Through six weeks and six victories, the newly refurbished Denver Broncos looked capable of beating any team in the National Football League.
They weren't overpowering on offense, but they were opportunistic. They weren't intimidating on defense, but they were energetic.
They didn't obliterate opponents, but they still won games.
Then came their off week, and now November. Suddenly the Broncos have lost their way, their aura and their equilibrium. They have fallen to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, taking them from a confident 6-0 to a shaken 6-2 at the season's halfway point.
They're still ahead of schedule, far better than almost anyone expected. They've beaten three teams — Cincinnati, Dallas and New England — that are also 6-2 today and leading their divisions. They have three road victories, the best recipe for making the playoffs.
But now the Broncos are exposed. Not every team would be capable of pulling off what the Ravens and Steelers accomplished, but rest assured Denver's remaining opponents will try.
What changed? What brought the Broncos back to reality?
It's simple, really. Baltimore and Pittsburgh decided to attack with their defenses. They crowded the line of scrimmage, not always to blitz, but definitely to stop the run and at the same time put heavy, consistent pressure on Denver quarterback Kyle Orton.
That strategy begs the Broncos to throw deep, but their preference is a short passing game, and an aggressive, sure-tackling defense can shut that down. The Ravens and Steelers did, and in both games Denver couldn't sustain drives. Also, in both games, that led to the Broncos' defense wearing down after halftime, unable to stop the run and no longer as effective on third downs.
So now the league knows how to beat Denver. That doesn't mean a second-half collapse, but the Broncos will have a difficult time holding off resurgent San Diego (5-3) in the AFC West. Their chances will depend on being able to open up the offense, both by running consistently and throwing downfield to Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. Also, head coach Josh McDaniels somehow must rediscover wideout Brandon Stokley, who has only nine receptions all season and just one in the past two weeks.
With that, let's go through Denver's final eight games and project outcomes:
Sunday, at Washington: Perfect time for the Broncos to get back on track against the disintegrating Redskins, who probably won't have injured star runner Clinton Portis. Denver, 24-13.
Nov. 22, San Diego: This rematch will be the Chargers' chance to avenge Denver's win at San Diego. Doesn't look promising, even at home. San Diego, 27-20.
Nov. 26, New York Giants: Thanksgiving night at Invesco, with Eli Manning and the Giants trying to mount a late-season run. They're good enough to follow that recipe. New York, 31-17.
Dec. 6, at Kansas City: Another get-well chance for Denver, and perhaps a breakout game for rookie runner Knowshon Moreno, even on the road. Denver, 20-10.
Dec. 13, at Indianapolis: Peyton Manning and the Colts are pushing for the conference's No. 1 playoff seed, and this game puts them one step closer. Indy, 34-21.
Dec. 20, Oakland: Still alive in the division and wild-card picture, the Broncos begin a productive stretch run by ripping the Raiders. Denver, 27-13.
Dec. 27, at Philadelphia: Pivotal game, depending on where the Eagles are at this point. My guess is that they'll be fading, and the Broncos will have much more at stake. Denver, 16-13.
Jan. 3, Kansas City: Needing a win to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs, the Broncos catch the Chiefs just wanting to end their season and looking to 2010. Denver, 30-7.
And that victory means Denver will reach the postseason, at least for one round. But after a 6-0 start and a 5-5 finish, McDaniels will have some tough decisions to make, starting with whether to re-sign free agent Orton.
Still, 11-5 would be a nice starting point for the Broncos, looking ahead to 2010.
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