by Rich Kurtzman
Denver Broncos fans have been witness to much more positive play than negative in recent years, and 2014 was no different. Facing one of the most difficult schedules in the NFL, the team started strong, with wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs. But, when the much-awaited Super Bowl rematch took place, Denver was again over powered and lost to the Seahawks in Seattle 26-20 in overtime.
Then came the earlier than usual bye week, which was actually beneficial following the beat-down by the Seahawks. The Broncos came out of the bye on fire, running off four straight wins, including a 41-20 blowout of the eventual playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals. Looking back, this was undoubtedly the best stretch of the season for Denver. Their average margin of victory was 18.5 points, the Broncos offense enjoyed their best day yardage-wise versus Arizona, the defense allowed a mere 47.8 yards rushing per game and the turnover differential was a +3.
But a loss to the Patriots in New England was a major set-back as the home team put up 24 straight points in the second quarter alone to dominate Denver and win 43-21. The Broncos beat the Oakland Raiders the next week, but a second loss in three games, this one to the St. Louis Rams, completely changed the team's offensive philosophy. During that defeat to the Rams, Denver's play-calling was questioned, with 66 passes compared to a minuscule 10 rushes, making Peyton Manning's job more difficult. A hurting offensive line, which had to be shuffled due to injuries, wasn't able to protect the quarterback from one of the better pass-rushes in the league as the team scored a lone touchdown and lost 22-7.
That's when, for better or worse, the Broncos' offense took a major change of direction. Denver focused on being much more balanced, running as much as they pass, even though both starting running back Montee Ball and his backup Ronnie Hillman were injured. C.J. Anderson, a third-year back who had seen little gameplay to this point, was now the starter, and he carried the load well. In fact, from weeks 12-17, Anderson's 648 yards were the most in the NFL, and his nine touchdowns were tied for most as he became a vital piece to the Broncos' offensive puzzle.
Defensively, the additions of DeMarcus Ware (10 sacks), Aqib Talib (4 INTs) and T.J. Ward (2nd most 62 tackles) all paid off quickly. Ware's teaming up with Von Miller gave the Broncos one of the most-feared pass-rushing duos in the NFL. Talib was consistently great against the opponent's top receiver and Ward was an ever-present missile who loved to light-up ball-carriers. Their 79.8 rushing yards allowed per game were third-best in the league and a franchise-low for a season.
Following their loss to St. Louis, the Broncos went on another four-game winning streak, including crucial victories over the Chiefs in Kansas City and Chargers in San Diego to lock up a fourth straight AFC West crown. What can't be missed in the Chargers win, though, was the flu Manning played through, as well as injuring a thigh which lingered through the end of the year.
Before the regular season was done, Denver lost again, to the Bengals in Cincinnati as Jeremy Hill ran all over a defense which was missing not only starting linebacker Danny Trevathan (IR) but also his backup Brandon Marshall (foot injury). The Broncos blew out the Raiders to finish the season at 12-4, the second-best AFC team. That bye week was much-needed, allowing Marshall, Manning, Julius Thomas and many more banged-up Broncos to get healthier, but it didn't matter.
Denver was beaten by the Colts 24-13 in the playoffs' Divisional Round, in the Mile High City, nonetheless. Manning struggled through his worst postseason passing performance ever, Demaryius Thomas dropped multiple passes and the only one really giving the offense life was Anderson, the explosive wonder who helped save the season multiple times in 2014. His spectacular fourth-and-one run, in which he had to make three defenders miss, was awe-inspiring, but still not enough. On defense, Talib was called for multiple holding penalties, which helped push the Colts down the field and into scoring range, while the pass-rush was nonexistent Sunday night. The unit stepped up when they needed to, forcing a fourth quarter punt, but the offense couldn't capitalize and had to punt it back, down eight points.
Following the season-ending loss, it was revealed through sources that Manning played the last month of the season on a torn/strained quad, which could have hindered his throwing. Especially when one considers his need to use his legs to generate power following the four neck fusion surgeries.
In the end, though, there are no excuses. These Broncos were built to win and win now. They failed. The defense was much better than in 2013, and though the offense fell off its unsustainable NFL-record pace of last season, the 2014 offense was still top-notch. Now, tons of questions remain unanswered. Will offensive and defensive coordinators Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio move onto head coach other teams? John Fox and the Broncos split ways on Monday, who will be the next head coach? Will Manning retire? And if not, will the Broncos move on without him, anyway? What of the important free agents like Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas?
Even with the end of the season coming Sunday – and possibly the end of the John Elway - Peyton Manning Era – the next few weeks and months should be an exciting time for Broncos fans as everything comes together for another Super Bowl or Bust season in 2015.
Elway the executive has always kept it interesting in the offseason, and there's good reason to believe 2015 will be much of the same.
For more Broncos news and updates, visit Broncos Central.
Rich Kurtzman is the author of "Chasing Lombardi: The Elway - Manning Era" as well as a credentialed member of the media for Colorado State Football and Men's Basketball.
Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Rich is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.
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