There are 32 teams in the NFL. But one of them surpasses them all. The best team in the NFL is the Denver Broncos.
This may be construed as me being prisoner of the moment with the Broncos coming off a 42-17 shellacking of the reigning NFC runners up San Francisco 49ers. Conversely, you could also say I’m not really going out on the limb.
Either way, identifying the Broncos as the best team in the league is something that’s relevant and true, even if it’s not a “hot take.” On paper, the Broncos have been the best team for a couple, maybe even a few years. It’s hard not to be with Peyton Manning as your quarterback.
On Sunday night, the Broncos finally showed the football world how good they can be, against a talented 49ers team, albeit without Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith, and Mike Iupati. A win like this against a team of this caliber is what I, and I know many others in Broncos Country, have been yearning to see from this team.
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The Broncos have had the players to put it all together. Never has that been truer than coming into this season after signing the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, and Emmanuel Sanders.
A lot of us want blowouts from this team; every week, no matter who the Broncos are facing. We look up and down this roster and think that no one in the league matches up with the kind of talent John Elway has been able to bring in the last three years. No one has the level of athleticism or intelligence that this team does, we think.
And yet the Broncos, when they have had the chance to finish teams off in the second half, and they’ve had plenty of those opportunities, just have failed to do so.
And then Sunday happened.
Finally the Broncos didn’t let up. They didn’t let their opponent back in the game or give them hope of a comeback. They came right out of the gates looking to smother San Fran and they did so for three and a half quarters (until the second units came in to play).
According to Pro-Football-Reference, the Broncos’ lowest win probability after the 1st quarter was 87.5%. After a score of 21-10 going into halftime, there was little doubt the Broncos would let this one slip away, even though they’ve let teams back into the game before. This night just felt different. This night felt like what we all thought this team would look like. The talent that we saw on paper translated to the field. It was a great thing to witness.
Oct 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) throws a pass in the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
A lot of Broncos I thought had their best game that night, starting with Peyton Manning. This isn’t just because he got the record, but he seemed so aggressive against the 49ers, which shouldn’t come as a surprise with their three best linebackers injured. Pro Football Focus graded Manning’s Sunday night Performance out as a 5.0, at least double any of his previous games this year.
Sunday night was also the first time this year that Julius Thomas (1.4) and Orlando Franklin (1.8) had positive run blocking games, according to PFF. For Julius, it surprisingly showed up on tape at times. He’s usually been all right with pulling then cut blocking to clear a lane for the running back. But last week he wasn’t beaten like a drum like he all-too-frequently has been.
Ronnie Hillman finally looked like the special back he could be coming out of San Diego State. After last season, I wouldn’t have been surprised had Hillman been cut. But this preseason, my perception of him changed. He looked stronger and smarter. He was hitting the right holes with authority and a stiff breeze wasn’t knocking him down. When Montee Ball went out, I figured as long as Hillman doesn’t mess up big time, Ball wouldn’t be getting his starting job back when he’s healthy. So far, sans a fumble against New York fighting for extra yards, Hillman is living up to my expectations and then some. Running for 174 yards and two touchdowns in his two weeks as the feature back is how you respond to being tabbed as the next man up.
Demaryius Thomas, while Sunday might not have been his best game (see: Week 5 v. Arizona), it might have been his most important one to date. DT’s struggles before the bye were well documented, but I don’t think anyone batted an eye. Being on national television for the first time since opening night Week 1 against the Colts, I think it was a good thing for him to show everyone he’s rebounded from his tough start. Thomas is a player that his coaches, teammates, and the fans can rely on through adversity. Sunday, he rewarded everyone’s patience.
Oct 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) is sacked by Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) and defensive end Derek Wolfe (95) in the fourth quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
As for the defensive side of the ball, they’re clicking like I’ve hoped, even though I had some reservations earlier in the year.
Derek Wolfe, who, like DT didn’t have his best game of the year, stood out yet again for me. Wolfe, along with Nate Irving, has been the two best run defenders on the Broncos. Wolfe has played like a Pro Bowler in this aspect of the game, paying attention to what’s going on in the backfield, keeping his ground, breaking free of his blocker at the right moment and stuffing the run. He’s been phenomenally consistent.
If it weren’t for the unworldly performance of J.J. Watt this year, Von Miller would probably be the unanimous decision for defensive player of the year at this point in the season. With another two sacks this week, his third straight week of at least two sacks, he’s made me lose any doubt about him coming of his torn ACL. Along with his rushing partner DeMarcus Ware, who added three sacks to his stat sheet, not only has he been terrorizing quarterbacks, but he’s been stopping the run as well. Miller has done a good job of keeping outside containment, likewise for Ware, who also made a backside tackle on Frank Gore last week. Not bad for the 32-year-old.
Finally, the leader of the secondary, Chris Harris had another stellar performance, only giving up two receptions for eight yards on five targets, according to PFF (not Harris’s twitter account). The only significant play Harris gave up was to Michael Crabtree on a comeback on a 2nd and eight in the first quarter that resulted in a first down. Still, going against the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Eric Decker, and Crabtree the last few weeks, Harris has given up a grand total of three catches for 21 yards on 15 targets. Not only has he been great individually, but the miscommunications I would occasionally see between him and rookie corner Bradley Roby have dissipated.
The individual successes recently have manufactured great play for the whole team these last few weeks and culminated against the 49ers. The air attack is as good as it has been with Manning here. The running game gained a spark with the emergence of Ronnie Hillman (and even Juwan Thompson). The run defense is arguably the best in the league, as is the pass rush with two of the best in the game coming off the edge. The secondary can get more consistent, but there’s no reason it can’t reach an elite level like the rest of the team has.
Finally, it all came together on Sunday Night Football. The Broncos showed why they’re the best team in the NFL.