Athlon Sports will preview the upcoming 2012 NFL season with in-depth roundtable debates with our editors and other experts from around the world of football.
Q: Should Peyton Manning play all 16 games in 2012, will the Denver Broncos win the AFC West?
Jim Armstrong (ESPN Radio-Denver):
Yes, with an asterisk. As in, if they survive the early stages of their schedule. The league wants Manning on the national stage against prime-time opponents, and the Broncos' first two games will be Sunday night vs. Pittsburgh, followed by a Monday nighter at Atlanta. They then return to Denver on a short week to play the Texans. Add in roadies vs. New England and San Diego in Weeks 5 and 6, and a .500 record going into their Week 7 bye wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. That said, there's no reason -- none -- to think that Manning won't be a reasonable facsimile of his old self. The coaches, however, are adamant about not putting him under the kind of pressure he felt in 2010 with a Colts team whose core talent had started to slip. He led the league with 450 completions and 679 attempts that season. Given his physical history in the past year, having him stand in the pocket that often isn't good business. Finally, there's the issue of the AFC West. If the Broncos are indeed .500 going into their bye week, they ought to be in good shape in arguably the league's worst division.
Rob Doster (Athlon Sports):
One man stands between Peyton Manning and an AFC West title in his maiden voyage in orange and blue: Philip Rivers. A bounce-back season from Rivers in the form of even slightly better ball security should give the Chargers the crown in a weak division. Manning simply doesn’t have the weapons around him that Rivers does. In particular, I’m reluctant to put much faith in an aging Willis McGahee as a featured back. Remember — Denver’s top-ranked running game of a year ago was built around a guy who’s wearing green this year. I prefer my featured backs to be of a younger vintage, and if Ryan Mathews delivers like I think he will, the San Diego offense will be unstoppable. Manning’s return is a great story, but the payoff won’t match the hype, even if he plays all 16 games.
Kim Constantinesco (PredominantlyOrange.com and @PredomOrange):
Without a doubt, the Broncos will win the AFC West if Peyton Manning starts all 16 games. Many people question his arm strength after sitting out an entire year and enduring more neck surgeries. The funny thing is in '09-'10 when Manning attempted to throw from beyond 21 yards, he had just a 30.5% completion percentage. That was the same year that he had 4,500 passing yards. What that means is if Manning never regains his arm strength, he can still be effective. Manning is not only the best quarterback in the division, but he's the player that has the most control. Rather than playing from behind, the Broncos will most likely be playing from ahead which enables them to use a more aggressive defense. Manning's presence changes all aspects of the team game. That's why he will make such a dramatic impact on the division.
Nathan Rush (Athlon Sports):
Peyton Manning is 36 years old, recovering from (at least) four neck surgeries and hasn't played a game since Jan. 8, 2011. Still, everyone is treating him as if he's some sort of quarterbacking robot; tighten a few screws, wind him up and watch him play 16 games in his first season with the Denver Broncos. I hope so, but it's not a realistic expectation and I'm not banking on it. Even if he does stay healthy, he has to work his way back into top form while adjusting to a new supporting cast. Give me the San Diego Chargers, a squad that has clinched four of the last six AFC West titles. The Bolts are led by a 30-year-old Philip Rivers — who hasn't missed a game since taking over for Drew Brees in 2006 — and a coach, in Norv Turner, who is in do-or-die mode.
Mark Ross (Athlon Sports):
If Peyton can prove he's healthy then I think Denver is the team to beat in the AFC West. However, that's a rather large IF. And the reality is we won't really know until we see No. 18 back under center. This is pretty much the same Broncos' team that won the division last year, with one key exception. Tim Tebow is now with the Jets and Manning is with the Broncos. No one can argue that Manning is a significant upgrade over Tebow when it comes to the quarterback position, but there's still the matter of Manning making the transition to his new team and vice versa. Denver's young defense should continue to get better, but in the end it's all going to come down to Manning. After all, the Broncos' backup quarterbacks are Caleb Hanie and rookie Brock Osweiler, meaning there is no Plan B.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall):
This division feels, much like last year, wide open in 2012. The Raiders should be improved but are breaking in a new coaching staff. The Chiefs can only be better — and healthier this time around. And the Chargers are still loaded with talent after another solid draft class. But Denver swapped Tim Tebow for arguably the top quarterback of this generation. John Fox has always been a run-first coach and one of the league's top offensive lines will help ease the now-brittle Peyton Manning back into action. The first half of the schedule is brutal but the power running game and developing defense should keep the Broncos in the AFC West race. So I will say yes, if Manning plays the entire year, Denver will win the West. That, and I have no faith in Norv Turner and A.J. Smith winning any sort of championship.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman):
I think the answer is yes, but barely. Peyton Manning, rusty or not, will be an effective quarterback if he plays the entire season. Improving a run defense that ranked 22nd in the NFL last year, an aging Willis McGahee and a brutal first half of the schedule are much bigger concerns for the Broncos' success in 2012. There is a good chance that Manning and the offense get off to a slow start, and the defense must adjust to new coordinator Jack Del Rio. But if the Broncos can survive (4-4, 3-5?) their first eight games in which there are six playoff teams from last year, then Denver should be the favorite in a division that can be had with eight or nine wins. San Diego has a solid roster and Kansas City gets some stars back from injury, but the Broncos should take the AFC West with a healthy No. 18.