A franchise mired in mediocrity took a giant leap forward when they fired two-time Super Bowl champion and head coach Mike Shanahan after losing a three-game lead with as many games remaining. Owner Pat Bowlen selected Bill Belichick prodigy Josh McDaniels as his replacement.
He received so much criticism in the offseason prior to even coaching a single NFL game. He attempted to trade an up-and-coming big-time quarterback in Jay Cutler for the New England backup and former quarterback in his Patriot offense, Matt Cassel.
It didn't happen, but Jay Cutler was so pissed off that his new coach would think of getting rid of him that he demanded a trade. He got his wish and ended up with the Chicago Bears for two first-round draft picks and the unwanted Kyle Orton. Following that move McDaniels received a huge backlash from the Denver media and the fans.
The team that has sold out every game in its existence was on the verge of making a reprehensible decision if it turned out badly. Following "Cutler-gate," the Broncos star wide receiver, Brandon Marshall, had some offseason troubles and also demanded a trade before the season began. He wasn't as lucky as Cutler.
McDaniels decided to keep the disgruntled wideout and the Broncos began the season as a huge underdog. McDaniels' imprint was set in stone and it was relatively quiet in the locker room as the 2009-2010 season began.
The Broncos opened up with probably the most memorable game of opening weekend. Brandon Stokely caught a miracle deflection and scampered 87 yards to lead the Broncos to their first victory.
They followed it up with a couple of wins against the lowly Browns and Raiders. Respect was not officially earned from the national media until they defeated the Cowboys, Patriots, and Chargers. The fanbase was buzzing and they had forgot all about Shanahan and Cutler in Denver.
Kyle Orton was playing out of his mind and a once terrible defense had made a complete turnaround. Former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan had transformed the Broncos into a formidable foe for opposing offenses. Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey led one of the most feared secondaries in the NFL. No hopes in August had officially turned into promising Super Bowl aspirations as the Broncos headed into November.
The Broncos strolled into Baltimore on top of the world for a tough game against a very good Ravens team. After losing three straight, the Ravens were in a must-win situation. The Broncos were only down 16-7 entering the fourth quarter after playing easily as poorly as they had all season.
They were unable to extend their great start, but were forgiven for the loss in Denver because of the desperation shown by the Ravens. Next on the docket were the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football. The Broncos defense was stout and gave the Broncos a 10-7 lead in the third quarter with a Robert Ayers fumble recovery and return for a touchdown.
The Denver offense did absolutely nothing after their first drive in which Matt Prater capped off with a 40-yard field goal. Every other drive ended in an interception or punt. It turned out to be far too much to overcome as Ben Roethlisberger manufactured 21 unanswered points to finish the game.
The Denver defense only allowed 14 legitimate points. One Orton interception was returned for a touchdown and the other Steeler score came off a turnover at the Denver 25-yard line. A sad story for another very good performance by the Denver defense.
Skepticism was beginning to set in throughout the Mile High city. Fans were crossing their fingers that the Broncos would straighten it out against an underachieving Redskins club. Things started out promising for Denver when the offense clicked from the opening kickoff. Kyle Orton hit Brandon Marshall for two very long first-half touchdowns and ended up with a total of 193 yard passing through two quarters.
What didn't appear of any significance at the time was a tweak to the ankle of Kyle Orton just before the end of the first half. McDaniels was forced to put Chris Simms in the game for the entire second half and he finished 3-of-13 for 13 yards and an interception. Enough to generate zero second-half points and cost the Broncos a much needed road victory.
Now the Broncos were 6-3 and tied for the division lead with the hated San Diego Chargers. In addition to the tie, the Broncos had their hated rivals at home next on the schedule.
Chris Simms was given his first start since 2006 and he played like it. He only played three series before being replaced by the injured Orton. He finished 2-of-4 for 10 yards and looked lost in the pocket taking a handful of sacks. Josh McDaniels should have been criticized much more for his decision during the game.
If Orton was good enough to go at the point, he should have started the game. Instead he spotted the Chargers a 13-0 lead that was insurmountable. The Chargers walked all over the Broncos at Invesco Field for a 32-3 victory.
Panic had officially set in. Now 6-4, the Broncos were on the verge of one of the biggest collapses in NFL history. No team to start 6-0 had ever lost their next five games. The struggling New York Giants came to town on Thanksgiving evening and the Broncos destroyed them.
In a dominating effort, the Broncos controlled the entire game and allowed only six points. A 26-6 victory was satisfying for the city and kept the Broncos on pace within the division and conference.
An easy victory in Kansas City by 31 points had given the Broncos a two-game cushion in the wild-card race and kept them within one of the Chargers. The Broncos then traveled to face the undefeated Indianapolis Colts and they had multiple chances to change that mark.
A number of unsuccessful offensive drives in Indianapolis territory lead to a two-game deficit in the AFC West. An AFC West championship now looked like a lost cause with San Diego playing so well. The Broncos had an 8-5 record with two very winnable games remaining.
Ahead for the Broncos: a divisional home matchup against a very bad Raiders team as well as a season finale against a team they just throttled by 31 points in the Kansas City Chiefs, with a road game against the streaking Philadelphia Eagles in the middle.
So, with three games remaining the Broncos had everything on the line this past Sunday at home against the Raiders. Dismal offense and an opportunistic JaMarcus Russell in the final minute of the game caused the Broncos to lose what could have been pretty much a Wild-Card clinching game.
A victory would have given them a 9-5 record and they would have been one win from clinching an AFC playoff spot. Now they are 8-6 and travel to Philadelphia this week. The Eagles are still in must-win mode with the Giants on their heels and a chance to catch the Vikings for the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Denver is in chaos over these Broncos. Who can they expect on the field? A team that beat the Patriots, Cowboys, and Chargers, or the team that lost to the Raiders and Redskins?
Josh McDaniels has made many mistakes in his young coaching career and most likely will learn from them. Many risky on-the-field decisions, just like his mentor Bill Belichick, may have cost the Broncos points on a few chances. He needs to realize this team can't score at will and they need to put up anything they can.
The Broncos still have a legit chance of making the playoffs and the loss could actually benefit them when it comes to first-round opponents. If they finish up as the No. 6 seed they will probably travel to Cincinnati.
Can Denver fans take another collapse? Prosperity early in the season has turned into a lot of holiday season agony for Broncos country. It will be three straight seasons in which Denver has had a two-game or more lead with less than three weeks remaining and not made the playoffs.
Maybe it's just bad luck or maybe it's the curse of John Elway. Mike Shanahan was a genius but didn't have the same luck without ole No. 7. The Broncos blew a must-win against a terrible 49ers club two years back and, essentially, a playoff game against the Chargers last year; Shanahan lost his job. Should McDaniels lose his?
Same story, different path of getting there. Maybe the solution is hiring John Elway. Denver fans need to start calling for Elway to get back into the game and on the field in Denver. Maybe that will bring a little December magic.