with rookies and 2nd year players starting at key positions, not to mention the recent struggles of early season leaders such as Wesley Woodyard and Duke Ihenacho adding to the worries about this unit. Is it good ENOUGH? Only time will tell.
Does Manning have what it takes to win another Super Bowl? Obviously, the numbers this season speak for themselves. 47 TD's, 4,811 yards, 67.8 completion %, 2 senior citizens walked acorss the street, and 5 babies rescued from burning buildings! (Just seeing if you were still paying attention) But that's not really the question. The real question is, can he maintain his superhuman like performance during the playoffs? Throughout his career, when the going gets tough, Peyton just hasn't lived up to the expectations that his regular seasons have given us. Manning has won before though, which is more than many Hall of Fame QB's such as Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon can say. He just hasn't been as successful as his adversary, Tom Brady, who has won 3 Super Bowls (but has also lost two, his last two, which many seem to forget to mention). Then again, Bronco fans aren't worried about the individual competition of Brady and Manning unless they battle each other again in the playoffs this year. This is about the here and now. PFM has played like a man determined to wipe away his naysayers like smudges on his shiny new Lombardi trophy. He is a man very aware of his legacy and the company he would put himself in if he hoists that trophy once again. Does he have what it takes? You better believe it. But in the unpredictable world of the NFL, you can be the most prepared, talented, focused player to ever set foot on the field, but there are no guarantees if one or two crazy plays don't go your way.
If he wins the Super Bowl, will Manning ride off into the sunset? This is not a question that has been raised so much by the fan base, but I'm going to raise it right now. Will PFM retire if he wins the big one this year? We all see him throwing pinpoint passes, confusing defenses with his audibles and now famous "Hurry! Hurry!" calls, cruising his way to another MVP award, thinking this can last another 3-4 years. But what if everything does come together this year and Denver wins the Super Bowl? Will Peyton think it over in the offseason and say, I've done enough? Who wouldn't want to end their career at the absolute peak like Elway? What else would he have to prove? I think this is a very distinct possibility that most Broncos fans have yet to consider, and we are that close to life after Peyton, when it feels like he's just making his mark in Bronco history.
Are the Broncos real contenders? Will Peyton get injured? Can he handle bad weather in the playoffs? Will their running backs step up if need be? Can this year's defense stop a high school offense from scoring? Does Manning's red blotch on his forehead give him his special football powers? No one, including I can say for sure (except for the red blotch, I'm pretty sure it does), but what I do know is that Broncos fans need to stop worrying about what they can't control, sit back and enjoy the ride of a historical and hopefully Super Bowl winning season. After all, we get to watch Peyton F&#kin! Manning every week, and who knows how much longer we can say that? (Do you REMEMBER the Kyle Orton era??) As long as he is playing, the Broncos remain a top contender. He's out to prove his doubters wrong...and if I were betting man, I'd be "all in" on the side of Manning. Besides, who wants to cheer for this other QB that once had a Beiber haircut? -------->