When the Denver Broncos walked off the field at Met Life stadium two week ago, the team knew that they had lost out on a great opportunity to win a Super Bowl. But was that embarrassing loss to the Seahawks the team’s last chance to win a Super Bowl in the immediate future, or is Denver’s window to return to win a Super Bowl still open for at least another year or two?
Obviously, the Broncos having a chance to win a Super Bowl hinges on Peyton Manning. If he decides, or is forced, to retired because of concerns regarding his health, Denver’s window for winning a Super Bowl would immediately slam shut. Manning is the primary reason why the Broncos have been one of the best teams in the NFL the past two seasons and why their offense set NFL records while carrying the team to the Super Bowl this season. Without Manning, the Broncos would have a lot of rebuilding in front of them after taking a two-year all-in shot at winning a championship.
However, Manning does have three years left on his contract with the Broncos, and as long as he’s healthy he intends on playing until the end of his deal. But it would be unrealistic not to expect some decline in Manning’s performance over the next three seasons, even if he’s coming off what was arguably the best single season by a quarterback in NFL history. If Manning isn’t able to put together another super-human season, the Broncos may not be able to cruise to the Super Bowl so effortlessly the way they did in 2013, but even if they do, there is a slew of tough defenses in the NFC that could be waiting for them if they get there, much like the Seattle defense that stopped them dead in their tracks two weeks ago.
The next issue for the Broncos is the supporting cast around Manning. The team has several key players heading into free agency this offseason, and it’s unrealistic to think that they’ll be able to retain all of their key players. Offensively, running back Knowshon Moreno and wide receiver Eric Decker are both free agents, and both are coming off the best season of their career, which will make it difficult for the Broncos to retain them and give Manning the same caliber of weapons around him next season.
Key defensive players like Shaun Phillips and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are also free agents, while the Broncos may have to deal with Chris Harris and Von Miller recovering from serious injuries they suffered late in the season, making their status for next season less certain. Moreover, Denver will have even more key players entering free agency after the 2014 season, making the shape of the roster around Manning uncertain moving forward, putting a lot of pressure on the team to find the right players in the draft and in free agency to keep the talent level around Manning high, even amidst a lot of roster turnover.
Finally, there is the competition they’ll have to face on their way to another Super Bowl. Despite Denver being in a division with two other playoff teams this season, there was profound mediocrity throughout the AFC in 2013. At the moment, there are few reasons to think that this will change drastically in 2014. However, as long as Tom Brady is around, the Patriots are in a similar boat as the Broncos, while the Colts could be ready to make a significant leap if they can put a better supporting cast around Andrew Luck. This could make a repeat appearance in the Super Bowl a little more difficult yet quite feasible for the Broncos, but as they learned this year, there’s a fine line between playing in a Super Bowl and winning one.
All things considered, the relative weakness of the AFC keeps the Super Bowl window open for the Broncos, because with a healthy Manning they could easily be considered the conference favorites heading into 2014. However, with Manning’s age and the uncertainty of the roster around him, they will not be the heavy favorites they were in 2013. On top of that, there are several NFC teams, most notably Seattle, San Francisco, and Carolina, that would tough for the Broncos to beat because of their elite defenses if Denver were to return to the Super Bowl. So while the Super Bowl window remains open for the Broncos, it’s barely more than a crack, and it’s closing fast.