When the Broncos’ schedule first came out, the early stretch looked brutal.
In September, they started with the Carolina Panthers, fresh off a 15-1 season and the Super Bowl. Then they had the Colts, a team that beat them last year and was in the AFC title game in 2014, when Andrew Luck was actually healthy. Next up were the Bengals, who fall apart in the postseason, but always seem good for a winning record and a playoff berth.
I specifically wrote about how the Broncos would struggle early and people needed to be ready. I wrote one about how Carolina, with wideout Kelvin Benjamin back, was more likely than Denver to win that opening game, no matter how the Super Bowl played out.
Then the Broncos came out and knocked off all three opponents in a row. They made No. 1 overall picks in Luck and Cam Newton look inept. They walked all over the Bengals, shutting down their offense while Trevor Siemian throw four touchdowns in his first road start ever. Then they trounced another No. 1 overall pick in Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Bucs – not a high-profile opponent, per say, but at least a high-profile player.
For that moment, it looked like the Broncos were way better than we thought. They were better than they were with Peyton Manning. They could repeat as Super Bowl champs.
Now, not to say that’s not true, but hindsight is catching up quickly. You have to wonder if those wins were actually as good as they looked.
The Panthers, after all, can hardly beat anyone. They’re 1-4, dead last in the weak NFC South. The Colts are third in the AFC South, with a losing record of 2-3. They look dreadful on defense and Luck can’t do it all. The Bengals are also 2-3, sitting at third in the AFC North. They have the advantage of being in the same division as the 0-5 Browns, but they still don’t look good.
The only upside, when looking at teams the Broncos beat, is that the Bucs are coming off of a win. But even that is something of a negative: They beat the Panthers. That just makes that Week 1 win look worse. Plus, it was an ugly, sloppy game that the Bucs only won on a last-second field goal, after missing multiple field goals throughout the game. On top of that, the Bucs are 2-3, even though they’re second in their division.
Basically, the NFC South is weak.
So, the Broncos beat four teams out of the gate and felt really good, but not a single one of those teams now has a winning record. They’ve combined for a total of seven wins on the season.
The only team with a winning record that the Broncos have played is the 4-1 Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons beat the Broncos fairly resoundingly last week. The score ended up close, but the game wasn’t.
Now, it could be argued, of course, that the teams the Broncos beat have losing records in part because they played the Broncos and lost. And that’s true. But the sample size is big enough now to draw other conclusions. Just look at the Panthers. A good, tough win now looks terrible, because that team has lost four out of five games.
This doesn’t mean the Broncos aren’t good or can’t win against teams with winning records. You can only play who you play.
Plus, they faced this same sort of thing last year. When they beat the Packers, it looked like a signature win and sort of opened people’s eyes to the fact that this team may be good enough to compete for a Super Bowl. The Packers were 6-0, coming off a bye week, and widely predicted to make the Super Bowl themselves. The Broncos beat them, 29-10, and everyone felt great.
Then the Packers went on to lose three of their next four, including losses to the Lions and the Bears. And suddenly that win for Denver didn’t look nearly so good.
It was, of course, since the Broncos did go on to win the Super Bowl. This year, they’re still 4-1, and they lost to Atlanta with a backup rookie QB. The sky isn’t falling.
But it does mean that the Nov. 6 game against the Raiders is huge.
The Raiders will likely be the next team they face to have a winning record. Between now and then, the Broncos have two games against the Chargers and one against the Texans. They should win those, but it won’t be until they face Oakland – which is winning the AFC West right now – that they play another winner.
And that will be a truer test of what this team can do.