Super Bowl 50 dark horse heading into the playoffs

The 2015 NFL regular season is over and we’ll soon be heading to the postseason with 12 teams looking to emerge with the Lombardi Trophy and end up as Super Bowl 50 champions. 12 spots have been locked up with New England, Cincinnati, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Houston, Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay, Washington, Minnesota and Seattle clinching postseason berths.

We’ve taken time to look at the potential frontrunners to hoist the Lombardi Trophy and be known as Super Bowl champions. Today, we’ll take a detailed look at a team that could be considered as a dark horse candidate to wind up as the champions of the league. Normally, one wouldn’t consider a team with the amount of talent that this franchise possesses as a dark horse but injuries and inconsistency can quickly change things on that front.

With that said, let’s take a look at who could be a dark horse candidate and why they’re a cut below teams like Seattle, New England and Arizona.

Denver Broncos

Best odds for Super Bowl 50 – 13/2 with Betfair

It’s hard to fathom Denver being a dark horse but the Broncos haven’t been as good as they have been in previous years. Peyton Manning has missed multiple games with a torn plantar fascia, which has turned the offense over to Brock Osweiler. Manning is expected to be active in week 17 for the first time since sustaining that injury against the Chiefs back in week 10. Despite that, Manning is going to serve as the backup to Osweiler in this contest against San Diego. Denver needs to win in order to lock up the AFC West and earn a first round bye in the playoffs. If New England were to somehow lose to Miami and Denver won, the Broncos could earn home field advantage in the playoffs.

The offense hasn’t been as potent as it has been the past few years: Denver is just 20th in the league in scoring offense as they average 21.9 points per game. Compare that to the first three years of the Manning era in Denver, when the Broncos scored 481 points in 2012, a NFL record 606 points in 2013 and 482 points last season. When you go from averaging better than 30 points a season and one season where you average nearly 38 points a game and drop down to 21.9 points a contest, there are clearly offensive issues. Denver was 2nd, 1st and 2nd in points in Manning’s first three seasons, showing what a steep drop they’ve suffered.

Denver was 4th, 1st and 4th in total yardage on offense in Manning’s first three seasons but stand only 19th in the league entering week 17. The Broncos were 5th, 1st and 4th in passing offense in those three years; this season, they stand 16th in the league by throwing for 245.1 yards per game. Denver was in the middle of the pack on the ground, ranking 16th, 15th and 15th the past three seasons and they haven’t been great this year either as they are 18th with 100.5 yards per game on the ground.

While the offense has sputtered, Denver’s defense has improved by leaps and bounds over the last couple seasons. While the Broncos were 4th in the league in scoring defense and 2nd in total yardage defense in 2012, they dropped substantially in recent years. The 2013 season saw Denver drop to 22nd in scoring defense and 19th in total yards allowed. In 2014, the Broncos were just 3rd in total yards but they were in the middle of the pack, ranking 16th in scoring defense. This season, Denver leads the league in total yards allowed and is 4th in scoring defense. The Denver defense has recorded 49 sacks, 13 picks and 13 fumble recoveries.

Denver still has offensive talent: they have a two headed backfield that can do damage with Ronnie Hillman (192 carries, 746 yards, 6 TD) and C.J. Anderson (137 carries, 625 yards, 4 TD) combining for nearly 1,400 yards on the ground. The duo has combined to catch 46 balls out of the backfield as well. Throw in a pair of 1,000 yard receivers in Demaryius Thomas (100 receptions, 1187 yards, five TD) and Emmanuel Sanders (71 catches, 1036 yards, 6 TD) and you have the makings of a dangerous offense. With tight ends Owen Daniels (45 grabs, 502 yards, 3 TD) and Vernon Davis Jr. (20 receptions, 201 yards since coming over from San Francisco) providing reliable targets over the middle, it gives the Broncos good targets in the passing game. They have a good kicker in Brandon McManus, who has hit 32 of 33 extra points and 28 of 33 field goal attempts with a long of 57 yards. The Broncos have to deal with injuries on the offensive line as Ty Sambrailo is done for the year and Ryan Clady was hurt before the season started.

The Broncos have developed a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Von Miller (team leading 10 sacks) and Demarcus Ware (6.5 sacks) man the outside linebacker positions and wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. The inside linebackers, Danny Trevathan (100 tackles, 2 picks, 6 pass defenses, TD) and Brandon Marshall (team high 101 tackles, INT, 2 FF, 1.5 sacks) are unsung heroes that are the heart and soul of the Denver defense.

Denver’s secondary has one of, if not the, best corner pairings in the league as Aqib Talib (40 tackles, 13 pass defenses, 3 picks, 123 yards, 2 TD) and Chris Harris Jr. (57 tackles, 5 pass defenses, 2 forced fumbles, 2 INT, 94 yards, TD) can shut down even the most elite receivers in the league. With Denver having both of them on the field; it makes life difficult for opposing teams to throw the ball with much success as there is no weak point to exploit. Safeties T.J. Ward (58 tackles, 5 pass defenses, 2 forced fumbles, 2 sacks in 11 games) and Darian Stewart (55 tackles, INT, 9 pass defenses, forced fumble) are hard hitting guys in the back line that can defend the run and play the pass. If the Broncos can reach the AFC Championship, having David Bruton (43 tackles, 2 picks, sack, seven pass defenses, two forced fumbles, fumble recovery) back in the mix will go a long way to improving Denver’s chances at a Super Bowl title.

Denver already owns overtime wins over New England and Cincinnati. They split the regular season series with Kansas City and beat the Packers earlier this season. That gives them the knowledge that they can deal with some of the best teams in the league as they already beat them this season. While the Broncos did stumble against the Raiders and Colts in addition to blowing a 17 point lead to Pittsburgh by getting shut out in the second half, they have plenty of veterans that are used to playing in big games. That experience, and the leadership of guys like Manning, whether he’s on the field or not, are all big reasons why the Broncos can be a dark horse to end up as Super Bowl champions in what could be #18’s swan song.

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