The Denver Broncos unexpectedly sank to the bottom of the AFC West last season, with their years of misfires on offense finally coming back to haunt them.
Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler combined to be perhaps the worst quarterback duo in the league, and Paxton Lynch looks like a bust two years into his career. While poor quarterback play had never been a problem in keeping the Broncos competitive in recent seasons, their once-formidable defense began to show cracks.
Once-formidable stars like Aqib Talib showed signs of slippage, and were shown the door this offseason as part of a retooling.
Can the Broncos make a return to the playoffs with Case Keenum under center? Here’s a look at their schedule following Thursday’s announcement, per NFL.com.
Broncos’ 2018 Schedule
Week 1: Seattle Seahawks (H)
The Broncos have won 17 of their last 18 home openers and the Seahawks are notorious for their slow starts. I love that this game happens early and am absolutely looking for a win here. WIN 1-0
Week 2: Oakland Raiders (H)
The AFC West is going to be pretty soft this year. Derek Carr has regressed badly and I am completely convinced that Jon Gruden is the most overrated coach in the NFL this year. He’ll bring back the 90s, but if I remember correctly he didn’t win many games in the Mile High City back then. WIN 2-0
Week 3: Baltimore Ravens (A)
This looks like it could turn into a defensive battle. The Ravens tend to play the Broncos pretty tough and I do not entirely believe Keenum is the answer at quarterback. I predict it will come down to a field goal and the Broncos are not doing the kicking. LOSS 2-1
Week 4: Kansas City Chiefs (H) – MNF
The most overrated team in the AFC West is now the Chiefs. They landed a whooping five prime time games, but have also lost the most in terms of talent and will be basically starting a rookie quarterback. Patrick Mahomes beat the Broncos backups in Week 17 of the 2017 season and will be in for a rude awakening in Week 4 of the 2018 season. WIN 3-1
Week 5: New York Jets (A)
The Jets will be starting a rookie quarterback and facing what is still an elite defense. That won’t end well for the Jets and their defense still has a lot of holes. The Broncos should be able to move the ball with Keenum and put up enough points to win on the road. WIN 4-1
Week 6: Los Angeles Rams (H)
Oh man that fast start feels so good man, but you just know Aqib Talib is going to pick six Keenum so hard in this game. Add in the fact that the Rams will be explosive on offense and the Broncos are going come out of this game with their confidence shaken. LOSS 4-2
Week 7: Arizona Cardinals (A) – TNF
The dreaded Thursday Night Football game. The Broncos tend to come out flat in these games and the home loss to the Rams will exacerbate the problem. The Cardinals are the inferior team here, but come out with the win anyway. LOSS 4-3
Week 8: Kansas City Chiefs (A)
With Mahomes having typical rookie/sophomore year struggles, the Chiefs have become a painfully predictable run-heavy team. The Broncos stout defense is able to hold them in check and sweep them for the first time since the Peyton Manning era. WIN 5-3
Week 9: Houston Texans (H)
Deshaun Watson runs wild and the Texans put up some big plays. The big plays go along with a complete lack of a run game, however, and the Broncos are able to push through for a tough home win against a strong AFC team. WIN 6-3
Week 10: BYE
Holy shit boys and girls – the Broncos are a playoff contender! Broncos fans everywhere are talking about giving Keenum a big fat contract-for-life extension and everyone is already booking their trips to the playoffs. Life is good again.
Week 11: Los Angeles Chargers (A)
Philip Rivers and the Chargers, meanwhile, have finally been living up to their preseason hype and lead the AFC West heading into this game. Rivers is kept clean and shreds the Broncos defense. Various non-local bloggers and national media members will retweet their preseason Chargers prediction after the game. LOSS 6-4
Week 12: Pittsburgh Steelers (H)
Some will feel that wheels are coming off as the high-flying Steelers dismantle the Broncos defense. For a second straight game, the defense struggles and the offense fails to mount any kind of challenge. Panic begins to set in with Broncos Country. LOSS 6-5
Week 13: Cincinnati Bengals (A)
On the brink, the Broncos veteran defense rises to the occasion to completely dominate the Bengals offense. Keenum gets back on track too and the Broncos roll to an impressive road win. Playoff hopes get off life support. WIN 7-5
Week 14: San Francisco 49ers (A)
Jimmy Garoppolo is the quarterback, so clearly the 49ers will be 12-0 in this game and the Broncos will have zero chance of winning anyway. They should just forfeit the game and rest their players for Week 15. LOSS 7-6
Week 15: Cleveland Browns (H)
The Browns, powered by rookie Josh Allen, are winless and desperate to turn the tide. The tide can’t turn, because they are the Browns. An easy home win for the team that isn’t the Browns. WIN 8-6
Week 16: Oakland Raiders (A) – MNF
The Broncos are in a pickle. If they win out they are guaranteed a playoff spot, but a loss and they may or may not be able to get into the tournament. The Raiders are out of the picture, but playing spoiler. And they spoil it. LOSS 8-7
Week 17: San Diego Chargers (H)
When all you need is a win. Keenum has a solid game and Rivers is harassed all game long. He has zero fun and is constantly making faces about how sad he is. The Chargers hope for first round bye is dashed by the Broncos who win handily. The only issue is, the Ravens also win and secure the final playoff spot via tiebreaker. WIN 9-7
The Broncos have a last-place schedule, so it inherently ranks among the easiest in the NFL. Only four teams have a worse strength of schedule than Denver. The Broncos will get the lucky distinction of playing fellow last-place finishers in the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets and the Houston Texans.
AFC West teams are also slated to face off against the AFC North and NFC West as their common opponents. The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals aren’t scaring anyone as they bring back their mediocre bands from last season, while the Arizona Cardinals aren’t an intimidating prospect in the NFC West.
The rest of the West, however, is far more difficult and could sink the Broncos season. The Los Angeles Rams look like perhaps the best team in football after loading up on talent all offseason, including the ex-Bronco Talib. The Seattle Seahawks remain formidable, and the San Francisco 49ers looked like a completely different team in 2017 after handing over the reins to Jimmy Garoppolo.
Record-wise, this looks like an “easy” schedule. But practically, this could wind up being one of the harder ones in the sport.
Getting to nine or 10 wins could do the trick here, which means taking care of business in the conference and division will be paramount. Avoiding bad losses to the Browns and Jets will be key, should things come down to a conference tiebreaker.
The Broncos’ chances will come down to whether quarterback Case Keenum is the 2017 version of himself or every other version of Case Keenum. His numbers across all of his other seasons are essentially in line with what Osweiler and Siemian have put up. It’s possible the Broncos are making an expensive investment for the same level of quarterback play.
History tends to lean toward Keenum making some regression, although it’s unlikely he’ll fall off a cliff. Even if he’s around the 20th-best starting quarterback in the NFL, the Broncos should expect to win a couple more games.
Fixing the defense and returning it to its former elite form will ultimately be the deciding factor in whether the Broncos make the postseason. Keenum isn’t good enough to carry an elite offense. If he can get them to right around league average, Denver’s going to need an uptick in play from its revamped secondary and pass rush to compete.
Home: Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans
Away: Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets