Peyton Manning and these Broncos are akin to the Miami Heat during LeBron James' stay in South Beach. Fairly or unfairly, it's about getting to championships and winning titles. LeBron made the NBA Finals in each of his four years with the Heat, snagging a pair of rings. That's a success, even if the total didn't quite match the bevy of titles LeBron nonchalantly guaranteed in his introductory dance party. ("Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven ...")
Manning has the great games, the surreal moments, and the 38-year-old is fresh off arguably the greatest regular season ever for an NFL quarterback, one that netted him a league-record fifth MVP award.
But he needs a ring in Denver. It's Super Bowl or bust. And this time around, Peyton should finish the job.
This is not like last year, when I certainly wasn't singing this tune. I thought Denver, despite Manning's genius, was flawed on the offensive line and most especially on defense. I thought the AFC winner would get beat when it went up a class to fight a more physical team from the NFC. And that's exactly what happened, as the Broncos were absolutely manhandled by the Seattle Seahawks on Super Bowl Sunday.
I don't have that feeling this fall.
Elway went back to the drawing board after the Super Bowl embarrassment. The Broncos' general manager set out in search of defensive additions this past offseason -- and he slammed it out of the park. He pilfered Aqib Talib from the rival Patriots, and Talib has been splendid as Denver's No. 1 corner. T.J. Ward, a needed pickup at safety, has lived up to the billing. DeMarcus Ware was signed to help the pass rush, and whaddya know: The Broncos are averaging over three sacks a game. Of course, Von Miller's re-emergence has a lot to do with this, too. The playmaking linebacker is healthy and appears to be in the right place mentally. He's terrorizing opposing quarterbacks every Sunday, playing at a first-team All-Pro clip. Miller's turnaround from a year ago, when he missed nearly half the season due to suspension and injury, is a game changer for Denver, a bar-raiser for the 2014 Broncos.
Phil Simms appears weekly on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," and the two-time Super Bowl champ made a tremendous point heading into Thursday's highly anticipated Chargers-Broncos bout (which Denver ended up winning, 35-21): "Forget the stats. Right now, the Broncos have one of the best -- if not the best -- defense in the NFL right now. They can do everything on every level." I told Phil my gut instinct was to loudly disagree, but I couldn't. He's right: The Broncos boast the best defense in the NFL. This unit's better than the usual suspects from Seattle, San Francisco and Cincinnati. It's better than the Lions' upstart D and the resilient outfit in Arizona. The Broncos stop the run. They defend the pass. They get to the quarterback and create turnovers. It's a dominant bunch, plain and simple.
And here's a scary thought: Denver's offense, which set an NFL record for points in a season last season, is even more complete around Manning in 2014.
Emmanuel Sanders represents another Elway offseason masterstroke. Eric Decker earned a bunch of green paper to wear green for the New York Jets (who are now 1-7). After Decker's departure via free agency, Denver signed a better player. Sanders torched San Diego for three touchdowns on Thursday. He adds a fantastic speed element to the equation. How do you defend an offense that presents the freakish talent of Demaryius Thomas, the speed of Sanders, the experience of Wes Welker and the mismatch quality of Julius Thomas?
And now the backfield's getting it together, to boot. Ronnie Hillman has been a pleasant surprise in October, filling in for -- and seemingly "Wally Pipping" -- injured running back Montee Ball. Hillman, like Sanders, adds pure speed and sizzle to the Broncos' attack. As long as Hillman doesn't go back to his fumbling ways of yesteryear, he upgrades the RB position. And one thing that helps everyone in this offense: Ryan Clady is back and healthy at left tackle, which makes the offensive line stout.
Manning is having another terrific season, with 22 touchdown passes against just three interceptions. But only one thing matters for Peyton: winning another title.
New England, the opponent in last season's AFC title game and the next opponent on this season's schedule, has always been a nemesis. Belichick's defense has, at times, been Manning's kryptonite. Brady has more rings. And after getting through a sluggish first quarter of the 2014 campaign, New England is firing on all cylinders, having just throttled the Chicago Bears. But the Pats' talent just doesn't compare to that of the Broncos, especially on defense, where New England has lost Jerod Mayo for the year and currently lacks top pass rusher Chandler Jones. This is the time for Manning and the Broncos to own the conference.
Who else in the AFC can challenge? I love Andrew Luck and the Colts, but they showed they aren't quite ready to make a title run with the way they just played in Pittsburgh. The Chargers are beaten up, and even when healthy, they feel like a 10-win wild-card team. Baltimore is solid, but not a true title threat. Cincinnati doesn't get it done in the big spot.
Yes, the NFC is loaded. I chose Green Bay to represent the conference in the Super Bowl back in August, and I stand by that pick. Arizona is legit, as I've have written many times. Dallas is for real, between DeMarco Murray, the best offensive line in football, Tony Romo and a vastly improved defense. The 49ers will get better as they get healthier -- don't discount Jim Harbaugh's bunch. Detroit has shown remarkable resiliency (and rare defense!). Seattle still lurks as an obvious player. And the Eagles are a dangerous team under Chip Kelly.
Denver is better -- Denver is more balanced -- than all of the above.
There is immense pressure on John Fox. Denver's head coach knows what he has to deliver (a Lombardi Trophy).
Every NFL team faces potential pitfalls. Every NFL team has to deal with adversity. Denver will lose again this season, maybe in New England on Sunday. (Though I personally don't see that happening.)
But barring injury, this team cannot -- and will not -- lose in January or February. Denver has Peyton Manning. Denver has the best all-around squad.
Manning needs a second title to cement his legacy. It's championship or bust. And right now, bust is hard to fathom.