Peyton Manning Has One Last Shot at a Ring with Denver Broncos
There really isn't much left to prove for Peyton Manning. He holds all sorts of passing records, is the only player to win four MVP awards, and got the monkey of his back by winning a ring in 2006. However, the debate is still up in the air about whether he should be considered the best of all time. The stats are on his side but there are lingering doubts about whether he deserves the honor over names like Tom Brady and Joe Montana who have won more Super Bowls. To put this question to bed, Peyton must win a second ring. The 2013 season with the Denver Broncos may be his last shot.
Baltimore Ravens showcase a weakened AFC
If the AFC looked fairly strong a year ago, it has taken a step back this year. No team signifies that more than the defending champion Baltimore Ravens. Fresh off their title run they lost a host of key players including Ray Lewis, Paul Kruger, Ed Reed, and Danelle Ellerbe. Luckily the offense around Joe Flacco is still largely intact but there are a lot of reservations about whether a defense that wasn't the best in 2012 can improve after losing so much veteran leadership.
Glancing around the rest of the conference no team really leaps out as a true threat. The New England Patriots are the same old powerhouse yet don't have that aura of invincibility of years past. Like Manning, Tom Brady is getting along in age and there are a lot of injury concerns around his talent-laden offense. Tight end Rob Gronkowski could have two surgeries before the season even starts and wide receiver Danny Amendola has yet to play a through a full season. Coupling that with a defense that doesn't appear too much better than last season and it's questionable whether they deserve the title of AFC favorites.
The two teams that probably pose the greatest risk to Denver at this point are the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals. Houston will get a lot of players back from injury on defense, especially inside linebacker Brian Cushing. They also put a talented young receiver opposite Andre Johnson in DeAndre Hopkins. This gives their roster a major boost towards what many expected last year in a deep playoff run. Cincinnati meanwhile has put some successful drafts together the past few seasons. They added offensive firepower in Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard while keeping their effective defense intact. They are a closet favorites to breakthrough in the AFC North and challenge in the playoffs as well.
Wes Welker and Montee Ball are the critical parts
Two areas that did the Broncos in against Baltimore last postseason was no running game late and no impact from the slot receivers. Denver brass made sure those two areas were shored up. They pulled off one of the coups of free agency when they landed former Patriots All-Pro Wes Welker to fill the slot position where he has thrived for years. Then they scooped up talented Wisconsin running back Montee Ball who set a team record with 83 touchdowns in college. He figures to become the workhorse they didn't have late in the season. The reminder of former MVP Terrell Davis only makes it better. His threat should open up tons of options for Manning.
NFL Schedule strength
The last thing going in Denver's favor is the 2013 schedule. While every year is different in the NFL, schedule strength does offer an insight into how good of a chance a team has at making the playoffs. For the Broncos though it shouldn't be about just reaching January. It must center on home field advantage. The past two seasons, that honor has belonged to New England. If Manning wants his best shot on reaching New York in February, he must have the crowd on his side.
A favorable schedule will help him do that. Collectively, the 13 opponents Denver will face this season had a record of 110-146 a year ago. That is a .430 winning percentage, a full .027 lower than the next team on the list. The reason this is such good news for the Broncos is based on what happened last year. After a very tough start to their schedule, experts believed they had the easiest road coming out of their bye in week 7. Denver ended up winning their last ten games. That is the Manning effect.
No more excuses
Everything seems lined up for Peyton at this point. He has receivers, a durable young running back, a stout offensive line and a retooled defense. His schedule features plenty of easy stretches. The NFL by sheer happenstance has lobbed him one last softball to get that second ring. If he wants to claim his rightful spot as the best of all time, he better take one heck of a cut at it.