Broncos test fans' mettle 

End Zone

Oh, ye of little faith. So many of you, fans of the Denver Broncos all your lives, holding out hope long after it made no sense, have lost your unflappable spirit.

Every day, more of you are defecting. You're already convinced, beyond any doubt, that the Broncos cannot make a success of the 2009 season. Even my son Mitch, who grew up enjoying every moment of the John Elway era and had been the eternal optimist ever since, has joined your ranks, predicting a 3-13 record.

But something else unusual has been happening this summer. After more than three decades of being one of the Broncos' most vocal realists in print, often driving fanatics crazy in the process, I'm on the upbeat side now.

No, I'm not picking Denver to go to the Super Bowl — or even close. But I see positive signs where others are turning away in disgust. They've given up on quarterback Kyle Orton, despite the fact he was one dropped touchdown pass away from a terrific first half at Seattle. The masses don't see hope for the offense, though running back Knowshon Moreno hasn't had a chance (slight knee injury) to show what he can do. Naysayers fear the worst for Denver's defense, though the regulars have looked more physical against the run and have four sacks in two games.

The loyalists have been let down hard so many times in recent Decembers. Now they've lost Mike Shanahan and Jay Cutler, replaced by a coach who looks like he should be running the show at Cherry Creek, not Invesco Field. (Oh wait, Cherry Creek might not put up with Josh McDaniels' baggy, hooded sweatshirts.) As for Orton, people are obsessing over his Jake Plummer imitation, that left-handed interception at Seattle.

Broncomaniacs have forgotten something basic: The preseason means nothing, especially to a Bill Belichick disciple like McDaniels. Only one exhibition is worth watching: the next-to-last game. That's the closest thing to a dress rehearsal.

America will be watching Sunday, though, as Denver's next-to-last preseason matchup just happens to bring Chicago and Cutler to town. Knowing this is his first chance to impress a national audience, McDaniels will likely be less inhibited. And rest assured the defense has no interest in being upstaged by Cutler.

My guess is, against Chicago the Broncos will win back some of those wayward fans. Orton and the offense will click as they did at Seattle, and the defense is overdue to make some big plays after two games without forcing any turnovers.

Still, this isn't a typical Denver team. In Shanahan's last years, the Broncos ran out of gas after Thanksgiving, but they had continuity. Now it's the opposite. The coaches, systems and key players are new. McDaniels readily conceded recently that "we're a long way from our peak." The stench surrounding receiver Brandon Marshall has to be settled — probably by trade, as Eddie Royal looks ready to be the No. 1 target — and nobody knows how fast Moreno will develop. Defensively, the outside linebackers haven't found their comfort zone, but they're progressing.

When people ask, I say Denver should go somewhere around 8-8 again, but with a much stronger finish than in recent years. My "official" forecast will come later.

So go ahead, ye faithless ones, expect the worst. You'll have a different feeling come December — if not Sunday night.



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