Call this holiday tale "How the Broncos Stole the Super Bowl."
John Elway jettisoned Denver's super-popular pop-icon quarterback Tim Tebow at the end of the 2011 season -- a move that might have backfired had he not gift-wrapped for Broncos fans one Peyton Manning.
Think of Manning as the Red Ryder BB gun of NFL quarterbacks: the coveted sharp-shooter who was at the top of every Little Ralphie's free-agent wish list this season.
Manning might have shot his eye out if he responded with a rusty performance in the wake of the catastrophic neck injury that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season.
Instead, he has rebounded in grand form, looking as good as ever, and putting the Denver Broncos in prime position to accomplish a feat that would distinguish him from all other quarterbacks who came before.
There is a very good chance right now -- even a statistical likelihood -- that Manning will become the first quarterback to lead two different teams to Super Bowl victories. Elway would become the first Super Bowl-champion quarterback to win again as an NFL executive.
Manning helped lift the Colts to a victory six years ago, with his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLI.
Fast forward to today: the Broncos are 11-3, sitting on the precipice of a first-round bye with two weeks to play, and will host at least one playoff game, and maybe two.
Certainly, football fans know that the offense has improved dramatically over the unit that Tebow led last year, when he dragged Denver's Stone Age attack across NFL playing fields like an overwhelmed little pup pulling a sled of stolen Christmas loot uphill.
Somehow, Tebow and the Broncos nearly reached the top. Denver won the AFC West crown and captured a dramatic victory over the Steelers in the wild-card playoffs. But Denver never had the offensive juice to be a true contender.
The Broncos scored just 19.3 PPG In 2011, 25th out of 32 teams. That unit has clearly improved with Manning at quarterback. Scoring is up nearly 10 points per game (29.2) and Denver boasts the No. 2 offense in the NFL, behind only the point-a-minute Patriots. But the reality is that Denver lacked the defensive juice to be a contender last year, too.
Denver's Super Bowl-worth defense
Manning deserves plenty of credit for the instant injection of offense he's brought to Mile High.
But offense alone does not a make a Super Bowl contender.
And Denver's offensive improvements are not even the team's biggest statistical story this year.
The bigger storyline may in fact be Denver's defense, that Elway overhauled with key free agents and brilliant draft picks, most notably Von Miller.
Here's a look at the 2011 Broncos and 2012 Broncos side by side in key measures of defensive success, including our Quality Stats, each of which has a direct correlation to winning football games.
The improvements are pretty startling in the space of a one season. They tell us that the Broncos are more than just Peyton Manning and one of the league's best offenses.
The Broncos are No. 1 in the Quality Stats Power Rankings we use at Cold, Hard Football Facts to size up every team top to bottom. Essentially, our Quality Stats Power Rankings measure the average performance of each team in all our different indicators. In other words, the Broncos are the most balanced team in football top to bottom.
Denver captured the No. 1 spot from Houston after Week 12 and shows no signs of giving it up anytime soon -- not after a dominating 34-17 win over the playoff-bound Ravens and with two patsies remaining on the schedule (Cleveland and Kansas City).
It's great news for the Broncos: teams that top our Quality Stats Power Rankings have a habit of winning Super Bowls.
Denver was No. 28 in that same indicator last year. It was almost literally a statistical miracle that the Broncos made the playoffs last year, and even won a postseason game, when you consider that they paired a struggling offense with one of the worst defenses in football.
That defense today is one of the most dominant forces in football.
The 2012 Broncos boast the best defensive front in football -- No. 1 on the Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index, which we use to size up every defensive front in football.
The Defensive Hog Index, like our Quality Stats Power Rankings, have a curious habit of identifying Super Bowl champions. Teams that rush the passer, and dominate up front defensively, tend to win in the postseason. See: 2007 Giants, 2008 Steelers, 2010 Packers and 2011 Giants.
You can see the defensive improvements in Denver up and down the stat sheet. The Broncos have:
? Already surpassed their 2011 sack total with two games to play
? Nearly doubled their interception total
? Improved 19 spots and 4.8 PPG in scoring defense
? Jumped from No. 28 to No. 9 in Defensive Passer Rating, a key measure of Super Bowl potential
Consider this: the 2011 Broncos surrendered more than 30 points six times in 18 games, and more than 40 points five times -- including 40+ points allowed three times in their final five games.
The 2012 Broncos: only the Texans and Patriots, two of the league's best offenses, have topped 30 against them this year (31 each).
The Team Colts Fans Had Always Hoped For
Putting it another way: the 2012 Broncos are the team that Colts fans also pined for but rarely got a chance to see: a Hall of Fame QB at the top of his game paired with a tough defense that gets after opposing passers as well as any team in football.
It's a deadly combination. And it all but guarantees that Manning will carry the day in any given game.
Manning, of course, is certainly one of the great storylines in football this year and probably your NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and perhaps even its Most Valuable Player.
But the statistical reality is that the Broncos are more than just Manning and one of the league's best offenses.
They are, right now, the most balanced team in football. And history proves that balance in the NFL usually triumphs in the end.
If that Super Bowl victory comes to fruition, they might say in Denver that Elway and Manning's legends grew three sizes this season -- to paraphrase a certain children's story.