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Easy on the euphoria, a Manning-Broncos Super Bowl no slam dunk

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Manning will quickly notice the Broncos don't have weapons like Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, etc. (Getty Images)  
Manning will quickly notice the Broncos don't have weapons like Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, etc. (Getty Images)  

With Peyton Manning in Denver, the all-Manning Super Bowl is in play again. In most places, the expectation is that Manning and the Broncos win the AFC West, flex their muscles in the playoffs and wind up meeting New England or Pittsburgh or Baltimore in the conference championship game.

Only I wouldn't be so sure.

First of all, I don't know that the Broncos repeat as division champion, and, yeah, OK, so they're the prohibitive favorite. They should be. They're the defending champion and just signed Peyton Frickin' Manning, for crying out loud. Plus, they won the division with Tim Tebow.

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So why shouldn't they lap the field with a future Hall of Famer? Well, maybe they do. I'm just saying it's no slam dunk, and let me explain.

First of all, there's the talent at the skill positions. There isn't much. In fact, of the 12 playoff teams in 2011, the Broncos easily had the worst collection of players at wide receiver and running back.

Sure, Willis McGahee had a marvelous season, but he turns 31 in October and hit the wall down the stretch. In five of his last six games he failed to rush for more than 76 yards and scored only once in all six -- the playoff finale vs. New England.

And what's behind McGahee? Not a lot, I'm afraid. While the Broncos led the league in rushing, much of that had to do with Tebow, who ran for 660 yards, averaged 5.4 yards per carry and led the team in rushing touchdowns.

Of course, Manning didn't exactly have the world's greatest running game in Indianapolis. In fact, in 2009, the last time the Colts made it to the Super Bowl, he had the worst. But he also had a collection of reliable and productive receivers, with Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark at the head of the class, and sorry, but I don't see those guys in Denver.

I know Demaryius Thomas might be something special -- but that's if he can stay healthy, and he hasn't for two seasons. I saw him make big catches last season, but I also saw him make big drops.

Then there's Eric Decker, and he's a solid possession receiver who should benefit from Manning's arrival. He can block, and while he's not a burner he has a reputation for having good hands and running precise routes. Still, there's nothing extraordinary here, and when I say extraordinary I'm talking a Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne.

That doesn't mean the Broncos couldn't find one. They can always recruit a free-agent like tight end Clark, a Manning favorite in Indianapolis, but he turns 33 this summer and missed 15 games the past two seasons. Maybe restricted free-agent receiver Mike Wallace is on the radar, too. I don't know, but he should be. The Broncos can't get enough playmakers for Manning, and, sorry, I don't see an abundance of them now.

Now let's look at the defense that people say bailed out Tebow. It did, but not consistently. It also ranked 20th overall, tied for 28th in takeaways and was 24th in points allowed -- surrendering 40 or more in three of its last five starts, including the playoffs. That's not how you get to the top of any division, but Denver managed, and -- admit it -- Tebow had something to do with it.

But Manning is a significant upgrade at quarterback. He can make all the throws. He's a charismatic leader. And he won big games. Only he hasn't won big games vs. a new division rival; would Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers please step forward.

The Chargers won five of their past six starts vs. Indianapolis when Manning was quarterback -- beating him, and them, twice in the playoffs and once when the Colts were 13-0. I'm not saying they own the guy, but I am saying the facts speak for themselves. And the facts are these: Rivers and coach Norv Turner are 4-1 against Manning, losing only when they dropped a 23-20 decision in 2008, and now they play in the same division as Manning.

Those Colts were better, significantly better, than these Broncos. Those Colts also played indoors, where Manning was at his best and most comfortable. His outdoor record is well documented, with his winning percentage declining as the season progresses and the climate cools. I know he's 3-0 at Denver's stadium, but he hasn't had to play a pro season where all but one of his games is outdoors -- and that's what happens in 2012.

That's not to say the guy can't make a difference. He can, and he probably will. But it's one thing to expect the Broncos to improve because they have Peyton Manning at quarterback. It's another to expect them to be Super Bowl-ready.

Manning turns 36 this week, is coming off four neck surgeries and hasn't played a down in more than a year. I don't know what happens when he takes a snap, and I don't know what happens when he takes a hit from Tamba Hali.

What I do know is that the Broncos should be better with him -- but maybe not as good as we think.

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