Continued title contenders? John Elway has consistently promised to "do whatever it takes to compete for world championships every year." With five consecutive AFC West titles to go with two Super Bowl appearances in the past three seasons, the Broncos have pushed themselves, from the moment they signed Peyton Manning as the biggest catch of the league's free-agency era. But after Sunday's game, the Broncos find themselves at the same crossroads some others have struggled with: Building it is easier than maintaining, especially in the salary-cap era. The Broncos have shown a good eye for personnel, have a relatively healthy salary-cap situation and have been a preferred destination. Now they have to go about the business of trying to keep it that way.
What happens with Manning? Manning's future is one of the most popular drive-time sports-radio items in the Rocky Mountain region. Manning has played with thigh, shoulder, rib and left foot injuries over the past two seasons. He missed seven starts this season with a left foot injury and led the league with 17 interceptions after his nine starts in the regular season. He threw at least one interception in all nine of those games. When asked about his future, Manning said the decision will be made later. As long as he believes he's healthy enough to help the team win, he will keep playing. There were plenty of moments this past season when he was 0-for-2 there. He is under contract for 2016 but carries a $21.5 million salary-cap figure, something the Broncos probably would address. Manning took a $4 million cut before this season. The Broncos are going to want answers before free agency opens on March 9.
What about Brock Osweiler? Osweiler was 5-2 in games started for Manning this season. (Manning led a comeback win in relief in the Broncos' regular-season finale after Osweiler started.) That total included overtime wins over the Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals. And the Broncos would not have had home-field advantage without Osweiler's efforts after his 43-month wait with the team to make his first start. He is an unrestricted free agent and in a quarterback-starved league, and he's just 25. His presence and willingness to get rid of the ball to save himself from punishment must improve; in seven starts, he suffered three injuries, to his left shoulder, left elbow and right knee. A quarterback with that injury ratio would not finish a season. Osweiler easily could command an offer that exceeds $10.5 million a season. The Broncos will have to decide how high they will go to keep a quarterback whom John Elway has said he wants with the team for "a long time."
Who gets paid? The Broncos finished No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in pass defense, No. 1 in sacks, No. 3 in run defense and No. 4 in scoring defense. Keeping the defense together will be challenging. Unless the two sides can reach a long-term deal in the next month, the Broncos will use their franchise tag on Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller, according to league sources. The Broncos did keep one prospective free agent, defensive end Derek Wolfe, off the market with a four-year deal before the divisional round. But linebacker Danny Trevathan, defensive end Malik Jackson, safety David Bruton Jr. and safety Omar Bolden are unrestricted free agents. Linebacker Brandon Marshall is a restricted free agent whom the Broncos will have to consider tendering. They probably can't all get paid, and Jackson is likely to be the most difficult to keep.
Who makes the cut? The cap is expected to rise, perhaps by $10 million, but the Broncos have a long list of free agents of their own they would like to sign, so they aren't expected to jump into the market. Some of their veteran players with high cap figures will get a long look. In addition to Manning's team-high cap figure for 2016, left tackle Ryan Clady, who has spent most of two of the past three seasons on injured reserve, has a $10.1 million cap figure; linebacker DeMarcus Ware, $11.67 million; guard Louis Vasquez, $6.75 million; and punter Britton Colquitt, $4 million. Not all of those players will return in 2016.