Rutgers’ Artur Sitkowski had just thrown a 74-yard touchdown pass when the celebration went a little wrong.
Following their surprising victory in Super Bowl 50, the Denver Broncos are facing a number of questions that will determine whether they stay on top or fall back to earth in the 2016 NFL season.
Can they keep the defence together?
The dominant play of the Broncos defence was unquestionably the biggest factor towards their success this season.
The unit led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware was phenomenal all year, leading the league in defensive efficiency since Week 1 and peaking with two terrifying performances that were enough to give any quarterback a nervous breakdown.
Super Bowl MVP Miller’s first strip-sack of Cam Newton not only resulted in the game’s first touchdown, but also succeeded in making one of the strongest, most athletic quarterbacks alive resemble a high-school student who had accidentally stumbled on to the field.
Miller is a legit star, however he is also a free agent and will demand a contract of over $100 million. There is no way the Broncos will let him get away, even if it means utilising the one-year franchise tag that all teams can designate to a single player each season.
Paying big money to Miller has a ripple effect down the rest of the roster. Other notable free agents on the Denver defence include Malik Jackson, Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan. Including the playoffs, the trio combined for 216 tackles and seven sacks this season. All three are under the age of 26 and entering their primes, with Jackson in particular emerging as a true force on this all-world defensive line.
In recent times, Super Bowl winners such as Seattle and Baltimore have had trouble keeping all the pieces of their championship defences together due to the financial squeeze that affects many great teams. For Denver, the need to avoid any drop off in the quality of their defence is especially important given what is happening on the other side of the ball.
Who plays quarterback?
Speculation about Peyton Manning’s future has overshadowed all other NFL-related topics to the point where the first post-Super Bowl interviews were a breathless rush to coax Peyton into announcing his retirement on-air.
Despite his coy side-stepping of all prompts thus far, it seems highly likely that Manning will at some point soon announce that he has indeed played his last game in the NFL. What seems even more certain is that the five-time MVP has played his last game for the Broncos.
Manning’s contract will pay him over $20 million next year should he choose to continue his career. Denver general manager John Elway will surely balk at paying that kind of money to a soon-to-be 40-year-old quarterback whose play in the Super Bowl could be generously described as just competent enough to avoid losing.
Releasing or trading Manning would pave the way for backup Brock Osweiler, who many would argue outplayed Peyton in the seven games he started this season. However, what seems like a logical succession plan is muddied by the fact that Osweiler is also a free agent.
In a league that is perennially desperate for quarterbacks who show any sign of being above average, Osweiler is bound to draw interest from rival teams, with the Cleveland Browns already throwing themselves into the mix. The Broncos defence has shown that they’re capable of overcoming mediocre offensive play, but losing two quarterbacks familiar with the Denver playbook would hurt.
How much luck can one team have?
To win a championship in any sport you have to be lucky. In the case of the 2015-16 Denver Broncos, it’s fair to say they fulfilled this criteria.
NFL games can often come down to the bounce of a ball, a penalty at the wrong time, or a kick that misses by an inch. Despite what some pundits may spout about the ‘clutch gene’ or ‘knowing how to win the close games’, the reality is that most close games are decided on random twists of fate.
This season Denver won an NFL-record 11 games by seven points or less. Not included in that list is the Super Bowl, which was also within seven points until CJ Anderson’s game-sealing touchdown with three minutes left in the game.
The NFL’s Pythagorean formula, which predicts the number of games a team should win based on points scored and allowed, indicates that the Broncos have the second-highest differential in the league between actual and predicted games won.
Studies have shown that sheer regression to the mean will often cause teams that significantly overachieve their expected win total to suffer a reduction in wins the following season.
However, if Denver can retain Miller and their other key defensive cogs, while getting average play from the offence, who’s to say they can’t beat the odds and surprise the world again?