ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The best way to measure Peyton Manning's impact on the Denver Broncos this offseason was by what didn't happen. There was no repeat of his 2012 arrival in Denver. Younger teammates weren't awed when he first walked into the building for workouts. There wasn't giddy anticipation when Manning tossed perfectly thrown passes in practice. There also was no mystery about whether he could survive a full season with a surgically repaired neck. "Everything is different now," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "Back then you didn't know for certain what he could do."
After Denver won the AFC West with a 13-3 record and earned the top seed in last year's playoffs, there is only one question left for Manning to answer this season: Can he actually lead the Broncos to their first Super Bowl win since the 1998 season? At first glance, there should be little doubt about Denver's viability. No AFC team has more talent then the group Manning will lead this fall. The issue, however, is whether the Broncos can avoid the heartbreak that plagued them at the end of last season.
Of all Denver's accomplishments in 2012 -- Manning's remarkable comeback from four neck operations, the dominance of Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller and a regular-season winning streak that reached 11 games -- the Broncos' season really came down to a painful 18-minute stretch at the end of an AFC divisional playoff loss to Baltimore. Between safety Rahim Moore giving up an inexplicable 70-yard touchdown pass to tie the game, Fox refusing to let Manning attempt a game-winning drive with two timeouts in hand and the Denver offense wilting without an effective running attack, the Broncos were left wondering what could've been. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl.
This helps explain the sense of urgency in Denver, which can be felt in everything from Miller tweeting that Denver will win this year's Super Bowl to his teammates echoing the heightened expectations around this squad. "It's back to business for us," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris. "We're tired of getting into the playoffs and getting bounced out early. It's Super Bowl or bust this year. We have the talent and we have Peyton Manning."
Having Manning around for a full year may not seem like that big of a deal for a team that watched him produce MVP-worthy numbers in 2012 (4,659 passing yards, 37 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions). But it means everything to players who admit that his arrival last spring -- after he picked the Broncos following his release from Indianapolis -- required a major transition for everybody. As Harris noted, it was strange to go from watching coaches overhaul the offense to help Tim Tebow a few months earlier to where Manning "was telling everybody where they needed to be." Manning didn't even hit his stride until after Denver opened the season with a 1-2 start and some skeptics openly questioned whether he could throw the ball effectively beyond 30 yards.
Denver's opponents this year can expect plenty of passes down the field, underneath and to any other area Manning wants to attack. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (94 receptions, 1,434 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Eric Decker (85 receptions, 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns) are both coming off career years, while the free-agent signing of Wes Welker gives Manning a dangerous weapon in the slot. The 32-year-old Welker made life much easier for Tom Brady in New England, averaging 112 receptions during his six seasons with the Patriots. Manning will keep him just as busy in Denver.
The Broncos also plan on operating at an even quicker pace this season, with Manning running more no-huddle plays. "It should give us an advantage at home, just to be able to play fast and keep defenses on the field and not let them sub," said Manning of an offense that averaged 30.1 points per game in 2012. "I think it gives us another outlet, whether we go fast, slow or whatever it is, wherever we can have success that's what we're going to do. I think this allows us just to play a different game with defenses."
That approach also should give an intriguing defense more time to develop its own chemistry. After finishing second in the league in yards allowed (290.8) and fourth in points surrendered (18.1), the Broncos are relying on some new faces. Those additions include outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, safety Quentin Jammer and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. Phillips' presence is huge because the Broncos lost Pro Bowl defensive end Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens earlier this offseason. Denver also is anticipating big things from second-year defensive end Derek Wolfe, especially after he registered six sacks as a rookie.
If this year's defense can come anywhere close to what it was in 2012 -- and Miller will have plenty to do with that happening -- the Broncos shouldn't have a hard time returning to the playoffs. If they didn't have enough talent, they also have the NFL's easiest schedule coming into the season. Eleven of the 16 games Denver will play are against teams that didn't qualify for last year's postseason. Six of the Broncos' games will come against squads that held the top four picks in this year's draft (Kansas City, Jacksonville, Oakland and Philadelphia).
Of course, the Broncos will be the first to tell you that schedules and rosters don't win championships. Hard work and execution are the bedrock of such ambitions. "I think every year your expectations are to win the Super Bowl or it's a bust," said Decker. "That's why you play the game. But this year we feel confident about who we are as a team -- the identity we have, the guys that we have. I think we're a very deep team. It all comes down to staying healthy and getting on a run at the end of the year."
"You do have to fight complacency," Fox added. "That's why it's hard to repeat as Super Bowl champs. That bull's-eye on your chest only gets bigger. But I also can tell you we are as hungry as it gets. That's because we didn't win anything last year."