32 to 1: No. 2 Broncos are right back in the Super Bowl hunt
AUG 02, 2014 1:00a ET
There's a good reason the Denver Broncos are this high in the FOX Sports 1 preseason rankings.
And it isn't totally because of Peyton Manning.
Sure, the star quarterback and almost every key supporting member from the most prolific regular-season offense in NFL history are returning. It's an upgraded defense, though, that has the Broncos believing all the pieces are now in place after a disastrous Super Bowl 48 loss to Seattle.
Denver added three major free agents -- end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety T.J. Ward -- and should again have the services of five starters who ended last season on injured reserve as their recoveries are completed. How quickly those defenders return to form is critical, especially end Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. Six of Denver's first eight opponents are coming off playoff appearances. The Broncos also are taking a risk by projecting that Nate Irving can handle middle linebacker despite not having started at the spot during his first three NFL seasons.
The offensive concerns are fewer but no less significant. An offensive line embarrassed by Seattle's front four in the Super Bowl has shifted right tackle Orlando Franklin to left guard as a replacement for free-agent departure Zane Beadles (Jacksonville). The unit does receive a significant boost with standout left tackle Ryan Clady returning from injured reserve, which allows capable replacement Chris Clark to man right tackle duties provided he beats out veteran Winston Justice as expected. The Broncos also didn't try to re-sign Knowshon Moreno because of the belief second-year running back Montee Ball is ready for starting responsibilities both as a rusher and pass blocker.
Denver is primed to rule the AFC again provided it can avoid the vaunted Super Bowl hangover. The 1993 Buffalo Bills were the last team to make a return Super Bowl trip after having lost in the title game the previous year.