For Broncos, all roads lead to finale 

To preview the Denver Broncos for 2008, let's start with a quick fast-forward to Sunday, Dec. 28, as we find out that, for once, the schedule-makers are right on the money. It's the last day of the National Football League's regular season, and Denver has traveled to San Diego, facing the Chargers in a game big enough that NBC has moved it to prime-time for the network's Sunday night finale.

Denver is 10-5. San Diego is 10-5. They're in a dead heat for the AFC West title, with Oakland and Kansas City long since eliminated. Their gifted and feisty quarterbacks, Jay Cutler for the Broncos and Philip Rivers for the Chargers, have enjoyed superb seasons, clearly establishing themselves among the league's elite for years to come.

But on this night at the stadium formerly known as Jack Murphy (the only big-time stadium ever named for a sportswriter, until San Diego later sold out to Qualcomm), only one of these two teams can win the division and secure a first-round playoff home game. The other has to settle for a wild-card postseason spot and a trip to start January.

Nobody's surprised at the Chargers being in this position, but the Broncos haven't made it back to the playoffs since hosting (and losing) the AFC Championship Game three seasons ago. They're 10-5 at the end of this December, though, and as we shift focus back to the present, that's regardless of what might happen in their Monday night regular-season opener on Sept. 8 at Oakland.

Denver certainly could be vulnerable, starting the year on the road, especially against the unpredictable Raiders, for a handful of specific reasons.

First, the Broncos' offensive line still hasn't jelled, which wouldn't be as big a deal with a veteran group, but it does matter for a group including rookie left tackle Ryan Clady and not (yet) including veteran center Tom Nalen, who still hasn't made it back from knee troubles. That could make it tougher for Denver to run the ball and control the clock from the start, which has been head coach Mike Shanahan's most dependable game plan away from Invesco Field.

Also, Denver must begin the season without top wide receiver Brandon Marshall, serving his one-game misbehavior suspension, which means Cutler's main targets in Week 1 will be promising but untested rookie Eddie Royal and uncertain veterans Brandon Stokley, Keary Colbert and Darrell Jackson.

Add to that the fact that Denver has an all-new kicking tandem, punter Brett Kern and placekicker Matt Prater, for the first time in seemingly forever. (Jason Elam was around for 15 years.)

Now you know why the Broncos might not look quite in midseason form at Oakland. But then again, Cutler in this preseason has looked more like No. 7 (that would be John Elway, for those who haven't been here as long) than the No. 6 he actually wears. Cutler's total command of the offense, his sharpness throwing the ball and his willingness to take a leadership role are the best arguments for expecting much more from Denver's offense in 2008.

But even if the Broncos survive Oakland, they still face a handful of possible ambushes along the way: New Orleans, New England, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville (remember the Jaguars whipping Denver last year?), Cleveland and Carolina. With that in mind, here are the best arguments both for and against our final-week scenario.

Five reasons they'll be 10-5

Cutler. Nothing means more in the NFL than having a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback who can elevate the entire team.

Defense. With a new coordinator, Bob Slowik, plus much more stability at linebacker and still a superior pair of cornerbacks in Champ Bailey and Dre Bly, this could be one of the American Conference's best units again.

AFC West. It's not the worst division, but it's close to the bottom, and San Diego isn't quite as dominant with superstar runner LaDainian Tomlinson probably now moving beyond his greatest years.

Royal. Yes, there was skepticism here when the Broncos drafted him. But he looks capable of being the next Rod Smith though much faster, and a dangerous kick returner to boot.

D-line depth. Check out the NFL's best teams, and you'll usually find this common denominator. Denver's crew, led by Elvis Dumervil, now is as deep as any.

Five reasons they won't be 10-5

Offensive line. Unless Nalen can return to hold the group together, this bunch realistically is a year away from being what Denver needs.

Kicking game. Prater might be OK from shorter range, but now the Broncos can't count so much on a 57-yarder to save a game, and Kern likely will be inconsistent as a rookie punter.

Schedule. It really is a tough first half, and Denver usually has followed a fast-starting script to its best years. Anything less than 6-2 could mean trouble.

Running backs. Selvin Young has boldly predicted a 2,000-yard season, but he's no Terrell Davis, so 1,200 yards is more realistic. And with rookie Ryan Torain (elbow) out until midseason, that leaves journeyman Michael Pittman as the most likely fallback. Not a championship-level group.

Defensive leadership. John Lynch is gone, and he was a leader even on the sidelines. Nobody has yet assumed the role former linebacker Al Wilson embraced. Filling that void might be the biggest intangible obstacle facing this team.

There. Now you know why Denver could rise as high as 11-5 and the AFC West title or stay around the 8-8 range, looking to 2009 as its next breakthrough year.

Just remember this: Don't judge the Broncos by what happens Monday night at Oakland good or bad.


Sports Shot

Don't miss it Air Force's pivotal game Saturday at Wyoming will be available via cable on CBS-College Sports (formerly CSTV), channel 170 on Comcast, starting at 1:30 p.m. Better yet, make the 200-mile drive to Laramie and see it in person.

Formidable group After one week of football, the Big 12 North is an impressive 6-0, topped by Missouri's convincing win over rival Illinois.

Have you noticed? Chase Headley, the San Diego Padres' 24-year-old rookie left fielder out of Fountain, had a .258 average with eight homers and 29 RBIs entering this week.

Bottom line Perhaps the Sky Sox hoped for better than their 71-72 record this season, but they did set a team attendance record with 303,048 fans in 71 home games, an average of 4,268 per game.

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