|Philip Rivers and the Chargers certainly aren't going to lay down in the AFC West for Peyton Manning's Broncos.|
Look, I love the NFL Network, but if I had the money, I would leave to start the Peyton Football Network. I'd just broadcast every game the Denver Broncos play this season and my ratings would blow away the competition. Archie Manning in the booth. Cooper on sideline analysis. Eli giving special pregame messages. The PFN. Who needs Tebowmania?
But I digress. You want to know what to expect from the Broncos this season, taking their schedule into account. Well, they went 8-8 last season and won the AFC West. And with Peyton Manning replacing Tim Tebow, that should be worth four more wins, right? Well, if you think Denver is going to just waltz to the playoffs amidst new Best Buy commercials featuring John Elway and Pete Coors and set to John Denver music, think again.
First, let's examine the six division games. They'll honestly be the easiest part of Denver's schedule -- and it's still tough. The Oakland Raiders are rapidly improving, while the San Diego Chargers still have Philip Rivers, regardless of who he's throwing the ball to. (Though I did hear they worked out John Jefferson the other day ...) And the Kansas City Chiefs are better than their 7-9 record last year indicated. If K.C. can get solid quarterback play, Romeo Crennel's team will be a factor. None of these defenses will slow Peyton down, but they're also not the Jaguars, Titans and Texans teams that Manning feasted on the majority of his career. They're actually decent. Remember, Manning played in possibly the worst division in football for most of his professional life. Would he have been to the playoffs as many times if he was in the AFC North? The NFC East? Not likely. This will be an uptick in competition for Peyton, and Denver could easily go 3-3 in its AFC West games. The good news for Manning and the Broncos is that no team will run away with the division, so they'll be in it down to the wire.
The Broncos' out-of-division games? Hide your eyes. Seven of the 10 teams made the playoffs last season, and the non-playoff teams are the Buccaneers (already very active in free agency), Panthers and Browns. OK, so I can't dress up the Browns as all that imposing, but their defense is mega-tough.
On the road, the Broncos get the Ravens, Bengals, Patriots, Falcons and Panthers. The first two defenses are tremendous, while Manning may have to win shootouts with New England, Atlanta and Carolina. If the Broncos go 2-3 in those roadies, it's an achievement. Manning will spend the entire season getting used to his new surroundings, so he'll be at a huge disadvantage when he plays elite competition.
At home, the Broncos take on the Bucs, Browns, Steelers, Texans and Saints. A 3-2 mark would be considered successful here, and 2-3 is a reasonable prediction. (What, they couldn't get Green Bay and the Giants on their schedule, too?)
Sure, there'll be a ton of offense in some of these games, but the bottom line is this: Even with Manning, Denver won't be the better team on the field too often next season.
Face the facts. Peyton's coming back from injury, and he didn't take a single snap during the 2011 campaign. The rest of the team will take a little bit of time to gel with him. They'll get every opponent's best game, and the schedule is incredibly difficult. So I think they'll hover around 8-8 again, possibly 9-7. Tebow will be laughing in Jacksonville, saying, "Ha! We went 8-8 last season." Of course, in Jacksonville he'll be 3-13, but the Broncos' record should still be a nice Christmas present for him.
Individually, Peyton will pile up around 4,000 passing yards and 30 touchdowns. He'll heat up as the season progresses because he's Peyton Manning (and Denver will throw the football exclusively), so he'll still be his old self in the stat column. Fantasy-wise, if you want to get him, he'll be gone by the end of the second round, and he'll be just as productive as Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford, and maybe a hair below Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Cam Newton.
When Manning's star power doesn't immediately translate to a 12-4 record and a trip to the Super Bowl, I think you'll see a lot of "Manning heroics not enough for Broncos" headlines alongside editorials titled "Were we better off with Tebow?"