Denver Broncos: Most Important Games Outside AFC West in 2012

Travis WakemanFeatured Columnist IVJuly 11, 2012

Denver Broncos: Most Important Games Outside AFC West in 2012

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    The Denver Broncos slid into the playoffs last year after winning the AFC West with an 8-8 record, even winning a playoff game.

    But with the offseason signing of Peyton Manning, the Broncos have their sights set even higher.

    The AFC West division is a bit of a mystery right now with the Chargers and Chiefs both underachieving last season and the Raiders getting ready for their first full season without legendary owner Al Davis.

    The division seems up for grabs, but the Broncos surely feel they are the best team and they have much higher aspirations than just repeating as division champions.

    For that to occur, they will have to get big wins outside the division, and their 2012 schedule is full of opponents that will put these new-look Broncos to the test.

    Here are the games that will be key if the Broncos are to make a deeper playoff run than in 2011.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 1

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    Remember when Demaryius Thomas raced to the end zone with the game-winning touchdown on the first play of overtime in the playoffs? I guarantee the Steelers do.

    Conveniently, these two teams open the season together on Sunday night.

    The Steelers will be looking for a measure of revenge after that tough loss in January in Denver. The Broncos will be looking to usher in the Manning era on a high note.

    This will be one of the most important season openers in quite some time for the Broncos.

Houston Texans, Week 3

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    If Matt Schaub can stay healthy, the Texans are expected to be one of the AFC's best teams this coming season.

    Injuries may have been the only thing holding the Texans back from a serious Super Bowl run last season. They dealt with Andre Johnson, Mario Williams and even backup quarterback Matt Leinart missing time.

    And while third-string quarterback T.J. Yates played admirably, it wasn't the ideal situation for Gary Kubiak and his team.

    The Broncos will get this Texans team at home and it could be a good early season barometer of how good the Broncos really are.

New England Patriots, Week 5

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    This is easily one of the toughest games on the schedule, especially with it being at Gillette Stadium.

    The Patriots beat the Broncos twice last season, including knocking them out of the playoffs in the divisional round.

    In those two games, the Pats amassed 960 yards of total offense, something the Denver defense will have to remedy.

    Aside from this being the next chapter in the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry, the Patriots will be looking to get back to the Super Bowl after their disappointing loss in the big game last year.

    Tom Brady and Co. could be looking at this game as an opportunity to make an example out of the Broncos...again.

New Orleans Saints, Week 8

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    This will be the first game following the team's bye week. In the first six games prior to the bye, the Broncos face four teams that made it to the playoffs last year along with divisional opponents Oakland and San Diego.

    That is a rough start for sure, but after the bye week and against a team surrounded by questions in New Orleans, this is one the Broncos need to take advantage of and win at home.

    The Saints still have a very good team filled with plenty of weapons, but they will have had multiple interim head coaches by Week 8.

    Joe Vitt will be in his second game in that position after serving a six-game suspension, and the team will have to fly in from Tampa Bay after playing the Buccaneers.

    This is a game the Broncos should win.

Baltimore Ravens, Week 15

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    The Ravens were on the doorstep of the Super Bowl last season and will certainly be in contention for another chance at it this season.

    This will be a mid-December game at M&T Bank Stadium, and if the Broncos are in position for the playoffs, it could be a huge game.

    The Ravens are a team the Broncos have struggled with historically, holding a 3-6 series record against them. They will need to reverse that trend in this one.

    Following that, they finish the season with back-to-back home games versus Cleveland and Kansas City, two games you'd expect the Broncos to win.