Crazy, off your rocker, cracked, and insane.
Those are the words I would use if you had told me in August that the Broncos would be 6-0 going into their bye and talk of a Super Bowl run, let alone a playoff berth, would be discussed with a straight face.
But here we are.
Most fans almost always hold out hope at the start of every season that this could be "the year" for their team, but it was especially hard for Broncos fans to even give consideration to such thought this year. Their stalwart head coach was gone, as was their young Pro Bowl franchise quarterback, and their star wide receiver was throwing a temper tantrum that would make Terrell Owens proud. The defense was rebuilding in a new scheme under yet another defensive coordinator. Broncos fans were bracing for the worst year the team had in recent memory.
But here we are.
The team is 6-0 going into their bye. The rookie head coach, Josh McDaniels, looks like a genius and the new quarterback, Kyle Orton, is having a career year playing practically mistake-free football. Brandon Marshall, the angry receiver, has overall bought into the team's philosophy and is back playing in Pro Bowl form. Perhaps most surprisingly, the defense has been playing lights-out football, pressuring the quarterback and generating turnovers.
Thanks to their 34-23 win over the San Diego Chargers Monday night, the Broncos hold a three and a half game lead in the AFC West. The team is healthy overall, and the confidence of McDaniels and his team is at an all-time high. Barring an even more monumental collapse than last season, the Broncos are likely to make the postseason for the first time since the 2005-2006 season.
But why stop there?
If the Broncos are going to make a serious run at the Lombardi trophy, there are areas they definitely have to improve in. Here are the three most important areas of improvement:
1. Start games faster
During the first half of games this year the Broncos are barely outscoring their opponents, 57-56. During the second half, however, the Broncos are walloping the other team by a combined score of 76-10.
The Broncos have been fortunate so far, but if they are to make a deep playoff run, they need to get off to a better start. If they face Indianapolis in playoffs, which they very likely could (and the teams do meet during the regular season as well), the Broncos will need to at least keep pace as the Colts can put up points early and often as long as Peyton Manning is under center. Same goes for the Patriots as we all saw what Tom Brady is capable of during their 59-0 demolition of the Tennessee Titans.
In order to fix this, Orton needs to get in a rhythm much sooner than he has. He usually starts games out 0 for 2 or so and it's key that he be accurate early. While it's only two passes, you never know if those could turn out to be big plays.
The two-headed rushing attack of Correll Buckhalter and Knowshon Moreno must also be sharp early. While they don't need to get a first down every carry, pounding outs runs of four, five or six yards go a long way towards forcing the opposing defense into respecting the run game and allowing Orton to make more plays down the field.
2. Stop committing so many penalties
Looking at this past game against the Chargers, the Broncos were penalized four times for 44 yards. While the numbers don't look that bad, they don't show the entire picture. Two of them were absolutely inexcusable and could have cost the Broncos the game.
One was on Marshall for unsportsmanlike conduct in the second quarter that, had the Chargers not also committed a pass interference penalty, would have made an easy field goal for Matt Prater that much harder to make by backing the team up 15 yards. Three points could have come off the board there.
The second was on Moreno for spiking the ball after not getting a first down on 3rd and 1. It was a five yard delay of game penalty that, had it occurred further down field, the Broncos could have lost points there as well.
Correcting this issue lies with both the players and the coaches. The players need to maintain focus and mental discipline while the coaches need to inform the players that continually committing penalties could cause them to be removed from the field.
While the Broncos don't have as severe an issue with penalties as say the Green Bay Packers do, committing penalties in key game situations will bring any potential postseason run to a grinding halt.
3. Handle adversity properly
I'm going to stop short of saying there's no way the Broncos run the table and go 16-0. If there is one thing I have learned about the NFL, it is to expect the unexpected. However, since the New England Patriots in 2007 were the only team since 1972 to complete a perfect regular season, it seems relatively safe to say the Broncos will lose at least one game along the way this year.
This is just about the only thing we have not seen from the team at this point: how they bounce back. At 6-0, they haven't dealt with a loss yet. They have faced close games, but each one has turned out in their favor.
They can likely bounce back from one, but what happens if the team loses two or three games in a row? Will they begin to see themselves as overachievers that played too hard at the beginning of the season and that they aren't as good as they thought they were? Will the confidence of the team begin to dwindle?
My guess right now would be no. McDaniels has been saying all season that he and the team haven't accomplished anything yet and it is key to be playing their best football at the end of the season. He is trying to keep the team humble by saying that many mistakes were made and need to be corrected.
McDaniels is saying all the right things, but we won't know for sure until some adversity occurs. Here's hoping it doesn't, but it likely will.
They can do it
Based on what we have seen through six games, it's possible for the Broncos to make a deep playoff push. That said, this team is far from perfect and they need to correct the above issues amongst others if they want to make a run for glory.
It would be the ultimate Cinderella story, and these first six chapters have been a lot of fun to watch. Here's hoping the next ten are just as exciting.