Breaking Down the AFC Playoff Contenders: Defense, Not Manning, Will Make the Season for the Denver Broncos

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 11: Quarterback Caleb Hanie #12 of the Chicago Bears is sacked by linebacker Von Miller #58 of the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 11, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. The Brocnos defeated the Bears 13-10 in overtime. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Hey, did you know QB Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos?

Another year, another headline-grabbing passer in Denver. It's a good thing for them, too, their defense is the real strength of that team. And the AFC West is going to see that early and often in 2012.

Broncos coach John Fox, in his first year, was given the nearly impossible task of figuring out a way to make a lesser-talented quarterback fit into a pro scheme with some success. He was able to do that. Before we etch that into his career legacy, let's look at the defense (Fox's first NFL experience came as the Steelers' defensive backs coach from 89-91) the Broncos will bring with them into 2012.

Obviously, there's OLB Von Miller, an explosive and relentless pass rusher. But no great outside rusher succeeds without interior strength. After parting ways with DT Broderick Bunkley (New Orleans), they'll look for players like Kevin Vickerson to fill some of that role - one Bunkley did at a high level in 2012. DE Robert Ayers had a great season as well, and should continue to play at a high level.

The result in 2011 was inconsistent, but there are several opportunities the Broncos defense played among the best in the game. Strangely, they would shut San Diego down to 13 points, but surrender 32 to Minnesota. With a more potent offense providing some relief to the defense, it seems more likely the unit will drop off their 24.4 points a game allowed.

The AFC West is wide open, and could end up being the most competitive division in football. A slew of key players will return to Kansas City, San Diego can only improve from a bizarre year and Oakland showed flashes of life the league hasn't seen since Rich Gannon donned a jersey.

Denver looks to be a front-runner, and while Manning grabs headlines and gyrates his way back into rhythm, the defense will stand up and be noticed.


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