The Denver Broncos are winning the old-fashioned way and it may pave the way for the future

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It doesn’t seem to matter who the Broncos put in at QB, they keep winning games.

For some reason, I can’t seem to learn. The Denver Broncos have been good, no, great, for over a year now and I continue to deny them the credit they deserve. I picked against them a lot in big games last year, throughout the playoffs, and in the Super Bowl. My most egregious error, however, was previewing the AFC this offseason without even mentioning them.

Why? Why do I keep making this mistake? It’s because they haven’t had a QB I can trust. I’ve strongly believed (and still do, to a lesser extent) that the QB position is by far the most important position in today’s NFL and if you don’t have a great QB, you won’t win a Super Bowl. The Broncos proved me wrong last year and have carried their winning streak into 2016 with two rookie QBs, neither of which we have reason to believe are spectacular talents (yet). At 4-0, the Broncos are proving they can do it again without a great QB. They could very well not win the Super Bowl this year, but their sustained dominance gives us a look into something much more profound: with all the other pieces in place, teams don’t have to “get lucky” with the QB position.

That may sound really obvious, but it should be a comfort to many teams like Cleveland or Los Angeles. The Browns in particular have been searching for “that guy” for two decades now, using top pick after top pick on draft busts. They watch as teams like the Patriots and Steelers have struck gold with franchise QBs, allowing them to build a great cast around them on the way to multiple Super Bowls. They’ve also watched the Seahawks and Ravens find amazing QBs late in the draft, when they weren’t even looking for a franchise guy. Maybe one of these years the Browns will get lucky and find their Russel Wilson. Or maybe they can do it like Denver and pad their defense and offensive cast using the deep pool of talent from college.

This obviously isn’t as easy as it sounds. Realistically, teams like the Browns and Rams are already trying this and have to suffer through 6-win seasons and high coach turnover. It’ll be tough for a lot of teams to get it right, but we’re already seeing signs that a few are on the cusp. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Vikings (combined 8-1) have had amazing success out of the gate without elite QB play. Yes, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz look very good so far, but do they look like instant franchise guys? They could turn out to be, but the point is they don’t have to be. Prescott and Wentz are helping their teams win games through ball protection and sustained drives. Neither rookie has cracked the top 15 in passing yards or TDs, but both lead the league in fewest interceptions thrown (none). More to the point, the Minnesota Vikings look like a top 5 team with Sam Bradford at the helm. We know Bradford. He hasn’t changed, but his team has. He now has an unbelievable defense behind him and a great coach to give him the plays necessary to succeed. Instead of the Rams looking for Bradford to guide them, it’s now the Vikings looking to guide Bradford. In the past, it didn’t appear this has been the “way” to win the Super Bowl. Now the Broncos have done it this way and so far it doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

It’d be great to see a league emerge where QBs can be relied upon less than they are now. It’s not particularly fun to see the Browns search for a QB year after year. With the college system producing so few NFL-ready QBs these days, it’s almost necessary to see teams win a different way. The Broncos may not have a Tom Brady or Big Ben, but they’ve been the best team in the NFL for a while now. It’s up to the rest of the league to catch up.

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The dream! Denver flips the script on Carolina, the entire league

The formula was simple: go 1 for 14 on 3rd down.
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The 50th edition of a legendary game goes to a legendary player, and that’s pretty cool. (Photo credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Before the game, I felt that no matter who the confetti fell on, it would be a fitting end. It could’ve been Carolina sticking the landing to a near-perfect season, with Cam smiling next to the trophy while the talking heads praise his improved maturity and leadership. Instead, it’s what we saw last night. A game that, through both its quality of play and eventual winner, epitomized an NFL season that should be remembered for its surplus of flawed teams. Even with a record number of undefeated teams through six-plus weeks, we were somehow still left wondering, “Is anyone great?” And of the undefeated teams, “Who have they beaten?” And now, after watching Denver go 1 for 14 on 3rd down while Peyton threw for under 150 yards and no touchdowns, we’re asking similar questions. “Is anyone really great?”

Yes, one is. That Denver defense.

With doubts of Denver’s ability to win this game, I asked how they could possibly pull this off. I settled on the obvious: Denver’s defense must be great. Carolina launched into huge leads in their first two playoff games and it was too much for even the most spirited of comebacks. If the same happened here, it was over. Denver’s offense simply did not possess the firepower. And so, the defense had to be great. And holy crap, were they ever.

If you watched the game, you saw. Denver abused a great offensive line and harassed Cam Newton all night. Carolina faced 15 third downs and converted just three of them. They may have gained 315 yards and 21 first downs, but they lost the ball four times. Defensive games are almost always within reach, but Denver’s defense was suffocating. The frustration boiled over in the 4th quarter as Cam writhed on the ground in pain. The Denver defense didn’t just beat Cam, they broke him.

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Even during his sullen and reserved press conference, Cam Newton offered three words of hope: “We’ll be back.” (Photo credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Denver’s dominance is the fact that we’ve gone this far without mentioning Peyton Manning’s legacy or retirement. If this is indeed the end for Peyton, it’s a strange one. He’s a legend, one of the best ever, and he went out in the way every player dreams of: walking into the sunset with a Super Bowl win as their last game. Yet, this “walk” into the sunset was more of a ride on the backs of his defense. He didn’t play particularly well this game or all season. There was even a time midway through the season where we wondered if he had played his last game. How will history remember him for this? It’s impossible to say less than 24 hours later, but history does have a knack for leaving out the details. The hard numbers are this: four Super Bowl appearances under four different coaches and two different teams. Two rings with two different teams. That’s something no other QB can say and that’s pretty memorable.

As for Carolina? Pain, for now. Plenty of blame will go around as it always does with losing teams. In this case, I don’t think that’s warranted. Cam didn’t choke. Rivera didn’t gameplan poorly. Denver simply played better, but it still hurts. The future, however, is extremely bright for Carolina. Cam is just now entering his prime and the defense will retain its young, growing stars. As much disbelief as I had throughout this whole run, this was no fluke season for the Panthers. Yesterday’s loss was just their second since November 30, 2014. This is a winning team and I don’t expect that to change.

Overlooked in this game: Denver up 16-7; with 5:44 left in the 3rd quarter, Cam Newton throws an interception to TJ Ward. Ward fumbled the ball at the Denver 14-yard line, which was somehow recovered by Denver’s Danny Trevathan at the 7. If Carolina recovers that fumble and scores, the game is 16-14 with an entire quarter left to play. Instead, Carolina never sees the inside of Denver’s 20-yard line again.

These are the type of plays that define a season. And with it, the Denver Broncos are Super Bowl 50 Champions.

The 2015-16 NFL season is over, but that doesn’t mean we have to be. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look back on some preseason posts and see what we learned from another yet another weird year.

Super Bowl XLVIII: Unprecedented Dominance

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Seattle was ruthless in their 43-8 Super Bowl beatdown.

Everything pointed to a close game. Everybody expected a close game. The top offense against the top defense. This had the potential to be one of the best Super Bowls ever. Spectators of what would become the highest-viewed US event in history got their drinks ready, placed down the chips and dip, found their seat in the room, settled in and……..Seattle was up 2-0. From literally the first play of the game from scrimmage to the last, Super Bowl XLVIII was all about one team: Seattle. Seattle. Seattle. As the clock ticked down to 0:00, viewers everywhere–assuming they watched the second half–all wondered the same thing.

What the heck just happened?

A choke job by Peyton? Eh, I wouldn’t go that far. He wasn’t the same locked-in Manning we saw against San Diego, New England, or the entire season. He seemed rattled and made some ill-advised throws. However, he still put up some impressive numbers (34/49, 280 yards, TD, 2 INTs) and even set a Super Bowl completion record. One of those picks was one of those ill-advised throws I mentioned, but the other was a result of immense pressure on Manning’s arm, causing the ball the pop up in the air. So a choke job? That seems a little extreme for a guy who was hitting his receivers most of the game.

Malcolm Smith's interception return was the epitome of Seattle's dominance.

Malcolm Smith’s interception return was the epitome of Seattle’s dominance.

From what I saw, Denver actually played their familiar game: mixing runs and short passes in space to wear down the defense. This worked great just a couple weeks before against New England, specifically on a 15-play, 94 yard drive that ate up seven minutes of play. Moreno for 11 yards, again for one yard, Welker for 14, Green for six, Ball for 12, etc. Denver looked to be implementing this plan again early and as hard as it is to believe in hindsight, it was working for a couple drives. Down 15 and needing to score, the Broncos gained 0-7 yards on eight straight plays and started to gain their first momentum of the one-sided first half. A couple more throws, one for nine yards and then another for 16, put the Broncos in Seattle territory. The Broncos top ranked offense was finding small holes in Seattle’s stingy D. What makes Seattle so good, however, is their ability to feed off of positive momentum as was evident at all their home games this season and as the game went on. A penalty set Denver back 10 yards, Seattle made a couple of stops, and all of a sudden Denver was facing a 3rd and 13. Seattle was hungry and they were ready. They knew Peyton needed to be stopped now more than ever and here was their chance. Four guys were enough to pressure Manning, hit his arm on the throw, and allow Malcolm Smith the run back the easiest interception of his life. At that moment the game turned around for good. Instead of 15-7 it was 22-0 and Seattle had every last drop of momentum on their side.

While that was a defining play of the big game, it was all too clear that the Seahawks were zeroed in from the very start. They swarmed to the ball at every opportunity and made brutal, effective tackles. I can’t count how many times I winced at Seattle defenders punishing countless Denver ballcarriers. Out of the four giveaways that Denver had, the Seahawks were primarily responsible for three of them. Even with less than five minutes left, Seattle was attacking the ball and caused the fourth turnover of the night.

Percy Harvin returned from injury just in time, putting on a show in New Jersey.

Percy Harvin returned from injury just in time, putting on a show in New Jersey.

Seattle’s offense was the same way. They were playing fast, fun, and loose. Percy Harvin ran like he hadn’t had a chance to run the entire season, which he hadn’t! The speedster you saw in the #11 jersey was out for nearly every play of the season and reminded everyone that he is a lethal part of Seattle’s offensive arsenal, in case you forgot. He ended up leading both teams in rushing yards on just two runs! Russell Wilson was just being Russell Wilson, distributing the ball to Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin (each for 60+ yards) and protecting the ball like he had all season (nine INTs all season). Even Marshawn Lynch, with just 39 yards, pounded the ball in the end zone when they needed him to.

In a rematch, would we see such dominance again? My gut says no, though I was dead wrong on that part just a couple of days ago. The point is, on the night of February 2nd, at MetLife Stadium, when the lights went on, it was all Seattle start to finish. Some will point to Denver shrinking under the pressure but I simply don’t see it that way. I saw Seattle get bigger. They owned the moment and outplayed their opponent in every phase of the game.

As a football fan, I hated to see it go down this way. Like everyone else, I was pumped up for a show and was let down. Nobody said the unpredictability of the NFL is always a good thing. Nevertheless, it was a great season full of excitement from the very beginning. I’ll try to cover that excitement in some future posts where I review the 2013-14 NFL season. For now, congratulations to Seattle on a fantastic season and dominant Super Bowl win that nobody saw coming.

Denver's hopes of capping off an incredible season were crushed by a better team.

Denver’s hopes of capping off an incredible season were crushed by a better team.

TD Awards: 2013

These are the third annual TD Awards! If you’re not familiar, the TD Awards (TD being my initials) are awards I give out to teams in the NFL for various categories. However, unlike most award ceremonies, not all of these awards are positive. While I love to look at the best of the best in the NFL, I cannot ignore teams and players that fail to perform. One important note to point out is that these awards only take the regular season into account. I know some playoff games have already been played, but those results will not factor in the decision-making at all. Awards will go out to eight teams, two divisions, one conference, and one player in categories such as “Best Team,” “Worst Defense,” and “Best Division.” To see previous years’ winners, you can go to the TD Awards tab on the left or just click here.

Best Team of 2013

The first award for the 2013 regular season also happens to be the most prestigious. It goes to the overall best team in the NFL after 17 weeks. In the playoffs, who knows? The past two winners for Best Team (2011: Packers, 2012: Broncos) did not make it to their respective conference championships, nevermind the Super Bowl. This year there were two teams that stood out and arguments could be made for either team, but one key stat gave the winning team the edge.

pfiobtreaq7j0pzvadktsc6jvWinner: Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks edged out the Denver Broncos for the NFL’s best team. Both teams went 13-3 (7-1 home, 6-2 road), won their conferences, and now hold the 1-seeds in the playoffs. However, each team is pretty different from the other. Seattle boasts an incredible defense, holding opposing QBs to just 172 yards a game (best in NFL) and running backs to just over 100 yards (7th in NFL). With a fantastic mobile QB in Russell Wilson and a physical running back in Marshawn Lynch, they own one of the best rushing attacks and will pound it down other teams’ throats to win. Russell Wilson may not throw for a ton of yards (29th in NFL), but he knows how to make smart plays with the ball, moving around in the pocket and throwing few interceptions. Wilson has a great cast around him, but he is a vital part of Seattle’s success. In contrast, Peyton Manning is the heart and soul of the Denver Broncos. He led the NFL in nearly every major QB category and I don’t mean just this season. He broke the NFL records for most TD passes and passing yards in a single season. He has a good defense to back him up, but not nearly the caliber that Seattle puts on the field. While Seattle is stingy and wins by allowing few points, Denver does the opposite and will put as many on the board as it takes to win (e.g. Denver beat Dallas 51-48). So with strengths in different places, how can I tell who’s better? It sure is close, but Seattle holds a major edge in turnover differential. Not only does Seattle have the most takeaways in the NFL (39) but they have the 4th-fewest giveaways (19), giving them a +20 differential. Denver gives and takes the exact same amount (26), balancing their differential at 0. Creating and capitalizing off turnovers can be the difference in close playoff games and Seattle is the best in the NFL in that department. With this edge, Seattle rightfully deserves the TD Award for Best Team.

Runner-Up: Denver Broncos

Honorable Mentions: Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots

Worst Team

For every great team in the NFL, there’s a bad one. And in some cases, just plain terrible. A lot of teams did their best to win this award by getting crushed week after week, throwing interceptions, blowing late leads, etc. but one team outdid (or outdidn’t) them all.

HoustonTexansLogoWinner: Houston Texans

The Houston Texans started off the season 2-0, about as well as anyone expected. They then dropped their next 14. Two sentences don’t do justice to how bad Houston looked at times, but their 2-14 record is what they deserve. Some may say, “Hey cut them some slack, they lost in a lot of close games.” This is true, many of their games were decided by a touchdown or less. After 14 losses, however, I’ve run out of slack. Their two wins were also decided by a touchdown or less, so what am I supposed to do? Houston did not know how to win games this season, plain and simple. Even against the lowly Jaguars, who many expected to own the top pick in the 2014 draft, the Texans failed to win (twice). On the bright side, Houston will have that top pick and hopefully can find their way out of embarrassment.

Runner-Up: Washington Redskins

Honorable Mentions: Jacksonville Jaguars

Biggest Surprise Team

This award is my personal favorite because it epitomizes what the NFL is all about; you never really know what will happen year to year. Teams with under four wins making the playoffs the following year is becoming more and more common. Just last year, for example, the Minnesota Vikings made it to the playoffs after winning just three games the year before. Two teams in particular had major rebounds in 2013.

KC%20ChiefsWinner: Kansas City Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs, winners of just two games in 2012, did more than just make it to the playoffs in 2013. KC won their first nine games of the season, led the AFC in takeaways, held opponents to less than 20 points a game, and owned one of the NFL’s best running backs. With new coach Andy Reid and new QB Alex Smith, improvements were expected, but an 11-win season was optimistic by anybody’s estimation. Kansas City shocked the NFL with their success and showed us first-hand that any team has a chance in any given year. Carolina followed closely behind in second, winning their division–when only Atlanta and New Orleans were expected to contend–and representing the 2nd-seed in the NFC.

Runner-Up: Carolina Panthers

Honorable Mention: Philadelphia Eagles

Biggest Disappointment 

While some teams will shatter expectations, others will crack under the pressure. This award is obviously the opposite of Biggest Surprise and goes to the team that did the least with the most. They show us that all the projections for division winners, playoff clinchers, and Super Bowl contenders mean nothing until games are actually won. Underachievers, flops, duds, etc. However you want to put it, this is not an award you want your team to win.

HoustonTexansLogoWinner: Houston Texans

Houston already won our award for worst team and deserve this one just as much. At best, the Texans were expected to contend for the Super Bowl. Coming off a 12-win, division-winning season, with a solid QB, star RB, and top-10 defense, Houston looked ready to make a serious run. At the very least, they were expected to clinch a playoff spot. In a weak AFC, where nine wins was enough to make it, many (including myself) didn’t even entertain the thought that Houston could miss out. Well, if only it turned out that bad and nothing worse. Houston not only missed the playoffs, but lost every single game after September 15. No fall was farther than the Texans’ this season.

Runner-Up: Atlanta Falcons

Honorable Mention: Washington Redskins

Best Offense

These next few awards are pretty simple; we take a look at the best and worst offenses and defenses of the NFL. While having the best offense isn’t everything, it sure helped the team that won become one of the best teams in the NFL. The race for Best Offense was no contest this year.

Denver-Broncos-LogoWinner: Denver Broncos

This should be a no-brainer to everyone. With playmakers all over the field, Denver scorched defenses with their passing attack and kept the opposition honest with a solid run game. Denver picked up 7317 offensive yards this season, 641 more than the next team. Their passing game collected 5444 yards (best in NFL), backed up by their running game with 1873 yards (8th in AFC). My favorite stat out of everything, however, is their staggering 37.9 points per game. That’s an average. When Denver is scoring 40+ points on most days, it’s no wonder why they are Super Bowl favorites.

Runner-Up: Philadelphia Eagles

Honorable Mentions: New England Patriots

Worst Offense

Nothing is worse than watching a slow offense. You’ve seen them. I’m talking about the ones that go three-and-out drive after drive, turn the ball over constantly, settle for field goals, etc. It gets really hard to watch and one team in particular was unbearable.

jacksonville_jaguars_logo_detailWinner: Jacksonville Jaguars

While some aspects of Jacksonville’s offense weren’t the worst in the NFL, they were still collectively the worst of the worst. Even with a new logo and new uniforms, the Jags couldn’t find a solution to their offensive woes. They picked up 4701 yards (31st in NFL) and rushed for 1260 (31st). To their credit, their passing offense was better than 11 other teams’ and didn’t giveaway the ball that much (27 turnovers, one more than Denver). However, like with Denver, the most telling stat is the ability to put points on the board. In that department, Jacksonville ranked dead last with just 15.4 points a game.

Runner-Up: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Honorable Mentions: New York Giants

Best Defense

A good defense can take major pressure off the offense. Knowing that the other team will have trouble scoring, an offensive coordinator doesn’t have to take as many risks and can spend his time wearing down the other team. Just like in Best Offense, this award was an easy pick.

pfiobtreaq7j0pzvadktsc6jvWinner: Seattle Seahawks

Seattle’s physical defense made it easy on me this year. The Seahawks allowed the least total yards in the NFL (4378), the least passing yards (2752), and least points per game (14.4). To top that all off, they forced the most turnovers in the NFL (39). They’ve held powerful offenses like Carolina, San Francisco, and New Orleans to seven points or less. I can’t wait to see how this defense performs in the playoffs.

Runner-Up: Carolina Panthers

Honorable Mentions: San Francisco 49ers

Worst Defense

Handing out the award for Worst Defense was a little tougher than the rest. I found that a lot of defenses suffered in different ways. Some couldn’t force a turnover to save their lives, some allowed touchdown after touchdown, and others simply allowed large chunks of yardage.

New_Minnesota_Vikings_LogoWinner: Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota was the only team in the NFL to allow 30 points per game and that was ultimately the deciding factor when picking the league’s worst defense. They also ranked 31st in passing yards allowed, an aspect of defense that is becoming more and more important as QBs throw for more yards year after year. Lastly, they only managed to force 20 turnovers, which ranks 15th in the NFC. They may not have a terrible running D, but the other stats are enough to convince me that Minnesota was the worst at getting offenses off the field.

Runner-Up: Jacksonville Jaguars

Honorable Mention: Atlanta Falcons

Best Division

There was only one division that sent three teams to the playoffs, but there was another that yielded three 10+ win teams. These two divisions stood out in 2013, but for me there was a clear winner.

nfc-west-300x300 Winner: NFC West

The NFC West won Best Division last year and followed it up with an even better showing in 2013. Seattle won the division at 13-3 and already holds the award for Best Team. The second place finisher, San Francisco, was not far behind at 12-4. The Arizona Cardinals, 10-6, were as good a third team as we’ve seen. And in last place, St. Louis finished at 7-9, better than any other last place team and earning quality wins over Indy and New Orleans. This was an all-around fantastic division and each of the four teams proved to be difficult opponents throughout the season. The runner-up was the AFC West, who sent three teams to the postseason. While that’s impressive, the overall strength of the NFC West cannot be matched.

Runner-Up: AFC West

Honorable Mention: AFC East

Worst Division

Determining the NFL’s worst division was actually more challenging than determining the best. Is a division as bad as its worst team? Or does its winner show us a better representation? I tried to weigh all the teams somewhat equally and picked a winner, though an argument could be made for the runner-up.

afc-south Winner: AFC South

In the division where four-win Jacksonville finished third, the AFC South isn’t doing itself any favors. The worst team in the NFL, Houston, owned the bottom and seven-win Tennessee managed to hold second after an up-and-down season. The winner was Indianapolis, who won 11-games but dropped games to Arizona, Miami, and St. Louis by a total of 63 points. While Indy is still a strong playoff team, the rest of the division suffered and gave opponents something to look forward to when facing the AFC South.

Runner-Up: NFC North

Honorable Mention: NFC East

Best Conference

In this brand new category, I crown a definitive winner for the NFL’s best conference. Of course, there are only two eligible nominees but the conference clash has always interested me nonetheless. Which conference is king?

NFC_PRM_20101Winner: NFC

The NFC won the head-to-head this year 34-30, though it was the strength of the conference’s playoff field that stood out to me. The NFC boasts three teams with 12 wins or more–compared to two from the AFC–and the first team to miss out on the postseason was 10-win Arizona, compared to 8-8 Pittsburgh. Green Bay sticks out like a sore thumb at 8-7-1 among the better NFC records but with Aaron Rodgers back, Green Bay is better than their record indicates. Overall, the NFC proved to be the superior conference with multiple Super Bowl contenders in Seattle, Carolina, San Francisco, and New Orleans.

MVP

The only player award I give out is for league MVP. There are tons of stars in the NFL today, but who’s the best of the best? Some years it’s a tough choice. Not this time.

Peyton's 2013 regular season showed us why he's one of the best QBs in history.

Peyton’s 2013 regular season showed us why he’s one of the best QBs in history.

Winner: Peyton Manning

If you don’t know why Peyton Manning should win MVP, you haven’t been watching him enough. He’s the leader of the best offense in football, earning the most passing yards and passing TDs in 2013. He’s been deadly accurate and has only thrown 10 interceptions out of 659 throws. Need more evidence? Well, all that is nothing compared to how some of his numbers rank in the NFL record books. With his 5,477 passing yards and 55 TDs in a single season, he is now the top QB of both categories. At 37, he gave Denver one of his best seasons of his long career and coming off four surgeries just a couple of years ago, it is truly unbelievable what he has been able to do. Peyton Manning is your NFL MVP by far.

2013-14 NFL Week 4: Elite teams emerge

New Orleans joined the big boys with their convincing win over Miami.

New Orleans joined the big boys with their convincing win over Miami.

With Week 4 in the books and Week 5 almost upon us, the NFL has reached the quarter mark of the season. Plenty of performances warrant my attention this week. Tennessee and Detroit grabbed their impressive third win when supposedly “better” teams struggled, or are still struggling, to get their first. Philip Rivers and Reggie Bush, assumed to have already reached the peak of their ability, rolled out huge performances in their teams’ wins. I could talk all day about these surprise teams and players, but I want to use this post to talk about the teams that are really taking care of business. The big boys, the undefeateds, the elites, however you want to put it. There are five teams–Denver, Seattle, New Orleans, New England, and Kansas City–remaining without a loss and while they are all playing at a high level, they are doing so in different ways.

First, let’s take a look back in time. One year ago, only three 4-0 teams remained: Atlanta, Houston, and Arizona. The Falcons nearly went all the way, falling to the Niners in the NFC Championship. Houston made it into the playoffs as the AFC South champ, but once again exited early as they had in 2012. And Arizona……..well, their 5-11 record should speak for itself. So which one of the elite teams this year are destined for an extended season like Atlanta’s and which will crumble under the pressure like Arizona?

Who can stop Peyton Manning?

Who can stop Peyton Manning?

The Denver Broncos are the team topping most people’s lists and Power Rankings, including mine. Can you really blame them? The Broncos lead the league with 179 points scored–that’s nearly 45 a game–and Peyton Manning is playing at an unprecedented level. You can marvel at his 138.8 passer rating or 75% completion, but what stands out to me is his 16:0 TD-INT ratio. Peyton is healthy both physically and mentally and it shows when he can avoid throwing any picks while putting the ball in the endzone 16 times. He’s utilizing his weapons so well, finding his new target Wes Welker for six touchdowns. The truly staggering aspect of the receiving corp is the fact that Welker doesn’t even lead the team in yards. He’s third behind Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. When defenses have to think about a playmaker like Welker as the third biggest threat, the offense is scary good. This doesn’t mean Denver doesn’t have weaknesses. The secondary has been exposed by skilled QBs like Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Michael Vick for chunks of yards. They’ll be facing even better QBs in the future that could get on a roll and put up a lot of points. A defense that can contain Peyton’s offense to under 25 points could have a shot at upending the Denver Broncos. After all, Denver hasn’t been facing the stiffest competition. Their opponents’ combined record is an abysmal 3-12. But even having said that, I don’t see a team that can stop Denver in the near future. A Week 7 challenge in Indy will likely be their toughest upcoming game.

Seattle is considered by many to be the powerhouse of the NFC. Their 74-20 point differential at home is staggering, especially when you consider the fact that San Francisco was one of those two teams. Russell Wilson has picked up where he left off in 2012-13, making plays with his arm as well as his legs. What really makes Seattle strong is their ability to fluster QBs. They’re holding opposing QBs to just 56% completion and 3 TDs (only three teams have held QBs to less). Colin Kaepernick was lost in his game in Seattle, turning the ball over four times while throwing zero TDs. There is no denying that Seattle can play good D and dominate at home, but what happens when they’re forced out of their comfort zone? In their debut in Carolina, Seattle was held to just 12 points. The same struggles showed up in Houston when the Texans jumped out to a 20-3 lead. Seattle managed to escape with wins in both games but they may not get so lucky against better teams. Their next road test? Try next week in Indianapolis–who went 7-1 at home last year–led by a smart, mobile Andrew Luck.

If you ever doubt the influence of a good coach, take a look at the New Orleans Saints. With Sean Payton suspended for the year, New Orleans went 0-4 to kick off the 2012-13 season. With Sean Payton back, New Orleans is 4-0 and looking at a huge year. Among the five undefeateds, the Saints have faced the stiffest competition. Their opponents’ combined record is only 6-10, but big wins over Atlanta and Miami stand out. The Drew Brees-Jimmy Graham tandem is one of the best in the league, if not the best. The defense is consistently good, allowing just over 300 total yards per game (6th best) and 55 total points (5th best). Unlike Seattle, the Saints’ run game is slow and the offense relies on Drew Brees to generate points. So far, this hasn’t been a problem. But similar to Seattle, a tough road game might give New Orleans their first loss. They’ve only played one game on the road and it was a last second win over the 0-4 Bucs. I wouldn’t be surprised if New Orleans have one in the loss column by the time they get out of Chicago and New England. If they do happen to get through these two road tests, watch out.

New England is finding ways to win with the pieces they have.

New England is finding ways to win with the pieces they have.

New England is the team that interests me most out of these five. They escaped with ugly wins against Buffalo and New York and followed them up with a blowout over Tampa and a dominating road performance in Atlanta. Tom Brady isn’t putting up the kinds of numbers he usually does but the fact that he’s winning with a huge lack of weapons, notably Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, speaks volumes. Peyton Manning is torching secondaries with all kinds of offensive help but Brady is having to be resourceful, finding unproven rookies like Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson in the open. Brady has done a fantastic job so far but the road is already getting tougher. The loss of DE Vince Wilfork for the year is a significant one and Cincy and New Orleans sit on the horizon. The mark of a truly great team is their ability to win in adverse situations. New England has been placed in an adverse position. Now can they win?

Last but certainly not least is Kansas City. The Chiefs are the feel good story of the year. Having won just two games in 2012-13, KC has turned it around with new personnel and are on the early road to a playoff berth. New QB Alex Smith has been playing smart, using his running ability to pick up crucial first downs. Jamaal Charles is a strong asset in the backfield as always. What is leading the charge, however, is the KC defense. The D is tearing up offenses, notably those from the NFC East, with 12 takeaways (leads AFC) and 41 total points allowed (second only to Seattle). In case you didn’t forget, this is the same Kansas City that fielded one of the worst defenses in 2012-13. Andy Reid has done a fantastic job so far in turning this team around. They’ve been winning comfortably and have put Alex Smith at ease. But when the time comes where Alex Smith has to make plays late in games, will he be that QB? These are the games that will determine if KC is ready for the playoffs.