Back in October, when the Denver Broncos were undefeated at 6-0, it seemed as if the bubble would soon burst for the perennial AFC West champions. After all, the run was fueled by games against inferior teams, in which the defense was the only stellar aspect of a team that was relying on a diminished Peyton Manning to command a potential playoff run. Four months later, the same Broncos team is fresh off a giant parade in downtown Denver, where the franchise celebrated its third championship after defeating the heavily-favored Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
The victory was shocking despite Denver’s status as the #1 seed in the AFC, especially considering that the Broncos waited until Week 16 to lock a playoff spot, and even that required a big comeback over the Bengals at home. Of course, that comeback was guided by Brock Osweiler, who had stepped in to replace the injured Manning and actually ended up starting 7 games in the regular season. While it is not unheard of to see a team reach (and win) the Super Bowl after using more than one quarterback, the Broncos did just that with an almost even time split.
Manning, who had been one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks before his injury, started 9 games versus Osweiler’s 7, with the youngster outplaying the veteran in most relevant stats. Even as Osweiler was never flashy, his steady play was enough to keep Denver alive, and he will be mostly remembered for helping Denver to score big comebacks, like the aforementioned one versus Cincinnati, and especially for the Week 12 win against the Patriots. That game served as the tie-breaker in determining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and could end up becoming the hidden turning point for Denver’s championship.
While Osweiler probably did enough to earn himself a nice payday now that he has reached free agency, he was benched mid-game in Week 17 in favor of Manning. At that point, the Broncos were trailing the eliminated Chargers and at risk of falling behind in the AFC playoff picture, but again the defense came to the rescue and handed Manning a short field to win the game and, ultimately, the AFC’s pole position. It is hard to see it now, but the playoffs started with Coach Gary Kubiak not committing to a starting QB, as he finally sided with Manning due to his experience.
And yet, that decision may have been a moot point. Much like the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens, it is likely that the Broncos could have gone all the way with almost anyone under center. Despite being only the ninth-highest team in terms of salary cap devoted to defense, John Elway and his team had built a scary defense, highlighted by Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and Aqib Talib. Denver also completed one of the offseason’s hidden acquisitions, when they took a chance on former head coach Wade Phillips to guide the defense. Phillips became notable by designing the two pinpoint game plans that defeated Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and Cam Newton in the playoffs, but his work was evident in all stages of the season.
By any advanced or traditional metric, the Denver were an all-time great defense, finishing first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, first in total yards allowed, first against the pass, third-best against the rush, seventh in third down conversions, fourth in penalty yardage, and seventh in takeaways. However, the team’s -4 turnover differential explains why the defense was the real protagonist for a team whose offense was almost a liability.
Out of Denver’s 19 total games through the season, 14 were decided by 7 points or fewer, with the Broncos going a staggering 11-3 in them. And while their point differential of only +59 suggested the acumen of a 10-win team with tons of luck, it may just have been that Denver’s penchant for dramatic wins became a repeatable skill down the stretch. While we always think of Super Bowl champions as dominant forces, Denver’s body of work paints a picture as one of the weakest champions of the 21st century.
Super Bowl Champions – Point Differential
2015: Broncos +59
2014: Patriots +155
2013: Seahawks +186
2012: Ravens +54
2011: Giants -6
2010: Packers +148
2009: Saints +169
2008: Steelers +124
2007: Giants +22
2006: Colts +67
2005: Steelers +131
2004: Patriots +177
2003: Patriots +110
2002: Buccaneers +150
2001: Patriots +99
2000: Ravens +168
So while the 2011 Giants may be an all-time fluke, we can see that having a +100 or better point differential tends to be a good sign of things to come. Instead, the Broncos rode their close-game perseverance to three playoff wins. In fact, even as the Super Bowl’s 14-point difference became their first double digit-win since December 6th, it is also important to remember that the game was close until the fourth quarter, when the Panthers had the ball with a chance to take the lead with less than five minutes to go.
Now that Peyton Manning’s future is up in the air and it appears likely that he will either retire or move on to a different franchise, it will be interesting to see if the Denver Broncos can retain most of their roster to build an enduring defense for years to come. After being blown out in Super Bowl XLVIII, it became clear that John Elway changed his approach to team-building, culminating with an unexpected championship. So, can this idea become a blueprint for other organizations?
In many ways, all evidence still shows that even the best defense needs a functional quarterback to take the leap, and so that should still be the priority throughout the NFL. It is hard to think of the Seahawks becoming a force without Russell Wilson, or the Ravens winning it all without a revamped Joe Flacco. This means that we can learn a lot from what the Broncos just accomplished, but don’t expect it to become the norm.
As the title implies, the Broncos are a one-of type of NFL champion, and it is unlikely we will see a similar team in a sustainable span. Whether they face next season with Osweiler, Manning, or a mysterious newcomer, the defense should remain Denver’s best hope for a proper title defense. In the meantime, their celebration is deserved, especially if it is actually Peyton Manning’s last rodeo.