The Denver Broncos schedule for this season appears to be much easier than last year's, with weaker opponents overall and most of the tougher games at home in Mile High.
Prior to analyzing each game, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of this year's team will shed some light on which opponents match up favorably against the Broncos and which do not.
Passing game: Orton is in tune with the offense and his timing with this group of receivers is promising. The young receiving talent (Thomas, Decker, and Willis) mesh well with established veterans (Gaffney, Lloyd, and not so old Royal) and should allow McDaniel to run the three and four receiver sets he loves to throw at opposing defenses.
Secondary: The defensive backfield is good and deep; that will allow for the customary injury bug to hit, as it always does, without the devastating consequences like last year when Champ and Dawkins went down for a few games.
Defensive Line: Jamaal Williams and Justin Bannan have strengthened this unit but depth remains a concern. The six player rotation up front should stay fresh enough to avoid being blown off the ball like they were last year.
Special teams: The kicking and coverage units are improved and there is finally some talent to handle returns with Cox, Willis, and Vaughn sharing the duties.
Offensive Line: Injuries and inexperience will result in inconsistency in the running game but if Clady and Harris can get healthy and stay healthy, the newcomers at RG and C should develop quickly with experience.
Running Game: The combination of injuries in the backfield and inexperience on the offensive line will cause the running game to struggle early in the season. If Moreno and Buckhalter can stay on the field, this area could end up being strength. If not, it will be a long season with a patchwork group of RB trying to fill the void.
Linebackers: This group needs to start tackling better, fill the correct lanes against the run, and carry out their coverage responsibilities more effectively. They look lost when covering the underneath routes against the pass, covering TE, and defending screens. The size of the linebackers has increased but poor fundamentals and lack of mobility and speed will continue to be the Achilles heel for the Denver D.
Pass Rush: The loss of Dumervil is huge but with the right schemes and game plans, a pass rush can be generated with blitz packages and improved play from Ayers, Moss, and newcomers like Hunter. Unfortunately, the linebackers are not good blitzers so most of the heat will have to come from the secondary in nickel and dime packages.
Denver will do well offensively against teams with weak pass defenses and should have success defensively against teams that don’t run the ball well and don’t have an accurate QB with patience in the passing game.
Here are the game-by-game predictions.
Broncos at Jaguars: Jacksonville has had MJD out for the preseason and he’ll have some rust to shake off in the first game to go with an anemic passing game. Orton was good throughout the preseason and the defense is good enough to stop the Jags. Broncos 24, Jax 17.
Seahawks at Broncos: No team had a higher player turnover, probably deserved, and playing away at the Broncos home opener won’t help either. Broncos 27, Seahawks 14
Colts at Broncos: The Colts away on grass are never as good as on their home carpet and catching Manning early in the year with an inexperienced OL and almost no running game is lucky timing. Hard call here but I see the Broncos pulling off a close one after Indy has to play Houston and the NYG in their first two contests. Broncos 28, Colts 24.
Broncos at Titans: Running QB give the Denver defense fits and after two home games a loss on the road would seem fitting. Titans 23, Broncos 21.
Broncos at Ravens: A good running team and experienced QB on the road, with a defense that will force Orton to the air early and often. Nothing to like about this game—just hope they return home with some dignity. Ravens 27, Broncos 13.
Jets at Broncos: Catching the Jets at home is good, but playing a team with an offense that has yet to prove itself and that is turnover prone will work to the Broncos strengths. The NYJ will be coming off a highly publicized game against Favre and the Vikes and we know how they love the spotlight. Broncos 23, Jets 17.
Raiders at Broncos: Losing again to the Raiders at home is unthinkable. Raiders play a physical 49ers team on the road the week before so that will work in Denver’s favor. Broncos 27, Raiders 17.
Broncos at 49ers (London): This is a game against a physical team that likes to run the ball and play a short, control passing offense—both which play against Bronco weaknesses. However, SF plays a tough Carolina team on the road and will be almost 10 days away while Broncos will be at home until right before the game. Terrible conditions favor the running team but the hunch here is the Broncos pull one out. Broncos 28, 49ers 24.
Chiefs at Broncos: Revenge game for the end-of-season debacle last year at home, after a bye-week. No way the Broncos lose this one. Broncos 31, Chiefs 13.
Broncos at Chargers: Playing the Chargers at home after their bye-week won’t be pleasant. Chargers 33, Broncos 21.
Rams at Broncos: Playing a rookie QB at home, on the natural surface, leaves plenty to like about this match-up. Broncos 35, Rams 13.
Broncos at Chiefs: Arrowhead in December is always hard, no matter what the teams records are. Chiefs 23, Broncos 21.
Broncos at Cardinals: Playing Derek Anderson or Max Hall in the sun favors the visitor, no matter who it is. Broncos 28, Cardinals 17.
Broncos at Raiders: The third game in a row on the road but this is a rivalry game and is always tough. Jason Campbell is not going to scare anyone and it will be close. Broncos 31, Raiders 28.
Texans at Broncos: The hardest team to predict in the AFC, given they consistently disappoint, and playing away on the grass won't favor the type of offense the Texans run. Broncos 21, Texans 18.
Chargers at Broncos: End of the year game will be easy if the division is already sewn up by the Chargers, but if the predictions here come true, the game could be for the title and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Broncos 33, Chargers 27.
Season record: 12-4
Each season has surprises and a record of 10-6 is more likely than 12-4, but given the games against the NFC West are against three of the worst teams in the league (Seahawks, Rams, and Warner-less Cards) and getting to play SF on a neutral field, a sweep of those four games is possible.
With a 3-3 split against the AFC West, a sweep of the NFC West, and a 3-3 record against the other six opponents a record of 10-6 becomes a lot easier to imagine.
The Broncos won’t go far in the playoffs unless they are healthy and find a pass rush. They will make progress as a team with an influx of new talent on the offensive line, wide receivers, and defensive backfield.
The future looks a lot brighter than it did at the beginning of last season and the season should be a fun one to watch.