Knowshon Moreno is the Broncos best feel-good story of 2013. He's also the best reason to believe in this team in early 2014.
Moreno has conquered a severe knee injury, escaped his place at the end of the bench and dumped his "No-Show" nickname along with a lingering association with The Boy Blunder, Josh McDaniels.
He's a superlative third-down back with 55 catches, but he's also dangerous on first and second down. He might be the NFL's best running back after the first hit. What I mean is, getting hit by a linebacker appears to energize Moreno, who runs with greater fury after contact.
The Broncos are equipped with their most dangerous one-two offensive punch in franchise history. No coach in the Broncos existence, which dates to 1960, ever has had a quarterback throwing for 5,000 yards and a running back trampling his way to 1,000 yards.
Sure, there's reason to remain skeptical about the Broncos. The defense is a shadow of what it might have been after injuries to Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, Derek Wolfe and Champ Bailey. The Broncos need to average 30 points per playoff game to travel to New Jersey and the Super Bowl on Feb. 2.
And then there's the weather thing. I ate Christmas Dinner with a crowd of Kansas City Chiefs fans, unbothered by their favorite team's 42-year vacation from the Super Bowl. These fans, fueled by sparking apple juice, kept mentioning Manning's troubles in the cold. They believe Mr. Indoor will stumble when forced to compete in the chill of January.
This is an overstated but not quite irrelevant issue. Manning was not Manning on Jan. 12 in that bitter playoff loss to the Ravens. He tossed two interceptions, fumbled once and faded in the sub-zero chill of the late afternoon. He looked cold and old.
Moreno gives the Broncos reason to believe. If an opposing defense - say, New England - finds a way to slow Manning in the cold, the Broncos can turn to Moreno and ask him to run the team back to his home in Jersey and football's ultimate game. Moreno has served as Manning's sidekick, a supporting actor in this Broncos drama, but he has the muscle, elusiveness and willpower to emerge as the leading man.
This is Manning's team, no doubt, but Moreno, only 26, has shown he's the future of the Broncos offense. Those repeated scenes of him bursting through a sliver in the defense and rampaging happily into the secondary stick with me. He belongs on anyone's list of the NFL's top half-dozen running backs.
He's a free agent following this season, and his spirited revival means he will command a salary hovering somewhere above $4 million per season. He's worth it. Moreno, not wide receiver Eric Decker, should be John Elway's No.?1 free-agent priority during the offseason.
For a brief time, the Moreno saga seemed destined to become one of those sad football tales. He arrived in Colorado on a serious roll. He had carried his New Jersey high school team to 36 straight wins while collecting 6,268 yards and 128 touchdowns. He scored 32 touchdowns in two seasons at Georgia.
The good times ended Nov. 15, 2011 when Moreno suffered a torn ACL vs. the Chiefs. This injury, combined with his struggles with fumbling, appeared to doom him. When training camp opened in August, Moreno was considered a long shot to unseat Ronnie Hillman - remember him? - as the Broncos No. 1 halfback.
But Moreno had expertly used his time in football exile. He redesigned his body, transforming from skinny to mighty. He runs with multiplied toughness, battling with extreme gusto for extra yards.
He could have sulked during his time on the bench. Instead, Bailey told me, Moreno "stayed grounded." He matured. He improved.
The natural embraced diligent labor. Moreno's rise should give inspiration to Miller, another injured natural who could use an attitude adjustment.