The Broncos never hid from their Super Bowl-or-bust beliefs. Offensive players said it, defensive players said it and as they won their fourth consecutive AFC West title, the Broncos, at least, had themselves in the mix to live up to it.
But much like the 2012 and 2013 seasons, 2014 ultimately became another year when the Broncos aced the class week after week, but simply failed the final. And it cost coach John Fox his job.
Team MVP: There are plenty of candidates. Quarterback Peyton Manning threw 39 touchdown passes, second in the league. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. played his way into some hard-earned recognition as one of the elite at his position. The Broncos had two 1,000-yard receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders while running back C.J. Anderson positioned himself as a future 1,000-yard rusher as the team’s lead back. But in the end linebacker Brandon Marshall gets it. He went from practice-squad guy to the first-team defense in 2013 to every-down linebacker in ’14. He led the team in tackles (110) despite missing two games with a foot injury. Marshall played in all personnel groupings and gave the defense some much-needed versatility in a year when two starting linebackers (Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving) ended up on injured reserve.
Best moment: There were plenty of double-take moments. There was Anderson’s improbable 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown in Oakland, just minutes from his hometown, when he seemingly ran through, or around, half the Raiders’ defense. There were Demaryius Thomas’ seven consecutive 100-yard receiving games. Or Harris' sustained excellence in the season. Still, tough to top history. On Oct. 19, in a 42-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Manning passed Brett Favre as the league’s all-time leader in touchdown passes with 509. Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for an 8-yard score with 3:09 remaining in the first half of the game for that 509th career scoring throw. By season’s end Manning had pushed his career regular-season total to 530.
Worst moment: The 24-13 playoff loss to Indianapolis meant yet another season of Super Bowl ambitions that were not met. But in terms of singular moments that were difficult for the Broncos to overcome, Trevathan's third left leg injury of the season may have been the toughest. Trevathan, who was the team’s leading tackler in 2013, suffered a fracture at the top of his tibia in training camp, then Oct. 12 suffered another left leg fracture and, finally, Dec. 14 suffered a dislocated left kneecap against the San Diego Chargers.
2015 outlook: The Broncos face whether Manning will return. On Christmas Eve, Manning said he would be back in 2015, but then backed off that statement following the team’s loss to the Colts Sunday. After the game, Manning said “I could not say that" when asked if he was coming back in '15. Beyond that the Broncos have 17 free agents -- unrestricted or restricted combined -- including Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Terrance Knighton, Wes Welker and Rahim Moore. They have a core of playmakers on a team that has won four consecutive division titles, but the offensive line needs some attention. With the clock ticking on Manning's career, the Broncos need to decide whether Brock Osweiler is next in line or if there is more work to be done there.