Peyton Manning and the Broncos sprinted out of the gate this season, shattering numerous NFL offensive records week after week.
The Denver defense battled through a mix of injuries and ineffectiveness to do just enough for the team to stand 7-1 halfway through 2013.
And now, the Broncos are without John Fox as he recovers from heart surgery.
Before the season started, 7-1 through eight games would have been tremendous for any intelligent Broncos’ fan.
Take away the obvious wins against the Raiders and Jaguars. The Ravens, Colts and Redskins were playoff teams last year.
Denver’s week two trip to East Rutherford against Eli Manning was supposed to be far from an easy game.
Don’t forget that everyone was saying how good the Eagles would be with Chip Kelly’s new offense.
And that matchup with the Cowboys? Most people thought it would be close, and it was.
Ignorant Bronco haters argue that Denver has yet to be truly tested, making their 7-1 record meaningless.
It’s true, the Broncos’ first eight opponents combined for 26 wins through week nine.
But it’s not like the NFL is going to change their schedule midseason.
Have the Broncos beaten some bad teams? Yeah. But their division rival Chiefs have played even more of a lollipop schedule up to this point.
While both teams essentially play the same teams, the Chiefs have yet to have a single tough matchup on the road.
Here are Kansas City’s games away from Arrowhead through week nine: at Jacksonville, at Philadelphia, at Tennessee, at Buffalo.
Those four teams are a combined 11-23.
Here are Denver’s contests away from Mile High through week nine: at New York, at Dallas, at Indianapolis.
Despite these clubs having an average 13-12 record, two will make the playoffs.
The Chiefs may be 9-0, but will find a way to lose at least three games during the second half of the season. When they’re on, the defense is scary good. Their 36 sacks lead the league by a landslide.
But they have question marks offensively. Jamaal Charles might be on the verge of getting overworked and Dwayne Bowe, who should have top 10 receiver numbers year after year, is on pace for a pedestrian 600 yards and four touchdowns in 2013.
Alex Smith has won a ton of regular season the last few years. But there’s a reason he was benched for Colin Kaepernick by the 49ers last year. He’s not a playmaker. Kudos to Smith for taking care of the ball better than most quarterbacks.
But when the Chiefs have to play the Broncos, Chargers and Colts, opposing quarterbacks need to make plays.
Smith isn’t that guy.
When the regular season ends, the Chiefs will be 13-3.
That means the Broncos can’t afford to lose more than two games in the second half of the season if they want that number one seed come playoff time.
Considering Denver’s second half opponents have 41 wins through week nine, that will be a challenge.
Go ahead and mark down wins when the Broncos play the Titans, Chargers, Texans and Raiders to close out the season. It’s the first four games after the bye that will be interesting.
A road game in San Diego didn’t seem that difficult a while ago. But the Chargers are 4-4 thanks to Philip Rivers playing like his old self.
The Broncos host the Chiefs the following week, in what should result in Kansas City’s first loss of 2013.
November 24 pins another Sunday night game for Denver as Manning takes his team to Foxborough for a duel with Tom Brady. Brady is having a terrible year, but somehow the Pats are 7-2.
December games in Arrowhead rarely turn out well for the road team. The winner of this game could very well be the winner of the AFC West.
If the Broncos can go 3-1 during that brutal four-game stretch, they have a great chance of outlasting the Chiefs for the number one seed in the AFC.
Three keys to the San Diego game for Denver:
- Win the turnover battle. The Broncos proved against the Redskins that they can cause turnovers in bunches. Plus, the Chargers have the fewest takeaways in the NFL. Advantage, Denver.
- Expose the old Rivers. I’m not a full believer that Rivers is an elite quarterback again. If Von Miller and Rivers’ old teammate Shaun Phillips can pressure him the way they did against RG3, Denver wins big.
- Do it for Foxy. Jack Del Rio is more than capable of filling in for Fox, as evidenced by his years as head coach with the Jaguars. Fox could be back in several weeks or several months. Regardless, look for players to rally emotionally this Sunday.
My prediction: Broncos-37, Chargers-27