|Eric Bakke/Associated Press|
|Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos won their last 11 regular-season games to earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC.|
NFL Network researchers revealed team-by-team strength of schedule numbers for 2013 on Thursday (based on combined opponent records from 2012), and lo and behold, the Denver Broncos face the easiest slate in football. Yes, the same Denver Broncos who earned the AFC's No. 1 seed, finishing in a tie for the league's best record at 13-3 (before, of course, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in a thrilling divisional-round bout).
Given the talent Denver will return on both sides of the football, as well as what seems like a highly accommodating schedule, should the Broncos enter the 2013 campaign with the greatest expectations in the NFL?
Denver undoubtedly is the team to beat in the AFCOf course Denver should. Its division is there for the taking as long as Peyton Manning is there. And frankly, the Broncos were one blown coverage away from facing the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Denver should be better in terms of overall team play because the receivers will have had more time to work with Manning. Plus, Manning could be healthier and more in tune with his transition to Denver. There is no reason why the defense can't be as good, either. Denver will be the team to beat in the AFC.
As far as strength of schedule is concerned, it means nothing right now, because things always change once the season begins. I put as much into the strength of schedule now as I do in Tim Tebow becoming New England's starting quarterback.
No one will enter next season with as much pressure to succeed as the 49ersIf you said they should among the teams with the highest expectations, then sure. But the team with the highest expectations? No.
First of all, if their schedule does end up being the league's lightest -- and remember, going into last year, everyone thought AFC East teams had it easy drawing the NFC West -- that wouldn't change much from 2012 for Denver. They play in a division where each of the other teams are in some stage of rebuilding, and in the weaker of the two conferences, to boot.
Second, they have more work to do than some other teams. Which brings me to where expectations will be the highest: San Francisco. The 49ers have a built-in standard, born of their glory years, that dictates anything short of a championship will have you quickly forgotten. And this is the kind of team that's built for sustained success. Yes, four starters are free agents, but only safety Dashon Goldson's departure would open a big hole on the roster. And 17 of the team's 22 starters are in their 20s.
So, sure, put the Broncos on the list of teams shouldering big expectations in 2013 -- and urgency, too, with a soon-to-be 37-year-old quarterback. But nobody will have more to live up to next season than the Niners.
Early prediction for Super Bowl XLVIII: Denver vs. San FranciscoStrength of schedule can be tricky at this point in time. Teams have not been through free agency, the NFL draft and training camp. We really don't know what many teams are going to look like for this coming season, but somebody has to be the favorite! In my opinion, right now, it should be Denver. Peyton Manning and his receivers will be in their second year together, so the offense should only improve. The defense will enter its second season under coordinator Jack Del Rio, and that should help, too. The Broncos easily could have hosted the AFC Championship Game this past season if not for a miracle pass play by Joe Flacco, and they would've been the favorites against New England.
At this moment, Denver vs. San Francisco is my pick for Super Bowl XLVIII.
Strength-of-schedule rankings are pointless in FebruaryYou can't look at the schedules to gauge expectations -- ever. Let's go back to last year at this time. Heading into the 2012 season, the Broncos were facing, on paper, what looked to be one of the most daunting schedules in the history of the game. Of their 10 non-division games, they had seven playoff teams from the year before, and also had to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which loaded up in free agency, and the Carolina Panthers, which was up-and-coming. At the time, I didn't think there was any way they'd be better than 8-8.
So, what happened? Tampa and Carolina didn't take the next step, the AFC West was the worst it's been in a decade, and the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints dropped off a cliff from where they'd been in prior years. That's 10 wins right there. Against the "elite" teams on the 2012 sked -- Baltimore, New England, Houston, Atlanta and Cincinnati -- the Broncos went 2-3. So how good were they, really? The best you can say is that they were in the mix of the best teams, but they weren't a leg up on anyone.
Then the schedule that had been so kind to them during the regular season turned out to crush them in the playoffs when they drew the Ravens -- a team they had trounced, in Baltimore, a month before. I don't care who you are: If you beat a team during the regular season and play it again in the playoffs, there's no way you match your opponent's desperation. In the back of your mind, you think, "As long as we execute, we'll win." And it doesn't happen. Had the Broncos not had to play a team they already matched up with? Who knows. But that's the reality of the NFL schedule: Every year is independent of the past. Teams that were great one year could be awful the next. (And teams that are great at the beginning of a season could be awful by Week 11.) There's no way to predict how it's going to go.
Peyton Manning's Broncos are a paper tiger when playoff time comesBy "greatest expectations," I assume we're talking about hoisting the Lombardi in frigid New Jersey next February. And if my assumption is correct, let's cool it on the Broncos. After all, their quarterback is the NFL equivalent of former Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine -- and, at least when the subject is postseason success, that's not a compliment.
Like Maddux and Glavine, Peyton Manning ranks among the best in his sport more because of guile and finesse than supreme physical gifts. All three athletes are/were able to outsmart and outflank the regular-season competition, be it the Houston Astros in May or the Jacksonville Jaguars in October. But when the quality of foes elevates, their collective lack of raw power is exposed. "Painting the corners" on Tike Redman? No problem. Squeezing a throw in between Captain Munnerlyn and Haruki Nakamura? Easy peasy. Come playoff time, though, the soft competition disappears ... and so do the wins.
Make no mistake, the Broncos will have another great regular season in 2013. They'll probably win the AFC West again (although I do anticipate Andy Reid getting a talented Kansas City Chiefs bunch turned around very quickly). But win the whole thing? Unlikely. How do I know? Because, if it weren't for Rex Grossman's Bears in early 2007, Peyton would be 0-for-his career. As it is, he has just that one title ... the same amount Maddux and Glavine won.