I just had a revelation about the Broncos: Peyton has found his comfort zone again.
(Unsurprisingly, Bill Barnwell came to a different conclusion.)
Peyton wore out the meek AFC South competition of the 2000s, with the help of a few essential complements to his considerable talent:
- A cadre of smart skill players that compete as hard as Peyton and know their roles: Admittedly, those Colts teams featured Edge James and Reggie Wayne each for long stretches, but they also relied heavily on players like Marvin Harrison, Dominic Rhodes, and Joseph Addai, players whose performance seemed to outstrip their talent because they knew how to contribute to Manning’s game plan;
- A good offensive line: Jeff Saturday, Tarik Glenn, and Ryan Diem anchored the line for most of a decade;
- A defense founded on a great pass rush and decent secondary play: Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis terrorized opposing passers from 2003 through the Colts’ Super Bowl run, and continue to produce; meanwhile, the secondary featured, at its peak, Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, and Kelvin Hayden. My working theory is that, particularly against teams that struggled in one or more phases of the game, the Colts were able to mount an early lead, forcing teams to throw on the formidable pass defense;
- Most importantly, mediocre division competition: the AFC South was awful for most of the 2000s (okay, Tennessee contended sporadically for a few years in there).
When Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos this offseason, he stepped into a situation reminiscent of Indy circa 2006:
- Denver’s skill players fit what Peyton is used to. We know, if anything from the Tim Tebow era, that Denver has discipline on offense, so much so that the skill players still find ways to contribute when they are each limited to a handful of touches per game (because the offense refuses to run anything but traps and quarterback draws).
- Denver’s offensive line performed well against a crippled Steelers defense Sunday, although this same group, for the most part, has graded out as middle of the road the past few years. Their pass protection numbers for last year may be skewed downwards for a number of reasons, however (not least because they were charged with protecting a quarterback of Tebow’s particular talents — or lack thereof).
- Denver’s defense rushes the quarterback exceptionally well, and sports the gold standard (Champ Bailey) at one corner and a pretty decent complement (Tracy Porter) at the other.
- The AFC West, we learned Monday night, sucks this year.
I recognize that Pittsburgh lacked some key defensive cogs Sunday night, so it’s hard to draw too many firm conclusions from Peyton’s opening performance. But it’s undeniable that the Broncos looked like those Colts teams, and the above probably speaks to why.
And while Pittsburgh isn’t the toughest team on their schedule, there are easier match-ups to come, too. I may go back on my AFC West predictions…