Growing up, I hated the Denver Broncos.
As a young Cleveland Browns fan, all I needed to know about the Broncos was that they were the bad guys standing in the way of the good guys on the road to the Super Bowl. Three times in a four-year stretch from 1987 to 1990, in fact, Denver eliminated Cleveland from the playoffs. And while I wasn’t a fan of my hometown Seattle Seahawks back then either, I was also influenced by the hate local fans had for the Broncos, a division rival of the Seahawks.
Of course, any fanbase that despised the Broncos only did so because the Broncos were good. In those formative years of mine from the late-80s to the late-90s, the Broncos — with all due respect to the Buffalo Bills — were consistently the standard bearers of the AFC. They didn’t get the No. 1 playoff seed every season. They didn’t even make the playoffs every season. But the Broncos were always in the mix; always a bucket of ice water ready to douse the title hopes of my Browns or my father’s Seahawks or our guy Warren Moon or any other flavor-of-the-month team that was hot at the time.
In a 15-year span from 1984 to 1999 — covering the entire John Elway era — the Broncos won five AFC titles, went to the AFC Championship Game six times and had only two losing seasons. And then Elway retired, capping his career with back-to-back Super Bowl wins, and soon the AFC entered the era of the New England Patriots.
Now it looks like Denver’s back.
In 2014, with the Patriots’ reign on top apparently coming to a close, the Broncos are taking over again. The old, new gold standard of the AFC is also the best team in the NFL.
All of the key ingredients are there.
Franchises that succeed over a long period of time have franchise quarterbacks, and Denver has its man in Peyton Manning. Like Elway and Tom Brady before him, like Joe Montana and Troy Aikman and Brett Favre in the NFC, Manning is Denver’s marquee attraction and offensive centerpiece.
This deviates a bit from the typical script because unlike those aforementioned QBs, Manning built most of his Hall of Fame resume somewhere else. He won four of his five league MVP awards playing for the Indianapolis Colts, trying to catch Brady and New England to claim AFC supremacy.
And because Manning is 38, it doesn’t look like he’ll be able to preside over a lengthy Denver dynasty. But the veteran still has it. Last season was statistically his best as a pro, as Manning broke long-standing NFL records and brought the Broncos to another Super Bowl. This season he hasn’t lost a step, hanging right in there among the league leaders in pretty much every important passing stat.
Not only is Manning arguably the best QB in the league, he is working with arguably the best group of pass-catchers in the league. Receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Emmanuel Sanders are each capable of dominating a game with double-digit receptions and a couple of scores. And tight end Julius Thomas might not be the next Antonio Gates, but he’s at least doing a decent impersonation of the future Hall of Famer.
Montee Ball, Denver’s top running back, started this season slow but despite the injuries, has shown he has game-changing talent.
But all of that talent at the skill positions means nothing without the offensive line, of course, and the Broncos have a very good one. Center Manny Ramirez, guards Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin, and tackles Ryan Clady and Chris Clark keep Manning upright and comfortable in the pocket, they create holes for Ball to run through, and they give the receivers time to get open and make plays.
Denver’s defense is solid. Massive D-tackle Terrance Knighton (330 pounds) anchors the front seven, with end DeMarcus Ware and linebacker Von Miller putting constant pressure on opposing QBs. The starting secondary — safeties Rahim Moore and T.J. Ward, and corners Aqib Talib and Chris Harris — consists of four guys who could each be the best DB on another team in the league.
Not to leave the special teams out, Denver has a good punter in Britton Colquitt. And yes, those two are very important. Field position is crucial in the NFL, and with so many competitive teams, many games are going to come down to a few points. A championship team has to have a good kicker and a good punter.
That Denver seemingly has it all — the offense, the defense, and the special teams — is a testament to the coaching staff led by head coach John Fox and the front office led by Elway, two more keys to success in the league. Players want to come to Denver because the franchise is run well, and they thrive when they get there because they are coached well. It really is the NFL’s answer to the San Antonio Spurs or the St. Louis Cardinals.
These Broncos are a talented, well-coached combination of experienced veterans hungry for a championship and skilled young guys with enough energy to sustain a grueling playoff run.
I don’t hate football teams anymore. I’m grown now, with too much respect for the athletes and some actual perspective on what is and isn’t worth hating in this world. So I can give the Denver Broncos credit for what they’ve accomplished and where they are now, having climbed back to the top of the league.
As much as I don’t like saying it, the hater-proof Broncos are again setting the standard in the NFL.
Follow Amaar on Twitter at @amaarabdulnasir