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Merilatt: This could be the best Broncos team ever

When it comes to determining the greatest team in Broncos history, a handful of options jump to mind. But from the 53 seasons of professional football in Denver, three rise to the top.

In 1977, not much was expected of the Broncos. After all, the team featured a first-year head coach (Red Miller) and was guided by an aging quarterback who had been written off by most football people (Craig Morton). Sure, they had a talented defense; but there was still little reason to believe that Denver would end its 17-year playoff drought.

A six-game winning streak to start the season, however, got everyone’s attention. And another run of a half-dozen wins helped the Broncos to a franchise-best 12-2 record, their first AFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Denver would ride the first edition of Mile High Magic all the way to Super Bowl XII before falling to Dallas 27-10.

That team featured the NFL’s Coach of the Year (Miller), Comeback Player of the Year (Morton), and five Pro Bowl selections (Lyle Alzado, Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Billy Thompson and Louis Wright). The 1977 Broncos were defined by their defense, a group that allowed just 148 points in 14 games and held seven opponents to 10 points or fewer.

In 1998, the Broncos were the defending Super Bowl champions, but they didn’t suffer from any sort of title hangover. Instead, Denver spent the season on a mission to prove that winning their first Lombardi Trophy wasn’t a fluke. And they almost wound up making history in the process.

The title defense started with 13 consecutive victories, putting the first undefeated season in the NFL since 1972 within reach. But a loss at New York on Dec. 13, when a late touchdown gave the Giants a 20-16 edge, ended the dream. That setback didn’t derail Denver’s quest for a repeat, however. The Broncos rolled to a 14-2 regular season record and then stormed through the playoffs, outscoring their three postseason opponents 95-32.

That team featured the league’s Most Valuable Player (Terrell Davis), a rushing game that produced a 2,000-yard rusher (Davis), an aerial attack that featured a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith), a kicker who tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal (Jason Elam), and nine Pro Bowl selections (Steve Atwater, Davis, John Elway, Tony Jones, McCaffrey, Tom Nalen, Mark Schlereth and Shannon Sharpe). The 1998 Broncos were defined by their firepower, scoring 501 points on the season, winning by more than 14 points per game and finishing the season as the NFL’s third-ranked offense.

Heading into 2012, the Broncos were a team apparently in transition. After winning the AFC West and advancing to the Divisional Playoffs the season before, Denver got a makeover when they landed the greatest free-agent prize in NFL history – four-time league MVP Peyton Manning – and sent wildly popular quarterback Tim Tebow packing to New York.

The switch didn’t start off well. The Broncos limped out of the gates, starting the season 2-3, and were trailing 24-0 at halftime in week six. But with the season on the line, Denver rallied for a 35-24 victory to even up their record, kicking off what would ultimately become an 11-game winning streak. The orange and blue would finish the season 13-3, win the AFC West by six games and claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The team featured an MVP candidate (Manning), a Comeback Player of the Year possibility (Manning), a Defensive Player of the Year contender (Von Miller), a player who set a franchise record for passing yards, completions, touchdown passes and passer rating (Manning), a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas) and five Pro Bowl selections (Champ Bailey, Ryan Clady, Elvis Dumervil, Manning and Miller). The 2012 Broncos were defined by their balance, boasting the league’s fourth-ranked offense and No. 3 defense.

So which of the three is worthy of being called the best Broncos team of all-time? Right now, it’s the champion (1998) first and the runner-up (1977) second, but that could all change in the next three weeks.

If Denver is able to hold serve at home and advance to the Super Bowl, the 2012 team will surpass ’77 on the list. This year’s Broncos boast a defense that is just as formidable, as both could dominate games on that side of the ball, but have a vastly superior offense.

And if they’re able to win in New Orleans on Feb. 3, the current group will move past ’98 in the rankings. The 2012 edition may lag slightly behind in terms of offense (it’s hard to beat the two dimensions put forth by Elway and Davis), but their defense is significantly better. Being a top-10 team on both sides of the ball makes them superior.

This year’s Denver team has the chance to be special. They’re more than just a division champ, a No. 1 seed in the postseason and a Super Bowl contender.

Four weeks from today, the 2012 Broncos could be deemed the best team in franchise history.

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