With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
Were it not for Joe Flacco's timely deep ball to Jacoby Jones in last season's divisional round, would the Broncos have been the ones raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February? That question probably haunted Peyton Manning and his teammates all offseason, following a crushing 38-35 postseason setback against the Ravens.
The Broncos were the AFC's top playoff seed, having finished the year with 11 consecutive victories. They have to be considered one of the favorites in this conference again, if for no other reason than that the Broncos still appear to be leaps and bounds ahead of their AFC West rivals.
A few key additions, both from the draft and free agency, may put Denver over the top in 2013. That is, if the Broncos can get that loss to the Ravens out of their minds.
• Biggest storyline: The arrivals of Wes Welker and Montee Ball.
In Peyton Manning's first season in orange and blue, the Broncos piled up nearly 6,400 yards of offense, good enough to finish fourth in the NFL in that category. They were second in points scored at just a touch over 30 per game. Is it feasible that this offense could be even better in 2013?
The Broncos certainly believe so after signing Welker away from New England and using a second-round pick on Ball.
Welker could make an already lethal passing attack impossible to defend. Manning's top three receivers from a year ago -- Demaryius Thomas (94 catches), Eric Decker (85 and a team-high 13 touchdowns) and Jacob Tamme (52) all return, so Manning's biggest challenge may be keeping everyone happy.
Ball brings a different dimension to the offense, certainly one the Broncos missed as they played musical chairs at running back after Willis McGahee suffered a season-ending injury a year ago. The record-setting Wisconsin back still has to win the starting job, with Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno also in the mix. Expect Ball to do that ... and to elevate the Broncos' average ground game.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Safety.
Get to know the name Duke Ihenacho. The second-year, undrafted player out of San Jose State began pushing Mike Adams for the Broncos' starting strong safety job earlier this offseason, and now he's threatening to run away with the competition. Ihenacho was extremely impressive, arguably the Broncos' best defensive player in a preseason-opening win over the 49ers.
Adams has the experience edge. Now in his 10th NFL season, Adams started all of the Broncos' games last season, including their playoff loss to Baltimore. But it was that game that may have convinced Denver it needs more playmakers in the secondary. Adams was steady in 2012, providing a reliable complement to Rahim Moore. He had very few game-changing moments, though, and failed to pick off a pass the entire season.
Ihenacho brings more of that risk-taker element to the secondary. He forced a fumble in that preseason game with San Francisco and forced 14 turnovers during his time at San Jose State.
• New face, new place: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB.
The Broncos swung for the fences in free agency, signing Rodgers-Cromartie after two disappointing years in Philadelphia. Does the former star in Arizona have what it takes to revive his career? We may not know the answer until the regular season, because Rodgers-Cromartie continues to deal with a high-ankle sprain, which is threatening to keep him out for the entire preseason.
Should Rodgers-Cromartie bounce back to pre-Philadelphia form, the Broncos could have one of the AFC's best cornerback duos in DRC and veteran Champ Bailey. Add in nickel CB Chris Harris, a very pleasant surprise in 2012, and Denver would be able to answer the tests presented to it by some of the league's top passing offenses.
• Impact rookie: Sylvester Williams, DT.
That we're focusing so heavily on the defense in this preview is a hint that the offense, no matter who starts at running back or how many centers fall to injury, will be explosive.
The Broncos used their first-round pick in this year's draft on Williams, a beefy, 310-pound defensive tackle from North Carolina. The Broncos entered the draft hoping to find some help for their thin defensive line, and Williams more than fit the bill. He's expected to form a rotation at defensive tackle with Kevin Vickerson and free-agent signing Terrance Knighton, giving the Broncos some options along their front line.
Williams may wind up starting in the not-too-distant future, too. He's a hard-worker with the ability to get off the line and into the backfield quickly, to which his 13.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks at North Carolina last season attest.
• Looking at the schedule: The Broncos open with three of their first four games at home -- good news, considering they may be without standout linebacker Von Miller, who has an upcoming appeal on a pending four-game suspension. Weeks 1 and 2 will be tricky, with or without Miller. Denver kicks off the NFL's regular-season with a Thursday night rematch against Baltimore, then heads to New York to take on the Giants a week later.
The home schedule is extremely friendly after the Ravens visit. Denver also hosts Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Washington, Kansas City, Tennessee and San Diego in 2013, the Redskins being the only 2012 playoff team in the group. Denver's road slate should provide more of a test. Games at Houston, New England and Indianapolis dot the landscape on top of that visit to the Big Apple. Can the Broncos keep their intensity up all season if the rest of the AFC West struggles again? That and the quest for home-field advantage may be the only elements up in the air as Denver heads down the stretch.