First, let's agree on one point: It's easy to argue that the Denver Broncos never have entered into a new season with their fans feeling more excited anticipation than now.
In that category, from this historian's perspective dating to the 1970s, the only comparable years would be 1978, the year after Denver's unexpected first Super Bowl; 1983, the year John Elway came to town; 1987, the season after Elway engineered The Drive and reached his initial Super Bowl; 1995, the year Mike Shanahan returned to Denver as head coach; and 1999, leading into Elway's title encore.
The reason now, of course, is the guy wearing No. 18. From the moment Peyton Manning decided to become a Bronco, all of Orange Nation has been drooling.
So what if Denver faces a killer early schedule against many of the league's top quarterbacks? So what if Manning didn't play a down last year and still could be vulnerable to a neck-rattling hit? So what if the Broncos still have two major concerns on defense, their linebackers and overall lack of depth?
Despite all that, nothing has stopped Broncomania from rising to historic levels. Nobody is talking about a 16-0 regular season. (That would suggest checking into a psychiatric ward.) But it's hard to find any loyal Denver fan who expects worse than 12-4 or 11-5, followed by a run deep into the playoffs.
Despite those worries, the more I look at Denver's schedule, I'm convinced it's not so ominous. Also, having head coach John Fox and coordinator Jack Del Rio, two of the NFL's foremost defensive minds, has to count for something.
Here's the week-by-week synopsis:
• Sept. 9, Pittsburgh: Nothing like opening on Sunday night (NBC) against the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben's cast might be a little shaky, though. Broncos, 30-27.
• Sept. 17, at Atlanta: Monday night in the Georgia Dome against Matt Ryan and that versatile offense. Too much for Manning to overcome. Falcons, 38-31.
• Sept. 23, Houston: Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Co. have Texan-sized dreams, and they'll undress Denver's defense. Texans, 30-24.
• Sept. 30, Oakland: Manning and the offense begin to hit their stride, reversing the Raiders' recent Mile High successes. Broncos, 27-13.
• Oct. 7, at New England: Tom Brady and Manning have had their duels, and this should be another epic. Tough to win at Foxboro, though. Patriots, 31-30.
• Oct. 15, at San Diego: Back on Monday night, with Philip Rivers psyched to dismantle Denver. But he also has laid some eggs in this rivalry. Broncos, 26-23.
• Bye week, good timing for Denver at 3-3.
• Oct. 28, New Orleans: Drew Brees comes to visit, but Manning and his crew are fresh to start a midseason run. Broncos, 34-27.
• Nov. 4, at Cincinnati: Not an easy assignment, but Denver's offense can handle it. Broncos, 26-22.
• Nov. 11, at Carolina: Still another big-name opposing QB, as Cam Newton probably expects a big day. He'll deliver. Panthers, 37-33.
• Nov. 18, San Diego: Chargers might be desperate at this point. Denver will be primed for a sweep. Broncos, 22-16.
• Nov. 25, at Kansas City: Never fun to invade Arrowhead, but Chiefs already might be a disappointment. Broncos, 19-13.
• Dec. 2, Tampa Bay: Nobody knows what to expect from the Bucs this year. But they shouldn't win in Denver. Broncos, 31-21.
• Dec. 6, at Oakland: Thursday night against the Raiders and their ornery fans. Could be trouble, but... Broncos, 20-16.
• Dec. 16, at Baltimore: Not a good time to catch the Ravens on their turf, with Denver due for a bad day. Ravens, 34-19.
• Dec. 23, Cleveland: Dangerous game, even at home, but Manning won't let his teammates slip. Broncos, 24-10.
• Dec. 30, Kansas City: Most likely with playoff seeding on the line, and just as likely to be frosty. Broncos, 16-9.
That adds up to 11-5 and the AFC West title. Then we can reconvene in January.