Who else other than the Denver Broncos can top this year’s pre-season power rankings? Battling back from a heart breaking loss to the Baltimore Ravens in last year’s epic comeback, the 2013 Broncos are hungrier, and stronger, than ever. After falling short of the top for over a decade, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos might finally be ready to reclaim the thrown that Denver fans have long awaited; that is, since John Elway and the ’98 Broncos. With an offense led by future hall of famer Peyton Manning and a rock solid defense behind 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Von Miller, 12 time Pro Bowl veteran Champ Bailey, and newly acquired star Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, it seems as though this may be their year. Their mindset both inside the locker room and out is apparent: Super Bowl or bust. Not to mention, the Broncos are favorites to win the Super Bowl, at 6 to 1 odds, tied only with the San Francisco 49ers.
While the Broncos have taken the top spot in this year’s pre-season power rankings, it will surely be tough for them to maintain this positioning. There are several elite teams competing to be the best, but in the end, only one team can be the lone victor. For now, that team is Denver. Here’s why:
The San Francisco 49ers look to be a championship contending team. And they are. But with dozens of teams preparing this off-season for Kaepernick’s unconventional style of play, his success last season will be nearly impossible to match. After all, most NFL defenses didn’t know how to handle his unexpected speed and agility, but with months of preparation his game is bound to take a turn for the worse. Despite this setback, the 2013 San Francisco 49ers will surely be a force to be reckoned with. The star filled defense sent 6 of its starting 11 to last year’s Pro Bowl. 5 of those 6 will be returning to the Niners in the 2013 season. With a talented offense under QB Colin Kaepernick and RB Frank Gore, and debatably the best defense in the league, San Francisco will without a doubt be a Super Bowl contender.
Now you might be wondering why the Denver Broncos are still ranked higher than the San Francisco 49ers. Both teams clearly can be categorized into the NFL’s elite; in terms of both offense and defense. Denver finished second last season in total yards allowed, while San Francisco finished third. Needless to say, the defenses are highly comparable and neither has a clear-cut advantage over the other. The 49ers finished 4th last season in total rushing yards with 2,491, while Denver finished in 16th, with only 1,832 rushing yards. In this category, it’s fair to give the advantage to San Francisco. However, the single deciding factor in giving the edge to the Denver Broncos is the passing game. Peyton Manning, one of the NFL’s all-time best quarterbacks, threw for 4,659 yards last season, with a completion rate of 68.6 percent and an average QB rating of 105.8. On the contrary, Kaepernick threw for 1,814 yards on a 62.4 percent completion rate and had an average QB rating of 98.3. Sure, Manning played in more games so it’s unfair to compare total passing yards. So I’ll put the stats into a comparable form—average passing yards per game. In Kaepernick’s 13 regular season starts, he averaged 140 passing yards per game. Manning, on the other hand, averaged 291 passing yards per game in his 16 starts. There it is, folks, more than double. And this is why the Denver Broncos have a slight edge over the San Francisco 49ers.
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Now that we know the top team cannot be the Niners, why not last year’s Super Bowl champions the Baltimore Ravens? Let’s face it, none of us were expecting a Baltimore win over the streaking Denver Broncos. Then we thought they were sure to lose in the AFC championship against the New England Patriots. But they didn’t. And finally, they surprised us most of all in their narrow 34-31 victory over San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII. Clearly we underestimated the willpower and talent behind last year’s Baltimore squad. So why can’t they be number one? Simple. Because the returning Ravens in no way resemble the team they were last season. After losing the face of their franchise, Ray Lewis, along with the loss of star safety Ed Reed, the Baltimore defense is looking to be average, at best. And unfortunately for them, they were unable to replenish their perpetually feared defense in this year’s draft. The only thing looking up for this year’s Baltimore squad is the signing of free-agent superstar Elvis Dumervil, who led the 2009 NFL season in sacks with a staggering 17.
Now let’s consider the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks seem to be at the center of this year’s spotlight. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson did not fail to impress last season. And he looks to be a franchise quarterback with a bright future. However, his inexperience, unpredictability, and unreliability cannot win Seattle a championship. The Seahawks are also in a unique, and rather unfortunate, situation which may hinder their aspirations for a Super Bowl title. They are in the NFC West, which just so happens to be the same division as the 49ers. So what are the implications of this misfortune? Only one team from each division can advance to the playoffs, aside from wild-cards. This means that if they cannot trump San Francisco in the regular season, they will enter the playoffs as a fifth of sixth seeded team (assuming they’ll still make the playoffs). As a wild-card team, they will likely be forced to yield home-field advantage throughout the entire playoffs. Competing against the best-of-the-best on away turf isn’t exactly ideal when it comes to aiming for a championship. They’ll be a top team, don’t get me wrong, but with other more experienced teams in the way of their Super Bowl hopes, they just might have to be patient for a couple more years.
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The final team we’ll be looking at is the New England Patriots. Time and again, the Patriots seem to clean up the competition. Tom Brady has a career record of 136-39, which equates to an unprecedented 78 percent, all of which was done with New England. He shattered numerous records along the way. Surely he is one of the best quarterbacks to ever the play the game. But his success as a quarterback over the years has been with an elite group of receivers including Randy Moss, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski. This year, the Patriots weren’t so lucky in retaining their star receiving corps. It looks as though Brady has lost his top five receivers in a series of unfortunate events. Wes Welker was traded to the Broncos, Danny Woodhead to the Chargers, and Brandon Lloyd was released and has yet to be signed. Meanwhile, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will not be playing for separate reasons. Gronkowski underwent surgery earlier this year and is still recovering. He is expected to make a return early in the season, although the timetable is unsure as of now. Hernandez, on the other hand, was arrested on charges of murder and was released from the team. Without his top five options, Brady will be forced to throw to an entirely new set of receivers, whom will have a difficult time living up to the legacy of last year’s stars. We may even see a shift in the Patriots’ offensive strategy this season, with more emphasis on the running game than we have seen in the past few years. But even without last year’s talented receivers, it’s safe to say that New England will find a way to bounce back. They are simply just a winning team. Belichick will somehow find a way to make it work.
Of course, there are other teams that will be Super Bowl contenders including the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, and Houston Texans, but to avoid writing a novel I have focused in on a select group of teams. This in-depth analysis has left the Broncos with the top spot, although it is sure to be an interesting season with many unexpected twists and turns.
[The projections table shows a simulation of the 2013-2014 season. It displays the results for each game. Home-field advantage was taken into consideration. Selections were based on instinct. The table was used to aid in the ranking process and is obviously not completely accurate.]