The entire known universe held its breath Tuesday night in giddy anticipation of yet another of the NFL’s self-created holidays: the annual release of their season schedule. While the hype surrounding the schedule’s release may be a tad overblown, there’s no questioning that this day is an important one for players and coaches as they begin to think about how their season will play out.
On the surface, the Denver Broncos schedule feels like a cupcake. However, predicting a team’s record in mid-April is a near impossibility. For everything we know about this Broncos team, and the teams they’ll be playing, there are at least ten things we don’t know. How will Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme mesh with Peyton Manning’s skill-set? How will Wade Phillip’s 3-4 defense impact that unit’s production?
There are literally hundreds of things that can and will change between now and the beginning of the season. It’s important to approach this schedule with extreme caution. Heck, the draft hasn’t even happened yet. However, this is the NFL. There’s no tolerance for caution in this league. So, let’s throw caution to the wind, take a long, hard look at this schedule, and decide where the Broncos should be at the end of the 2015 regular season.
(All times MST)
Week 1: VS. Baltimore Ravens
Sunday, September 13, 2:25PM, CBS
The Broncos open their 2015 campaign at home in a game that has all the juicy storylines the NFL looks for in a Week 1 matchup. Gary Kubiak debuts as Denver’s head coach with a game against the team he’d given a multi-year commitment to, before his old pal John Elway stepped in and offered Kubiak his dream job.
The Ravens lost more than they gained this offseason, but figure to still be near the top of the AFC, and with Rahim Moore now in Houston, there shouldn’t be any last second shenanigans this time around. However, Peyton Manning won’t be throwing seven passing touchdowns either. This game will be a fairly competitive contest through the middle of the fourth quarter, when Manning will be given the chance to play his game and pull away.
Ravens: 14, Broncos: 27
Week 2: @ Kansas City Chiefs
Thursday, September 17, 6:25PM, CBS/NFL Network
The Broncos spend four of their first six weeks on the road. That’s one of the few serious gripes fans should have about the Broncos schedule. However, it’s tough to imagine them having any serious difficulty with the opponents they play in that stretch. That should include the Kansas City Chiefs.
This Thursday night affair will be the first of five primetime games, and the first opportunity for the Broncos to get at shot in their own division. This offseason, the Chiefs swapped Dwayne Bowe for Jeremy Maclin, and added help in the secondary and the tight end group.
The Broncos get the chance to play their Thursday night game in the early part of the season. They’ll be fresh enough to get through the short week with minimal difficulty. So, while Arrowhead is always a tough place to play, this game should look similar to Denver’s 29-16 victory in Kansas City last season. Look for Wade Phillips’ defense to put on a show against the Chiefs’ mediocre passing attack.
Broncos 24, Chiefs 10
Week 3:@ Detroit Lions
Sunday, September 27, 6:30PM, NBC
The Broncos play their first Sunday night football game of the year coming off a ten day mini-bye. That should provide more than enough rest to play under the dome at Ford Field. Last season, the Lions were my preseason sleeper to make a long postseason run. That would have happened had it not been for some atrocious officiating during their wildcard game in Dallas.
This offseason, the Lions lost the athleticism of Reggie Bush, and tough defensive presence provided by Ndamukong Suh, downgrading (albeit slightly) at the defensive tackle position by signing Haloti Ngata. This Detroit team isn’t nearly what they were last season, and the Broncos shouldn’t have too much difficulty matching up with them.
The challenge will be containing the Lions three top receiving threats—second year tight end Eric Ebron, receiver Golden Tate, and of course Calvin Johnson. For my money, Johnson is still the most physically dominant receiver in the league.
However, the Broncos have the horses in the secondary to at least hold him and his compadres to reasonable numbers. Expect this game to a be high-scoring affair, with the Broncos targeting the weak backend of Detroit’s defense to claim the victory.
Broncos: 37, Lions: 27
Week 4: VS. Minnesota VIKINGS
Sunday, October 4, 2:25PM, FOX
There’s a whole lot to like about the Minnesota Vikings. While it’s still unclear whether Adrian Peterson will be on the roster by the time they visit the Mile High City, he’s not even a factor for me, in terms of the outcome of this game.
This offseason, the Vikings took on Mike Wallace’s albatross of a contract, acquiring him in a trade with the Dolphins. Wallace’s speed makes him an ideal No. 1 receiver in Norv Turner’s offense.
The real reason to like the Vikings will be the development of second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. While he wasn’t my favorite passer in last year’s draft class, Bridgewater was always the guy I viewed as most ready to start in the league on day one. This season, expect him to take a massive leap forward.
With that said, the Vikings simply aren’t talented enough yet to compete with what the Broncos have, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Bridgewater will play well, but this game shouldn’t ever feel close.
Vikings: 14, Broncos: 30
Week 5: @ Oakland Raiders
Sunday, October 11, 2:25PM, CBS
Broncos Country, trust me when I say this—the Raiders are coming. They’ve found their quarterback in Derek Carr. They have an elite pass rusher in Khalil Mack. They’ve got a coach in Jack Del Rio who will fare much better in the head honcho role than he did as a defensive coordinator.
And, they’ll once again have a high pick in this upcoming draft, where they’ll be able to select a top flight pass catcher. The Raiders will be a contender in this division before long. They’re just not there yet.
This game will be one of the more competitive contests these two teams have played in recent memory, but it’ll end the same way each of the last seven Broncos-Raiders games have, with Denver victoriously striding off of the gridiron.
Broncos: 23, Raiders: 17
Week 6: @ Cleveland Browns
Sunday, October 18, 11:00AM, CBS
Nobody knows exactly what Browns Owner Jimmy Haslam thinks about before he goes to bed. However, I’d put good money down that it’s got nothing to do with building a winning roster. Their quarterback is just getting out of rehab, and their top receiving threat can’t stay away from marijuana.
So, while Cleveland’s coaching staff feels like the right fit, the roster couldn’t be more of a mess. Until the Browns figure out what they’re doing, they’re as hopeless as they’ve always been. Weather won’t be much of a factor, and Denver should roll in this game.
Broncos: 34, Browns: 16
WEEK 7: BYE
Heading into a Week 7 bye undefeated is about as good as a team can hope for. Last year, the Broncos bye fell in week four, the earliest possible time in the year. The result was a worn down Denver team that sputtered out in the first week of the playoffs. Having a mid-season bye will give the Broncos the chance to relax, refresh and recuperate heading into the second half of the year.
WEEK 8: VS. Green Bay Packers
Sunday, November 1, 6:30PM, NBC
This game is the second Sunday Night Football game in Denver for a reason. Aaron Rodgers’ Packers kept the necessary pieces they needed to in the offseason, signing Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga to big contract extensions, and they always seem to draft well.
The Packers will be by far the best team the Broncos will face up to this point in the schedule, and it will show. This game has all the trademark signs of a shootout, and by this point in the season, who knows whether 39-year-old Peyton Manning will be able to keep pace. The first game in the second half of the Broncos’ schedule will also be the first to fall in the “L” column, and the first regular season home loss at Sports Authority Field in nearly 700 days.
Packers: 40, Broncos: 33
Week 9: @ Indianapolis Colts
Sunday, November 8, 2:25PM, CBS
Peyton Manning makes his second, and possibly last, return to the stadium he’s almost solely responsible for funding, in this matchup with Andrew Luck and the Colts. If there’s anything you can say about the Colts this offseason it’s that they got older. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing for Indy.
The signings of Frank Gore and Andre Johnson added veteran depth to their roster, but it’s arguable as to whether Indy paid too much for players with little left in the tank. On the other hand, another year gone by is another year for Andrew Luck to develop.
Now entering his fourth NFL season, it’s clear that the sky is the limit for the 25-year-old gunslinger. He’s my preseason pick for NFL MVP, and he’s the primary reason the Indianapolis Colts will finish the year with the AFC’s top seed.
In this game, Luck will face a more aggressive Denver defense than the one he ripped apart in last January’s playoff game. However, that doesn’t mean the Broncos will be able to stop him. Expect Luck to outduel an emotionally overcharged Peyton Manning once again, as the Broncos suffer their second loss of the year in Indianapolis.
Broncos: 20, Colts: 28
WEEK 10: VS. Kansas City CHIEFS
Sunday, November 15, 2:25PM, CBS
Same Chiefs, same story—Jamaal Charles will make a few electric plays, and Alex Smith’s mobility will create problems for the Denver defense. Yet, just like it was in their week two matchup, and just like it’s been for their last six contests, the Broncos will suffocate Kansas City and ultimately put them down in a somewhat ho-hum affair, as KC marches towards a second place finish in the AFC West.
Chiefs: 16, Broncos: 23
WEEK 11: @ Chicago Bears
Sunday, November 22, 11:00AM, CBS
Every season there seems to be that one game that catches fans by surprise. Last year, it was the calamity in St. Louis, as the Broncos got beat up and beat down by the lowly Rams. In 2013, it was the Thursday night collapse late in the season against the Chargers. In 2015, the matchup between John Fox and his old team will be the game wherein the Broncos stub their toe.
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While there are so many question marks about Chicago, there a few things that make this game a tough matchup for Denver. First, there is no coaching staff in the NFL as familiar with the Broncos weaknesses as the Bears staff, now led by the aforementioned Fox and several ex-Broncos coaches, including Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase.
They know the vast majority of these players intimately, and will do all they can to capitalize on each player’s shortcomings. Secondly, Chicago in late November isn’t exactly what you’d call “pleasant.” It’s a windy hellhole, filled with sleet-covered sidewalks, and cold deep-dish pizza. It’s not the kind of place designed for good Peyton Manning football.
Adam Gase will use every trick in the book to take advantage of Denver’s weaknesses, while giving Jay Cutler limited chances to throw the game away and John Fox will manage his team in a balanced fashion.
Meanwhile, the Broncos will find themselves once again looking past an opponent en route to another showdown with the New England Patriots. The result will be a fourth quarter game that the home team will ultimately come away with, leading many in the national media to ask just why John Fox was fired in the first place.
Broncos: 24, Bears: 26
WEEK 12: VS. New England PATRIOTS
Sunday, November 29, 6:30PM, NBC
Is there anything more American than Manning vs. Brady? I think not. This primetime affair will be the 17th and possibly final meeting between two of the most revered athletes in the history of professional sports. For Manning, it’s a rivalry that hasn’t yielded much fruit. He’s 5-11 in the previous 16 contests. However, he’s had home field advantage only six times out of those 16 games against Brady’s Patriots.
This time, the Pats will have to come to Peyton’s place for the first regular season game since November 15, 2009. While the Patriots may be the Super Bowl champions, they aren’t nearly the same team that claimed Lombardi’s trophy in February. Since their parade down Boylston St., the Patriots lost both of their starting cornerbacks, and did little to replace them.
While there’s no doubting dark lord Bill Belichick will work his demon magic once again and cruise to a seventh-straight AFC East title, winning on the road against teams like the Broncos won’t come nearly as easy for New England as it has in recent years. Having the rare chance to get Brady and a depleted Patriots squad at home will prove to be more than enough motivation for Denver to finally topple the Evil Empire.
Patriots: 16, Broncos: 29
Week 13: @ San Diego CHARGERS
Sunday, December 6, 2:05PM, CBS
Something is amiss in San Diego. I just can’t tell you exactly what it is. With the rumors swirling around their franchise quarterback Philip Rivers, and the news that star safety Eric Weddle is dissatisfied with the organization, it’s clear that something has gone seriously wrong with Mike McCoy’s regime.
In much the same way that the 49ers suffered because of behind-the-scenes drama, the Chargers will fall at the hands of an uncertain future. By the end of the year, San Diego will be 5-11 at best and Mike McCoy will be out of a job. How’s that for a bold prediction?
There’s so much uncertainty surrounding the Chargers, it’s difficult to predict how the Broncos matchups with them will go. Who will their quarterback be? Will the organization be focused on winning, or on getting the moving vans ready for a trip up I-5? Either way, the Chargers prospects for a matchup with the Broncos don’t look all that bright.
Broncos: 27, Chargers: 20
Week 14: VS. Oakland RAIDERS
Sunday, December 13, 2:05PM, CBS
It wouldn’t be Christmastime in the Rockies without the annual slaughtering of the Raiders at Sports Authority Field. It’s important to reiterate the Raiders are getting better. However, if they weren’t good enough to win in Oakland, they certainly won’t be good enough to beat the Broncos in the Mile High City.
This game will have plenty of flashes of the competition Derek Carr and the Raiders will present in two or three years’ time. But, to beat the Broncos in Denver, the Raiders would need more than a flash. They’d need an electrocution.
Raiders: 10, Broncos: 33
Week 15: @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, December 20, 2:25PM, CBS
On the surface, this game feels like a loss. After all, it’s December in Pittsburgh. However, that doesn’t mean nearly what it did five or ten years ago. The Steelers are a team in transition. Troy Polamalu is gone, and for the first time in a decade, Dick LeBeau isn’t coordinating the defense.
While the Steelers have the talent and coaching pedigree to compete in the AFC North, they simply don’t have the athleticism to compete with the Broncos offensive weapons. With that said, this game should be a slobber-knocker between two proud franchises. Ultimately, it’ll be the youth and speed of the Broncos outside receivers and a good day from Denver’s special teams unit that proves to be the difference.
Broncos: 17, Steelers: 12
WEEK 16: VS. Cincinnati BENGALS
Monday, December 28, 6:30PM, ESPN
The Broncos play the Bengals on Monday Night Football in Week 16 for the second-straight season. This year’s game will play out the way last year’s game should have. Watching these two teams play in a nearly freezing downpour last year was like watching a child try to sit on a soaking wet teeter-totter. The Broncos went up and down as long as they could until they eventually just fell off.
Peyton Manning had moments in the third quarter of that game when he looked like a twelve year old kid playing Madden on rookie mode. Then, he proceeded to throw three fourth quarter interceptions and that was that. This time around, Gary Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme will provide the balance that was lacking in Denver’s offensive attack in last year’s matchup. Andy Dalton in primetime will return to his usual primetime form, and the Broncos will claim their 12th victory of the 2015 campaign.
Bengals: 18, Broncos: 22
Week 17: VS. San Diego Chargers
Sunday, January 3, 2016, 2:25PM, CBS
Scheduling divisional games in the last week of the regular season is one of the best things the NFL has done in recent years. As teams desperately vie for division titles and playoff spots, viewers turn their eyes to the television on the first Sunday afternoon in January like they never did before.
This game won’t be one of the more highly anticipated contests. The Broncos will finish out a sweep of the AFC West, and wrap up their fifth-straight division title with a quality win against the not-so super San Diego Chargers.
Chargers: 19, Broncos 25
Last year, the Broncos faced one of the toughest schedules in the NFL. They played through multiple tough road stretches, played some of the league’s best teams, and had to deal with an unconscionably early bye week. In 2015, the schedule gods were much kinder to the boys in orange and blue.
While it’s certainly not a cakewalk, the Broncos should have the pieces to make 2015 just as successful as every other regular season in the Manning era. However, the question with this team won’t be what they do in September and October; it’ll be what they do in mid-January, and that’s a question even Nostradamus couldn’t answer.
13-3 Record, AFC West Championship, No. 2 Seed in the AFC
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