The Tim Tebow era was fun while it lasted, but now it's time for John Fox's squad to get serious about competing for championships rather than scrounging together miraculous comebacks week after week. The offense around Manning isn't particularly impressive, but the defense is improving and, well, Manning has dragged teams with lesser talent either to the Super Bowl or a stone's throw away from it.
Of course, the Broncos have a long way to go before they can even dream about bringing the Vince Lombardi Trophy back to the Mile High City. The rest of the NFL will certainly have something to say about it, especially considering that Denver's schedule ranks as the second-toughest in the league heading into the 2012 season.
Let's have a look at what lies ahead for Manning and his new 'mates.
Denver's 2012 Regular-Season Schedule:
Week 2, Sept. 17: Denver Broncos vs. Atlanta Falcons 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Week 3, Sept. 23: Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos 4:15 p.m. ET, CBS
Week 4, Sept. 30: Oakland Raiders vs. Denver Broncos 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS
Week 5, Oct. 7: Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots 4:15 p.m. ET, CBS
Week 6, Oct. 15: Denver Broncos vs. San Diego Chargers 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Week 7: BYE
Week 8, Oct. 28: New Orleans Saints vs. Denver Broncos 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
Week 9, Nov. 4: Denver Broncos vs. Cincinnati Bengals 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS
Week 10, Nov. 11: Denver Broncos vs. Carolina Panthers 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS
Week 11, Nov. 18: San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos 4:15 p.m. ET, CBS
Week 12, Nov. 25: Denver Broncos vs. Kansas City Chiefs 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS
Week 13, Dec. 2: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Denver Broncos 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX
Week 14, Dec. 6: Denver Broncos vs. Oakland Raiders 8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network
Week 15, Dec. 16: Denver Broncos vs. Baltimore Ravens 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS
Week 16, Dec. 23: Cleveland Browns vs. Denver Broncos 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS
Week 17, Dec. 30: Kansas City Chiefs vs. Denver Broncos 4:15 p.m. ET, CBS
The AFC West portions of the schedule may seem like a cakewalk at first glance, until you consider just how competitive of a division it was in 2011. No team finished worse than 7-9 (the Kansas City Chiefs) last season, and while the lack of a team with a winning record doesn't shine favorably on the West, the fact that all four teams went 3-3 against each other suggests a tougher road ahead for the Broncos than you might expect.
And that's without so much as mentioning the murderer's row of opponents lining up at Denver's door outside of the division.
The Broncos will face seven teams (the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Baltimore Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Houston Texans, the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons) that reached the playoffs last season, plus another (the Carolina Panthers) that figures to be in the mix this time around.
It's a good thing, then, that Manning chose to hitch himself to John Elway's wagon. Otherwise, the Broncos might be in for a world of pain this fall.
Most Pivotal Matchup
For most teams, the biggest games on the schedule are the ones within the division.
The Broncos, though, figure to circle the dates on their calendar against a pair of other AFC opponents—the Steelers and the Patriots. Pittsburgh will be back at Mile High Stadium to exact revenge for that shocking overtime loss in the Wild Card Round of last season's playoffs, while New England will welcome Denver back to the burial site of Tebowmania, where Tom Brady hung six touchdowns on the Broncos defense.
Neither game will directly impact Denver's standing in the race for the AFC West crown, though both will go a long way toward determining whether the Broncos are legitimate Super Bowl contenders or merely fringe postseason hopefuls.
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