CINCINNATI • What is it you remember about the Broncos' juggernauts that brought twin Super Bowl championships to our state?
John Elway’s arm? Terrell Davis’ legs? Shannon Sharpe’s mouth?
Hey, me too.
Don’t worry, the defenses of the 1997 and ’98 Broncos were just fine operating in the shadow of the powerful offenses that grip our memories. They were fine with it, because they celebrated in a parade down 17th Street just the same.
“We knew what we were. We were all about, ‘Let’s make them punt and get John Elway back on the field,’” said Alfred Williams, a veteran defensive end with those Super Bowl champions.
“Our defense, we had a sense of urgency immediately. We knew we weren’t going to have many more years of John Elway. So we wanted to win now.”
The new window for a championship gives the false impression it is expanding with each brilliant Sunday from Peyton Manning. But it’s a window that can close as quickly as it opened. The AFC offensive player of the month for October, Manning is 36, after all. And there’s the whole four-neck surgeries thing. Despite the Manning magic so far, there is still the feeling this is a football dream with an expiration date.
But if the expectation now is a Super Bowl — and Manning’s $96-million deal suggests it is — the blueprint for getting there is roughly the same as it was when Elway was quarterback.
An offense as explosive as it is diverse.
And a defense that gets the Hall of Fame quarterback back on the field.
So these Broncos are halfway there.
Entering the season’s midpoint today at Cincinnati (11 a.m., CBS), we know enough about the Broncos’ offense to go all in. Manning has an MVP look about him. Demaryius Thomas-Eric Decker is as dangerous a receiving tandem as there is in the NFL. Willis McGahee is in a career year. Ronnie Hillman? Can’t wait to see more.
This is an offense to fall in love with.
The defense? We have lingering trust issues. And it’s not you; it’s me.
For that we blame Tom Brady or Darren McFadden or, definitely, Philip Rivers, and certainly, Manning (when with the Colts). Our anxiety with the Broncos’ defense is the fault of previous seasons more than this one. And after Jack Del Rio coordinated a masterpiece in last week’s 34-14 rout of the Saints, the D deserves more faith.
So while we know Manning’s offense is a 21-point quarter waiting to happen, the ticket to a Super Bowl season lies with a defense that seems to be progressing weekly.
“I don’t want to blow smoke about it and say, ‘Yeah, we’re there. But we’re turning the corner. We’re definitely turning the corner,” defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said.
Perhaps this is the telling development: Tracy Porter won’t play today and no one seems overly concerned with the absence of the cornerback, aside from his personal health. Hillman’s breakout game on offense against the Saints earned the most notice. But it’s the emergence of cornerbacks Chris Harris and Tony Carter on defense that figures to have the biggest impact over the long haul.
“Our identity is not all the way there, to the extent of what we can be. We’re close, but we’re not there,” Vickerson said. “We know what kind of defense we can be. We want to be ranked in the top five in defense in every category statistically.”
With Manning, like it was with Elway, the defense doesn’t have to be that good. It just has to be good enough. The ’97 Broncos ranked seventh in total defense; the ’98 Broncos were ninth. This defense has been far better than it’s given credit for, ranking sixth, an impressive number considering the gantlet of opposing quarterbacks it has faced.
“It takes time,” Champ Bailey said. “You’ve got to build chemistry, get used to a different voice. There’s a lot of little things that have to come together to be a great defense.”
Greatness on defense would be grand. But with Manning on the other side, it isn’t necessary — much like the last time the Broncos played in a Super Bowl.
“Peyton Manning changes everything in this equation. You just don’t see guys like him,” Williams said. “Remember, they have an offense that’s going to score 31 points. They just have to limit the other team to 30.
“(During the Super Bowl years) I always knew that if I could get a sack and we could get a punt, our offense would go down and score and we would win the game. If (opponents) score field goals on every drive, we’re going to win every game. With John Elway and that offense, it was that simple.”
All these years later, it might be that simple again.
During Sunday’s game, Klee (@Klee_Gazette) will be tweeting.