UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Broncos’ 3-0 start lifts playoff hopes, but it’s early

Three games down, 14 more to go.

Can the unbeaten Broncos keep winning? Will they make the playoffs? How far above .500 will they finish?

These are among the questions on the minds of hopeful but anxious Orange-and-Blue diehards following Sunday’s dominating 26-0 victory over the Jets—the team’s 20th shutout in its long history (14th at home).

The inconclusive answer is that it gets harder from here.

The three teams Denver defeated in September played to a combined record of 0-9 the first three weeks of this season. But the five October opponents won nine games and lost six, and played in some tough matchups.  

The hated Raiders matched Denver’s 3-0 start, winning overtime games against the Ravens and Dolphins, both at home, and beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh. After losing to the Raiders, Baltimore beat the Chiefs in Kansas City. The Browns’ loss was by four points to the Chiefs, also in KC.  (The Steelers and the Washington Football Team—Why not call them just the ‘Skins?—both went 1-2.)

Looking at the October gauntlet, 2-3 would be pretty good, considering that the two road games are in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, with the trip to western Pennsylvania wrapped by home games against Baltimore and the Raiders.  

There are reasons for hope and optimism.

The Broncos defense hasn’t yet allowed more than 13 points in any 2021 game—six, three and 12 in the preseason, and 13, 13 and zip the first three games that count.  This suggests the Broncos might be able to hold their own in the stiffer tests that await.

On the other side of the ball, Teddy Bridgewater has flawlessly directed an offense that has dominated time of possession: 35:08 to 24:52 in Game One, 38:52 to 21:08 in Game Two, and 35:55 to 24:15 in Game Three.  This makes a defensive unit’s job a little easier.

Teddy himself has been spectacular, with quarterback ratings of 115.7, 125.6 and 104.6. Against the Giants, Jaguars and Jets, he completed 73 of 95 (76.8%) for 827 yards and four touchdowns—WITH NO INTERCEPTIONS. He is the fourth quarterback in the history of the National Football League with two touchdown passes, no interceptions and 75% completions in each of the first two games of a season.

What we’re seeing so far is how stability and consistency at quarterback breeds confidence throughout a team. The defense believes that its efforts will not be wasted. The offense has no doubts that it will sustain its drives. 

All is not perfect, though.  

Jerry Jeudy, one of the passing game’s biggest threats, will miss October, and maybe November, with a high ankle sprain, and one of those counted on to pick up some of Jeudy’s slack, KJ Hamler, went out Sunday with a knee injury and is lost for the season with a torn ACL.  As good as Bridgewater has been, he needs targets. Kendall Hinton and Diontae Spencer are not Jeudy and Hamler.

On defense, Bradley Chubb, who underwent arthroscopic ankle surgery last week, won’t join Von Miller in harassing the other guys under center for about as long as Jeudy is sidelined. Defensive back Ronald Darby, an off-season free agent addition, has been sidelined but will return, but Josey Jewell is done for the season with a shoulder injury that was obvious as soon as he made contact with punt returner Jamal Agnew midway through the second quarter of the Jacksonville game. (That’s the risk when a starting linebacker also plays on kick coverage.)

If the Broncos can make it to November with at least a 5-3 record, they should be no worse than 6-5 by the first Sunday in December. And 7-4 seems plausible, depending on the injury situation, with only one road game (Dallas), followed by home games against Philadelphia and the Chargers wrapped around their bye week.  

The expanded regular season, which extends to January 9, concludes with a home game against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, bookend to the stretch run’s start on December 5 when the Broncos play at Kansas City. IF, by the second Sunday in 2022, they’re 9-7, as seems possible, Game 17 will decide whether or not Denver makes the playoffs.

That Chiefs game in Kansas City is followed by winnable games at home against the Lions and Bengals, who have started 0-3 and a surprising 2-1, respectively. In this case, wild horses must prevail over lions and tigers because Games 15 and 16 are AT the Raiders and AT the Chargers. (A victory in either of these would be cause for real celebration.)

Add it all up, and you get 10-7 or 9-8.  The former very likely makes the playoffs; the latter probably doesn’t.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at info@comservbooks.com.