In about a four hour span Sunday, the Denver Broncos went from offensive juggernaut to overmatched and overwhelmed against a swarming Seattle Seahawks defense that is among the best in recent memory.
The Broncos are better than the team that barely showed up for the Super Bowl. They just picked the worst possible time to play their worst four quarters of the season. The stars had seemed to be aligned for the Broncos to win the Super Bowl and for quarterback Peyton Manning, the NFL's Most Valuable Player, to further bolster his legacy. Now they are left to pick up the pieces of another shattered season.
Once they have done that, though, there is no reason to think they can't glue another contender together.
It all starts with Manning. His body might be getting stiffer year after year and his arm strength is not what it was after 15 years in the NFL and multiple neck surgeries. But his football mind is as sharp as ever, and given the playmakers the Broncos have assembled around him, you have to think Manning has at least one more uber-productive season left in him.
Wide receiver Eric Decker and running back Knowshon Moreno, two of the team's most productive players this past year, will be free agents and seem likely to sign elsewhere. But the Broncos still have a towering deep threat in Demaryius Thomas, an athletic tight end in Julius Thomas and a shifty chain-mover in Wes Welker. Throw in Montee Ball, the prolific college running back the Broncos drafted in the second round in 2013, and Manning still has plenty to work with.
The defense will continue to be a work in progress. The Broncos will need to find a pass rusher to permanently pair with outside linebacker Von Miller, who spent the end of the season and the Super Bowl on injured reserve. And their secondary is in dire need of some upgrades, with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie heading to free agency and Champ Bailey heading further into the twilight of his career. But recent history shows that you don't need a defense as formidable as Seattle's to win a title.
Like most teams, including the Ravens, the Broncos have a lot of difficult questions to answer this offseason. But as long as Manning is still in Denver to be the glue that holds that franchise together, you have to figure that the Broncos will be among the biggest obstacles standing in the way if the Ravens are to make it back to the Super Bowl in 2014.