Even though Denver has won four consecutive AFC West titles, the last three with Peyton Manning at quarterback, the Broncos are in transition.
Tired of watching his team bow out with a whimper in the playoffs, general manager John Elway replaced coach John Fox with Gary Kubiak, Elway’s longtime backup quarterback with the Broncos and one-time offensive coordinator. Kubiak brought with him the blueprints that helped Elway cap his Hall of Fame playing career with two Super Bowl titles.
It starts with a dominant defense and includes a powerful ground game based on the zone-blocking scheme, all designed to lighten the burden on an aging quarterback.
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“John was very unselfish, knowing that his stats wouldn’t be the same,” former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. “Ultimately, he knew quarterbacks get judged by winning championships. And I think one of the reasons John is going in the direction he’s going in is it’s the formula he had for winning the Super Bowl.”
The Broncos gave the 39-year-old Manning, entering his 18th season, lots of rest this summer to keep him fresh. The only player who has been in the league longer is 42-year-old Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, who’s entering his 20th year.
Although the goal is a fresher mind and body in December, things might not be so smooth in September. With four new offensive linemen, zero snaps with both of his Pro Bowl receivers this summer and more time off than he ever has taken, Manning was understandably rusty in the exhibition season.
“Well, maybe it’s not what he’s used to,” Elway said. “But I just think that at 39 years old, he can’t work like he used to work. And he’s got to be able to save that. He may not be as far along as he wants to right now because he hasn’t had that work. He’ll be much farther along in December by taking this time off, when we’re really going to need him.”
The Chiefs signed Jeremy Maclin to upgrade an offense that featured zero touchdown catches from wide receivers last season, a big reason they jettisoned Dwayne Bowe and his albatross contract.
Like the Broncos, Kansas City’s strength is its defense.
Justin Houston is back with a big new contract after his 22-sack season. He’s joined by Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson and tackle Mike DeVito, both of whom suffered season-ending torn Achilles’ tendons in the 2014 opener. The Chiefs also welcome back safety Eric Berry, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in December and was declared cancer-free this summer after several rounds of chemotherapy.
But Kansas City has a brutal schedule, with seven of its first 11 games on the road, including Week 8 against Detroit in London.
San Diego is a popular pick to unseat the Broncos thanks to the arrival of running back Melvin Gordon, a stout offensive line featuring former Denver left guard Orlando Franklin and a contract extension for quarterback Philip Rivers.
Gordon is expected to help take some pressure off Rivers, who was sacked 36 times last season and played through back and chest injuries.
San Diego has consecutive third-place finishes under coach Mike McCoy, including being swept by Denver and Kansas City last season.
“We’ve got to win games in our division to win the division,” Rivers said. “You can’t go 3-3 or worse in your division games and expect to win the division. We’ve gone way too long. Winning the West is what we’ve talked about and what our mindset is.”
The Associated Press