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Mile High Morning: ESPN's Bill Barnwell says Broncos are the best they've been since Super Bowl 50

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The Lead

With the regular season upon us, ESPN's Bill Barnwell has graded each team's probability of making a postseason appearance, and their chances of winning it all in Super Bowl LVI. While the Broncos only have a 1.1% chance of emerging as Super Bowl champs in 2022 (no team outside the top eight has more than a 5% chance), according to Barnwell, they have a 40.8% chance of making the postseason, which is 8% higher than Barnwell estimated their chances ahead of last season (32.8%).

Part of that bump in playoff likelihood is due to Denver's improved defense, which, along with free agent acquisitions and returning stars, added top-line talent and depth with an impressive rookie class. Denver drafted CB Pat Surtain II, who appears to be destined to become a starter before long, in the first round; LB Baron Browning in the third, safeties Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson in the fifth round; and CB Kary Vincent Jr. and OLB Jonathon Cooper, who had an explosive preseason, in the seventh.

That defense should set the stage for starting QB Teddy Bridgewater to be in top form for the Broncos, as historically he has played his best football when backed by a top-notch defense.

"Bridgewater wasn't able to propel a Panthers team with a dismal defense into many victories last season," Barnwell said, "but when he has been blessed with great defenses in Minnesota and New Orleans, he has done enough to hold up his end of the bargain."

When Bridgewater stepped in for injured Saints QB Drew Brees in 2019, supported by a dominant New Orleans defense, he led the Saints to five straight wins in his five starts, throwing for 1,205 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions.

In Denver, Bridgewater will be able to lean on the run game, which packs a nasty one-two punch of veteran Melvin Gordon III and lauded rookie Javonte Williams, as well as a talented young receiving corps that includes Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, who could both be in line for breakout second-year campaigns. Bridgewater will also benefit from the return of Pro Bowl WR Courtland Sutton; the two have already developed chemistry and connected for a touchdown during Week 3 of the preseason, the first since Sutton's devastating injury cost him his 2020 season.

If Bridgewater can mirror his success in New Orleans and Minnesota this season, letting a dominant Broncos defense keep opposing offenses under control while he steers a dangerous offensive arsenal into the end zone, Denver could be primed for its first playoff berth in five years.

"A top-five Broncos defense and an offense teeming with young players could be scarier than they look heading into the season," Barnwell said. "Not as scary as the Chiefs, perhaps, but this is the highest-ceiling Broncos team since the Peyton Manning era."

Below the Fold

Williams may not be boisterous, but he is quietly lethal. Despite staying out of the spotlight for much of training camp and the preseason, he has garnered praise from across the league, including comparisons to Pro Bowl and Offensive Rookie of the Year RBs from seasons past.

Regardless, Williams is putting all of his energy into showing his potential on the field, quietly laying the foundation for what many are predicting to be a breakout rookie campaign.

The latest to jump on the Williams train is NFL.com's Adam Schein. In his predictions for the 2021 NFL season, Schein calls Williams "a steal of a draft pick in Round 2," and projects him to be the best rookie RB of the season.

"I still love [Steelers rookie RB] Najee Harris, but Williams is set up for a stellar rookie season," Stein said. "Bridgewater recently compared Williams to his old Saints teammate, Alvin Kamara. Good enough for me."

In his preseason debut, Williams picked up 29 yards on five carries, averaging 5.8 yards per carry and helping in pass protection. With the regular season just a few days away, Williams could have his first opportunity to break free and show everyone exactly what he's capable of.

If Schein's predictions are right, Williams should be an explosive addition to Denver's offense. 

"Williams is a fantastic blend of everything you want in a back," Schein said. "The guy was a tackle-breaking machine at North Carolina. Not to mention, he ranked as PFF's No. 1 inside zone/power runner in college football last fall, so Denver's offense will fit him like a glove."

The Unclassifieds

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