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The AFC West is more like the “Wild West” historically, with wonderfully intense rivalries and heated battles for supremacy. For many years, the division has been so contentious, it comes down to the final week of the season to be decided. And if one team knows they can’t make it in, they can still find pleasure in knocking one of their rivals out of the playoffs.
The fierce nature of the four original and now current AFC West teams leads to shifts in power almost annually. Until recently.
The Denver Broncos have dominated the West from 2011-present, putting up a 46-18 regular season record during the last four seasons.
Dating back to 1960, the beginning of the American Football League – which all four teams started in – only four times has one team has won the division four straight years or more.
Twice it was the Oakland Raiders, in the 1960s and 70s. They were in complete control of the AFC West for nearly an entire decade, taking the title from 1967-1970 and 1972-76. Then, from 2006-2009, the San Diego Chargers were champs of the West. LaDainian Tomlinson running all over the Broncos defenses of those years still haunts Denver die-hards to this day.
And that brings us to the most recent time one team has won four straight years or more, with the Broncos’ current streak running from 2011 to the present.
Of those times, only once has a team won five straight times. Never has someone commanded the division to win six times.
It begs the question; Is Denver’s dominance of the wild West over? Or, at least, nearly over?
In 2011, the Broncos were less than dominant, starting 1-4 before Kyle Orton was benched in favor of Tim Tebow. Tebow led the team on heart-pounding, last-second win after win, willing Denver to an 8-8 record as they backed into the playoffs.
After Peyton Manning was signed in 2012 – one of the greatest free agent signings in the history of the league – Denver’s successes were quick to follow. They’ve gone 13-3, 13-3 and 12-4 respectively with Manning behind center, and look to continue that success this season.
But, at age 39, there’s no doubt Manning’s in the twilight of his career. The sun is fading fast behind those majestic Rocky Mountains for “The Sheriff.” He’s still performing at an other-worldly level as a passer, yet, no one can play the brutal game of football forever.
This 2015 season, it seems, may be the final chance the Broncos have at winning a Super Bowl in quite some time. Who will be the team’s next quarterback following Manning’s looming retirement? If he doesn’t quit the NFL after this season, it will almost certainly come after 2016.
Fans who have followed the team long enough to witness what can happen when a franchise quarterback retires (see: the 1999-2002 Broncos post-John Elway) know it can be a long time waiting until the team rebounds and re-establishes itself with a new QB.
Denver is potentially one of the top teams in the NFL heading into training camp of the 2015 season. They’ll need production from the stars as well as multiple young players to realize that potential, while quickly grasping Gary Kubiak’s new offensive playbook and Wade Phillips’ defensive schemes.
The Broncos must come together and must not take this upcoming season for granted. This may be the end of a remarkable run in as best in the West.