Every time I think about this year’s Denver Broncos, I think about the Denver Broncos of two years ago. I can’t help it. That team was, at least on offense, so functionally superior to the Seattle Seahawks, who smoked their AFC counterpart 43-8 in the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning, in his age-37 season, had been beyond magnificent in the regular season, with 55 touchdown passes and more than 5,400 yards passing. The Broncos easily won games with an elite offense and a barely mediocre defense. Then finally, on the biggest stage, they simply couldn’t break through against the No. 1 defense in the NFL. For a franchise that’s no stranger to losing Super Bowls, the Broncos were a super flop.
But what a difference two years can make. The Broncos are back in the Super Bowl, except now they’re the participant with a No. 1-ranked defense and an only somewhat competent offense. Peyton Manning, who was sublime at 37, has morphed into little more than a middling game manager, coordinating a conservative-at-best playbook that relies on reliable, clock-gobbling rushes from Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson and the occasional mid-range out pattern to wide receivers Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Owen Daniels, who was the major beneficiary in the AFC championship game with two scores. This is now a team that will sooner bore you to tears than outscore you when it matters most.
So it feels easy to go into this game thinking the Broncos are outmatched, that there’s no way they can compete with the dynamic Cam Newton at quarterback, who finds ways to thrash a defense that you can’t anticipate, or the multiple Pro Bowlers on defense, who may not have such gaudy numbers as Denver’s defenders but nonetheless get the job done with efficiency. Is it a fait accompli that the Panthers roll to that 18-1 record on these inherent strengths and Denver is just doomed from the get-go? Maybe.