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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2013-14 NFL Week 6: Pretenders everywhere

Tough competition is on the horizon for the 3-2 Cardinals.

Tough competition is on the horizon for the 3-2 Cardinals.

I don’t like discussing who is and isn’t “for real” too early in the season but I feel that five weeks is finally enough to make some judgment calls. We have a bunch–10 to be exact–of teams sitting at 3-2. This is the area where we find a lot of “pretenders,” teams who have started off well but aren’t really a threat down the stretch. Last year, only three of the seven 3-2 teams made it into the postseason and only one (New England) won their division. So which of these 10 teams will falter and which are built to fight for a playoff spot?

Arizona Cardinals: Give the Cardinals credit for holding running backs under 80 yards a game. Only two other teams have done the same up to this point. Other than that, it’s curious to see Arizona with three wins, the most impressive of which coming last week against Carolina. Away from home they have struggled and their offense isn’t picking up enough yards to thrive in a tough division. With Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta coming up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arizona exposed and end up with a 3-5 record heading into their Week 9 bye. Bottom line: Definite pretenders

Detroit Lions: It was clear in the first few of years of Matthew Stafford’s career that he was built to throw a lot of yards. His inability to take care of the ball is what got him in trouble for the past two seasons, throwing over 15 picks in both. So far he’s only thrown three and Detroit has been able to score a lot of points as a result. Stafford and Calvin Johnson form a scary duo but with Johnson out, as he was against Green Bay, Detroit’s offense suffers. There’s no real way to stop Calvin Johnson, but if teams can contain him and force Stafford to make throws he doesn’t want to make, they’ll be able to slow Detroit’s high-scoring offense way down. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

The Niners will be all smiles soon enough.

The Niners will be all smiles soon enough.

San Francisco 49ers: San Fran suffered a tough couple of games against two very good teams, Seattle and Indy. While this is a concern for a team that is expected to win, or at the very least compete, in these games, it’s no reason to panic. Their defense remains one of the best in the league despite some hiccups and Colin Kaepernick will get back on track. He’s been tripped up a bit in these first few games, failing to throw for over 170 yards in four of five. If there is any doubt, one man assures me San Fran will contend: Jim Harbaugh. I simply cannot see a coach with his prowess fail to build a strong team. With Arizona, Tennessee, and Jacksonville on the slate, expect the Niners to find their stride. Bottom line: Definite contenders

Baltimore Ravens: For the amount of talent they lost, Baltimore is really holding their own early in the season. A rout by Denver and close loss to Buffalo are their only slip-ups, both on the road. Baltimore is tough to beat in their stadium and should win nearly all of their remaining home games if they want to balance out their troubles on the road. Joe Flacco isn’t playing like the same Joe he was in the playoffs but like Kaepernick, I expect him to get in a groove and start to make more touchdown passes. Baltimore is lucky to have a solid record despite Flacco’s 5:8 TD-INT ratio. A home win against Green Bay next week would go a long way in boosting this team’s confidence. Bottom line: Probable contenders

Miami Dolphins: Miami started off the season as well as they could have wanted but dropped their next two. I love the wins on the road over Cleveland and Indy, but have lost some faith in their ability to compete after losses to New Orleans and Baltimore. Ryan Tannehill can make throws when he gets time but he’s been sacked nearly five times a game (most in NFL). The running game is faltering bad, failing to run for more than 70 yards a game (28th in NFL). The bye week is promising heading into their match with division rival Buffalo but I’m worried that Miami will be unable to string together enough wins with the current state of the O-line. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

Chicago Bears: Out of nearly every team in the NFL, the Bears are the one team I really cannot figure out. They feel like a team just on the brink of a wild-card spot but just don’t feel like a playoff team. This could change with some convincing wins down the stretch of course, but their body of work up to this point isn’t enough for me to tab them a contender. A win at home against Cincy looks good, but their wins over 1-win Minnesota and winless Pittsburgh don’t tell me much. Their defense was torn apart by the Lions in Week 4 and couldn’t do enough to stop Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 5. Perhaps hosting the Giants on Thursday night will give us more insight. If they truly are a playoff-caliber team, they should have no problem dispatching New York. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

Cleveland's defense is quickly turning into one of the best in the league.

Cleveland’s defense is quickly turning into one of the best in the league.

Cleveland Browns: Cleveland has rattled off three impressive wins in a row. This is their year! Right? Well there’s still a lot to sort out but if one thing is for sure, it’s that their defense is seriously good. They are top-10 in the league in both passing and rushing yards allowed. That D will face yet another test against Detroit who, as I’ve said before, can clearly put up a lot of points. It looked as if Brian Hoyer was Cleveland’s guy after delivering them two straight wins but now they are back to Brandon Weeden after Hoyer’s injury in last Thursday’s game. Can Weeden keep this train going? I’m not so sure I trust him to carry Cleveland on a run to the playoffs but I also didn’t expect the Browns to win three straight. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

Cincinnati Bengals: I’m not so sure who the real Bengals are. Is it the team we saw score six against Cleveland or the team that held Tom Brady’s offense to six? I’m inclined to say the latter is more indicative when I consider the fact that they were able to beat Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but Cincy really needs to score more points. Defense isn’t really the issue right now but when they do have a bad game, seven to 13 points isn’t going to cut it. Settling for field goals instead of touchdowns is frustrating for an offense and they have got to take care of the ball better. The Jets are the only team that have more turnovers in the AFC than Cincy. Despite these hiccups, I trust their experience and previous seasons of success. Cincinnati should be able to get on a streak when they click. Bottom line: Probable contenders

Tennessee Titans: I love what the Titans are doing this year. Their two losses to Houston and KC were very competitive. Chris Johnson seems to be back on track this year and the defense has been the staple of their wins, keeping every team under 17 points in each victory. But can the Titans seriously be a contender? It sure seems weird to say. Wins over the Jets and Steelers aren’t going to wow me but they look good on the field. They’ll be facing their toughest test by far against Seattle and San Fran in the next two weeks. A win against one of those two would really catch my attention. Bottom line: Probable pretender

New York Jets: I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t give New York a shot at Atlanta on Monday night. To their credit, New York went in there and played one heck of a game. Geno Smith played his butt off despite New York holding the ball for only 24 and a half minutes. Unfortunately, this was one win out of a long, long season. I expect better defenses than Atlanta to force Geno into more turnovers and expose the Jets’ weaknesses. It takes a poised, experienced QB to carry a team like the Jets to a strong season and I don’t think Geno is there just yet. He showed flashes of greatness against Atlanta and I would love it if he and the Jets proved me wrong. Bottom line: Definite pretenders

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.