For those unsure of what conclusions to draw from the Denver Broncos' preseason, and whether August really meant anything, here's a quick synopsis:
Three times, Denver's backups had chances for considerable playing time. In those exhibitions, the Broncos defeated Super Bowl champion Seattle (21-16), manhandled perennial contender San Francisco on the road (34-0), and hammered Dallas in the Cowboys' palace (27-3). Last August, for those who don't remember, Denver visited Seattle and endured a 40-10 spanking that, in retrospect, was prophetic.
So when Broncos executive John Elway told media last weekend that this is the best Denver team since he took over the front office in 2010, that meant something.
Think about this: Denver made it to the Super Bowl last year — and this team looks considerably better. That's right, considerably.
On defense, the Broncos have upgraded all around by acquiring proven veterans like safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive end DeMarcus Ware, drafting two gifted newcomers in cornerback Bradley Roby and linebacker Lamin Barrow, and having safety Rahim Moore back in top health.
Also, consider this: Duke Ihenacho started every game at safety for Denver last year, and Kevin Vickerson was the team's best defensive lineman until a late-season injury. Neither could make the final roster for 2014.
Overall, this defense will be faster, deeper and more aggressive — not even factoring that outside linebacker Von Miller should be dominant again.
As the football world knows, the Broncos' ultimate fate still depends on quarterback Peyton Manning staying healthy. But having a new target as fleet as Emmanuel Sanders, who should combine with Demaryius Thomas to drive defenses nuts, should give Manning even more flexibility.
Something else was lost in Denver's run to the Super Bowl last season: The offensive line was a patchwork group. Now, with All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady back after missing nearly all of 2013, and with Orlando Franklin able to move from tackle to guard, the line as a whole appears noticeably stronger.
If there's one uncertainty, that would be at running back — though second-year starter Montee Ball is in position to erase those concerns with a solid start. Denver still is waiting for backup Ronnie Hillman to emerge, and this could be his last chance. But reserves C.J. Anderson and Juwan Thompson might help, and rookie Kapri Bibbs out of Colorado State could be the NFL's most promising practice-squad runner. (If you're in a fantasy league, take a flyer on Bibbs.)
Given that improved offensive line and all of Manning's targets, the ground game should be set up to succeed, starting with Ball.
Where are we going here? Simple. Denver hasn't been this good since the Super Bowl champion teams of 1997 and 1998. If he avoids injury, Manning has a good enough supporting cast to cap his Hall of Fame career with another title (or two).
The schedule isn't easy, starting with Indianapolis (6:30 p.m., Sunday, NBC) and Kansas City at home, followed by a visit to Seattle. Then later, after a bye week near Halloween, the Broncos face four road games in a five-week stretch at New England, Oakland, St. Louis and Kansas City.
Denver probably will lose two or three road games (Seattle and New England would be most likely, but also perhaps Cincinnati in December), but no more than that. At home, the Broncos should be no worse than 7-1.
Do the math, and that adds up to somewhere between 14-2 and 12-4 in the regular season, which most likely would mean home-field advantage for the playoffs and a clear path to Super Bowl XLIX (that's 49) on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz.
Put it this way: Denver finally has a roster that's deep enough to win the franchise's third NFL championship. And this time, if Peyton Manning can make it to February, the Broncos will make it happen.
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