The Denver Broncos entered the 2015 NFL season as the odds-on favorite to win the AFC West and be a contender for a deep playoff run. Through 6 weeks, it all looks according to plan, at least on the surface. The Broncos are one of five unbeaten teams in the league, with their 6-0 record putting them 3.5 games over the second-place Raiders in the West. Meanwhile, the Chargers have looked dysfunctional for most of the season, while the Chiefs just lost their best player, Jamaal Charles, for the full season. With playoff odds above 90%, Denver holds a comfortable position going forward as they enter their bye week, but everything starts looking a bit murky when you take a dive into the team’s underlying numbers.
With a modest +37 point differential, the Broncos’ expected record suggests that they should be closer to a 4-2 team, with 5 of their wins being decided by a touchdown or less. While it would normally take a large number of reasons to explain such a dramatic gap, or we could simply attribute it to an unsustainable run of luck, the Broncos may be a bit easier to decipher. In simple terms, their defense has been a force, while their offense has been a mess. And in that offense, week after week we are witnessing the depressing and rapid decline of Peyton Manning, one of the best quarterbacks who ever lived.
The difference between each unit has been so staggering that, in terms of DVOA, the Denver defense ranks at #1 in the NFL by a comfortable margin, while their offense is dead last also by a wide number. This kind of gap between offense and defense is rare in the NFL, but it has proven even more dramatic by the kind of big plays produced by the Denver defense that have swung several games in their favor.
In a nutshell, the Broncos are fourth in points allowed per game, lead the NFL in sacks, and have produced the most takeaways. The list of big plays by the Denver defense over the first six games of the year is simply outstanding.
Week 2 @ Chiefs: defense produces 5 sacks and 5 turnovers, including game-winning fumble recovery returned for a touchdown with 27 seconds to play.
Week 3 @ Lions: with 3:44 to play and the Broncos holding to a 17-12 lead, David Bruton picks off Matt Stafford in Denver territory. It is one of three turnovers forced by the defense, and Denver cruises to a 24-12 win.
Week 4 vs Vikings: with 35 seconds on the clock and the Broncos winning by 3, TJ Ward sacks Teddy Bridgewater to force a fumble that seals the game. The Vikings were at midfield and needed around 15 yards to have their kicker in range to tie the game.
Week 5 @ Raiders: Broncos force 3 turnovers, including Chris Harris pick-six to take a 16-7 lead as the Raiders were in range to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
Week 6 @ Browns: Broncos again force 3 takeaways, including Aqib Talib pick-six in the second quarter. With the Browns needing 10 yards to be in field goal range to win in overtime, the defense produced a tackle for loss and two sacks to force a punt.
This means that the Denver defense has scored a league-leading 4 touchdowns, and it has led the team to two wins without scoring an offensive TD, which may be the most impressive stat of them all. It all stands in contrast with the poor performance handed by the Bronco offense, and Peyton Manning in particular.
Through six weeks, Manning is putting up his worst numbers since his rookie season. In fact, all relevant stats in Peyton’s stat line are the worse they’ve been since 1998, including completion percentage (61.4%), yards per attempt (6.4), touchdown rate (3%), interception rate (4.2%), and passer rating (72.5). In fact, Manning leads the NFL with 10 interceptions thrown, and his rating is the second-worst among qualified quarterbacks, only besting the dreadful Ryan Mallett.
The 10 interceptions include three of them returned for touchdowns, as Manning has clearly lost a step and zip in his throws, making him all the more predictable for opposing defenses. It is a trend that dates back to the end of 2014, when Manning was terrible in a prime-time game versus the Bengals and then looked lifeless in a home playoff loss versus the Colts. While this kind of decline should be normal for a 39-year-old with a history of neck injuries, it is still a bit shocking to see how much the historic QB is struggling.
At this point, it is fair to wonder if Manning and the Broncos will be able to keep this up, especially as their schedule is about to get a lot tougher. The bye week is rewarded with a visit by the Packers, followed by a trip to Indianapolis. Outside of 4 favorable division matchups, the Broncos also have to face New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, and things could get even uglier considering Manning’s rough history in cold-weather games.
According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos look to finish somewhere around 11 wins, which should be more than enough to make the playoffs. At the same time, they give them Super Bowl odds below 5%, which speaks volumes regarding the expectations that we can now have on Manning. As much as defense wins championships, it is hard to envision the Broncos going all 2000 Ravens on us, riding a dominant defense and a merely adequate quarterback all the way to a title.
The 5 teams the Broncos have beat so far are a combined 10-18 in games where they didn’t face Denver, which is not such a good endorsement for Denver. On the other hand, the Broncos are due to face the league’s sixth-toughest schedule in terms of DVOA, which should be a good test for Manning in what could be his last real chance to win a championship. Even as the defense should keep them afloat, it is foolish to think that they will be able to come with game-saving plays every week.
The Broncos should be okay in their status as a playoff team, but unless Manning regains at least a bit of his old form, Denver’s status as a contender will continue to fade as the weather turns cold.