By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - If you've ever bought in to the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, maybe you're not all that surprised to see what has happened to the Denver Broncos over the past few months.
The presumptive favorites for the AFC crown -- at least according to "those who know in Las Vegas" -- have been hit with an embarrassing fax machine faux pas, mortifying DUI arrests, defensive superstar Von Miller's six-game suspension and some serious injury problems, including a season-ender for underrated veteran center Dan Koppen.
A league source confirmed the locusts are scheduled for next week.
Despite all that drama, though, Denver does still look like a solid pick to come out of the AFC. After all, the West is shaping up as a dismal division with a team that finished 2-14 a season ago (Kansas City) pegged by most for second behind the Broncos.
Meanwhile, the other heavyweights in the conference have their own issues. The reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens have taken on the role of Jeremy Lin versus the Miami Heat, turning over things at an alarming rate. No one trusts Houston with Matt Schaub at quarterback, and the recipients of 338 of Tom Brady's 402 total completions from a year ago won't be in western New York next month when the Patriots open their 2013 season.
So, if the Broncos are able to keep 37-year-old Peyton Manning healthy and upright for 16 games, it's almost a fait accompli they will be in the postseason and that alone gives them a leg up on just about any other team.
Of course being labeled the favorite by a few degenerates in the desert is probably worth a small cup of coffee at Dunkin' Donuts for Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway, something his two Super Bowl rings could have gotten him in perpetuity anyway.
Remember Denver was a trendy pick entering the playoffs last year and all but put the stake through the heart of the Ravens before safety Rahim Moore let Jacoby Jones pop the top on the defense late in regulation. The rest is history.
Shouldering the load is part of the gig of being an NFL quarterback and Manning knew that long before he ever arrived in the Rockies or Baltimore upset him and the Broncos in the AFC Divisional round last year.
Win and the former three-time MVP gets more credit than he deserves, and lose? Well, let's just say it gets a little ugly.
The Tweets came at a fast and furious pace back in January after Justin Tucker's 47-yard field goal, 1:42 into the second overtime ended the fifth longest game in NFL history with the Ravens on top 38-35.
Some pointed out that Tim Tebow has more playoff wins as a Broncos quarterback than Manning. Others went to Peyton's problems in the cold weather, and many more were questioning the overall playoff acumen of one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
Another elite signal-caller, who lost later that same day in San Francisco, probably put it better than anyone.
"The regular season is about earning your paycheck and the playoffs are about defining your legacy," Packers superstar Aaron Rodgers opined.
Manning is now under .500 at 9-11 in the postseason and the narrative is starting to morph with some calling the University of Tennessee product the greatest regular season quarterback of all-time with an asterisk stating he can't get it done when it really counts.
Well, it's time to remove the asterisk, at least according to Elway.
"He's a unique person. You could not have a better person to be around," Elway said of his veteran signal caller. "The way that he worked over the past year, to be able to see him come back, training camp, see his arm improve so much more over last training camp, it's great to see Peyton where he is and enjoying doing what he's doing.
"If there's a guy to bet on, Peyton Manning is the right guy to bet on."
2012 RECORD: 13-3 (1st, AFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to Baltimore in AFC Divisional Playoff.
HEAD COACH (RECORD): John Fox (21-11 in two seasons with Broncos, 94-82 in 11 seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Adam Gase (fifth season with Broncos, first as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jack Del Rio (second season with Broncos)
KEY ADDITIONS: LB Stewart Bradley (from Cardinals), DB Quentin Jammer (from Chargers), DT Terrance Knighton (from Jaguars), LB Paris Lenon (from Cardinals), OL Ryan Lilja (from Chiefs), OG John Moffitt (from Seahawks). LB Shaun Phillips (from Chargers), CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (from Eagles), OL Steve Vallos (from Jaguars) OG Louis Vasquez (from Chargers), WR Wes Welker (from Patriots), DT Sylvester Williams (1st round, North Carolina), RB Montee Ball (2nd round, Wisconsin), CB Kayvon Webster (3rd round, South Florida)
KEY DEPARTURES: DE Elvis Dumervil (released, to Ravens), FB Chris Gronkowski (Not tendered, to Chargers), QB Caleb Hanie (released), DE Jason Hunter (to Raiders), S Jim Leonhard (to Saints), RB Willis McGahee (released), CB Tracy Porter (to Raiders), WR Brandon Stokley (not tendered, to Ravens), LB D.J. Williams (released, to Bears)
QB: Manning was spectacular last season, passing Brett Favre for the most Pro Bowls (12) by a quarterback in NFL history in addition to becoming the first signal caller to be selected to the squad after missing the previous season due to injury. He also is just the 14th player in league annals (and the only quarterback) to make 10 consecutive Pro Bowls in years he has played. The heady Manning oversaw an offense which finished second in the NFL in scoring in 2012, accounting for 30.1 points per game.
The backup situation isn't great with lengthy Brock Osweiler and rookie Zac Dysert serving as more developmental types and are likely not ready to play if disaster strikes.
RB: The Broncos don't need an Adrian Peterson but they do need at least a competent running game so opposing defenses can't come out in the nickel from play No. 1 and stay in it the majority of the time. With Willis McGahee gone, the situation will likely come down to a running back by committee approach with Ronnie Hillman, rookie Montee Ball and veteran Knowshon Moreno all getting chances.
Hillman is Plan A but he has had a rocky preseason with fumbling problems. Ball has good vision, patience, and running instincts but needs to prove he can pass protect to get on he field consistently.
"That's been my goal ever since I was drafted," Ball said when asked about potentially starting. "That's (everyone's) goal in the running back room, to become the starter. For me, every opportunity thrown at me, I'm going to make sure I take advantage of it."
Moreno, meanwhile, is like the comfortable old shoe and the guy who ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (85.0) during the final six weeks in 2012 after McGahee went down with a torn medial collateral ligament and compression fracture in his right knee.
"Whoever we keep we're going to lean on and we'll play and I think our track record says that," Broncos coach John Fox said.
Denver rarely uses a traditional fullback but Jacob Hester is the guy when they do. Hester isn't a top-tier lead-isolation blocker but he is a nice short-yardage runner, converting first downs on 15-of-18 career attempts on third or fourth down short-yardage attempts.
WR: Denver is loaded at the wide receiver spot, adding slot star Wes Welker to the solid outside the numbers duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
Thomas is the vertical threat, earning his first career Pro Bowl selection after ranking fourth in the NFL with 1,434 receiving yards on 94 catches in 2012. Thomas was also second in the NFL with 18 receptions of 25-plus yards so understand he's a big play waiting to happen.
Decker isn't as explosive but he's just as productive, amassing 11 receiving touchdowns during the last two seasons, the most receiving scores over a two- year span in Denver history. Meanwhile, he and Thomas are the youngest tandem in NFL history to each post 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in the same season.
Welker owns 768 career receptions, trailing only Broncos Ring of Fame wide receiver Rod Smith (849) among undrafted players in league history. A tremendous route runner with great short-area quickness, Welker owns two of the top four single-season receiving totals in NFL history in addition to being the only player in league annals to top the 100-catch mark five times.
TE: Veteran tight end Joel Dreessen isn't a difference-maker but he ranks fifth in the NFL among tight ends in percentage of catches resulting in touchdowns since 2010. He's a nice security blanket-type and a tremendous fourth option as a receiver.
Backup Jacob Tamme is really an oversized wide receiver with excellent speed for the position. He's strictly a slot guy, however, and can't help you as an in-line blocker. With Welker around, Tamme is likely not as valuable.
OL: The Denver O-line took a big hit when Koppen went down for the season. Manny Ramirez, a 30-year nondescript veteran from Texas Tech is getting the first opportunity to win the job but two veterans, Ryan Lilja and Steve Vallos, were brought in as insurance. None are desirable options.
Left tackle Ryan Clady is the one elite player on the line but new right guard Louis Vasquez, who was signed away from division rival San Diego, and his mirror on the left side, Zane Beadles are also plus players.
Clady was selected to the Pro Bowl for the third time in his career to join Tom Nalen and Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman as the only offensive linemen to earn at least three Pro Bowls with the Broncos. A premier pass blocker, Clady allowed just one sack, the fewest among offensive tackles who started every game for their team in 2012
Beadles, meanwhile, was named to his first Pro Bowl after allowing just one sack in 2012 and finishing the season as the only Broncos player to participate in every offensive or defensive snap
Vasquez was the lone bright spot in the Chargers' line last season and is an aggressive blocker in both pass protection and the run game.
Right tackle Orlando Franklin has the size, strength, and leverage to anchor against the power rush but can struggle with speed.
The Broncos acquired former third-round pick John Moffitt from the Seattle Seahawks in an effort to garner some passable depth.
DL: Derek Wolfe is back at practice after being carted off the field and taken to a local hospital in Seattle after injuring his neck against the Seahawks. It was a scary scene but Wolfe plans to be ready for the regular-season opener on Sept. 5 against the Ravens.
Wolfe joined Barney Chavous as the only defensive linemen in franchise history to start every game as a rookie and he looks like a keeper at left end -- a high motor, effort guy who will outwork his opponent on most days.
"I think if anything when you have to sit out, it's funny how much you really don't like to practice until you can't do it anymore," the second-year starter said. "And then you're just dying to get out there again. That whole time you're just thinking I could have been done for good, but now that I'm not I want to get out there bad."
Right end Robert Ayers is really more of a 3-4 end with the long arms to play the five-technique. It's doubtful Ayers will be a dominant weakside rusher, though.
Free agent nose tackle Terrance Knighton is a solid two-down run-stuffer while under tackle Kevin Vickerson is a veteran rotational player and little more.
Former Charger Shaun Phillips could be the real replacement for Elvis Dumervil as the weakside pass rusher in a hybrid DE/OLB role.
Rookie first-round pick Sylvester Williams should push Vickerson early. He's raw but has the athleticism to disrupt things.
LB: Miller became the first player in team history to earn a Pro Bowl selection in each of his first two seasons, finishing as runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012 The All-Pro finished his second NFL season ranked in the top five in sacks, quarterback knockdowns, quarterback hurries, tackles for a loss, run stuffs and forced fumbles.
Miller recorded a franchise-record 18 1/2 sacks in addition to ranking second in the league in tackles for a loss (28) and tying for third in the NFL with six forced fumbles. He was only the second player since 1994 to record at least 15 sacks, 25 tackles for a loss and five forced fumbles in a single season. So, the fact he will miss the first six games after being caught fumbling around with a PED test is a disaster for the Broncos and highlights his major flaw as a player, immaturity.
"Obviously we're disappointed and I know Von is disappointed too," Elway said. "The number one thing we want to happen is to get Von going on the right track. And I think we have him going in the right direction. Obviously when you lose a great player like that for six weeks it's going to affect your football team. But the team is ready to pick up the slack and understand he's not going to be around. We'll figure out ways to win without him."
Projected mike linebacker Nate Irving is aggressive and explosive as a player but not all that instinctive and veteran Stewart Bradley was on his way to beating him out for the job before going down with a wrist injury. Will LB Wesley Woodyard was the only player in the NFL last year to record 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions in a season and could also man the middle if Denver loses all confidence in Irving, something that seems to be happening.
"Wesley can play multiple spots," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "He's done that for us here. We're looking for combinations. We've been moving guys around a lot. We're going to get the best combinations of people on the field when we can and put a plan together to utilize them to the best of their abilities and go from there."
Phillips, who is in line to replace Miller during the first six weeks, and veteran Paris Lenon, the former Packer and Card, are in as insurance.
"They're like, 'What are you guys going to do about a pass rush?' We have other capable guys," said Phillips. "We have other guys who can play football and can contribute in many different ways. We're excited. We're going to have fun. It's unfortunate that Von is going to miss a few (games). It's hurting him more than it's hurting us."
GRADE: C+ the first six weeks and B+ after that
DB: The Broncos have three solid corners on paper in Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris.
Bailey was named to the Pro Bowl for the 12th time last year, becoming the first defensive back and just the 10th player overall to earn a dozen selections. His 34 interceptions rank fifth in the NFL since he joined the league but he's on the downside of a brilliant career and has been hampered by an ankle injury in the preseason.
"It always does (cause concern) but Champ is a quick healer," Elway said. "We'll see how the progress is going. He's making good progress right now."
Rodgers-Cromartie has all the talent in the world but doesn't tackle and flamed out in both Arizona and Philadelphia. Harris, meanwhile, doesn't get a ton of respect but don't be surprised if he ends up Denver's most consistent option for the second straight year.
Rookie third-round pick Kayvon Webster brings speed and athleticism to the club.
At safety Moore will have to live with letting Jones get over the top, the kind of mental mistake which needs to be cleaned up if he wants to be viewed as a consistent starter in this league. His running mate is Mike Adams, a veteran journeyman who can hit but struggles when in space.
Former Chargers star Quentin Jammer was brought in to push for playing time at safety but the 34-year-old hasn't shown much while trying to make the switch from corner to the last line of defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Britton Colquitt is one of the league's best and agreed to terms on a three-year contract extension earlier this month. The 28-year- old racked up 3,105 yards on 67 punt tries for an average of 46.3 yards-per- attempt last season for the Broncos. His net average of 42.1 yards ranked third in the NFL in 2012.
Kicker Matt Prater is not all that consistent and will cause a hew heart beats to skip in the Rockies.
Return man Trindon Holliday is only 5-foot-5 and 160 pounds soaking wet but is one of the fastest players in the NFL with almost instant burst and acceleration. If Holliday hits a seam, which he did twice in the playoffs against the Ravens, he's gone but he's not breaking many tackles.
COACHING: Fox is just the 10th coach in NFL history to deliver division titles in each of his first two years with a team and it's hard to imagine him not garnering a third consecutive one but it's all about the Super Bowl for him and his club.
Adam Gase replaces Mike McCoy, who is now the Chargers' head man, as offensive coordinator but this is Manning's team and he will always be the de facto on- field offensive coordinator.
Del Rio, an ex-head coach in Jacksonville, is one of the NFL's best defensive coordinators and a guy being asked to replace the pass rush Miller and Dumervil provided.
"We're always preparing," Del Rio said. "You do the best you can with the guys you have. (You) put a plan together (and) go out and compete hard, play hard and expect to play hard and expect to play well. That's our approach really regardless."
THE SKINNY: The Broncos won the AFC West for the 12th time in their history in 2012 and consecutive division titles for the first since 1986-87. Chalk up a third straight in what shapes up to be a dismal division but that's not what this season is about.
Denver must weather the storm without Miller early, keep Manning healthy and make sure its set up for a deep run come January. Anything less would be a big disappointment.
08/28 11:37:16 ET
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