Ever since March 20th, the day it was learned Peyton Manning was going to play for the Denver Broncos, there have only been moments when I've allowed myself to really think about it.
It's kind of like having chocolate cake in the house. Devouring it all at once would be great, but what about tomorrow? So you let yourself have a piece here, a bite there, and prolong the enjoyment.
The news itself was fairly stunning. I had come to expect the 49ers would land Manning, so when the story broke, I was so excited I jumped up from my chair and ran a celebration lap around the news room, hands held high in full blown victory mode. Life then settled down and my bites of the Manning cake were spread out over the summer. His first practice at OTA's. His first practice at training camp. His first preseason game. The first time I played the Broncos in Madden '13. All exciting and satisfying moments, but now we are here. Now we are on the precipice of what could be a very fulfilling season.
Let's us not forget Broncos fans are coming off one of the most memorable seasons in franchise history. The collection of Tebow-mania wins, topped by the amazing OT playoff win, were as stunning/shocking/exhilarating as anything John Elway ever provided. (I know it sounds blasphemous, but it's true.) So the bar is actually set pretty high for Peyton, based on both his expectations and what this team accomplished last year. So let's do it, game by game, here's how I see the Broncos season playing out.
WEEK 1 VS STEELERS
This is a tough one as there are a lot of elements in play.
The Steelers are going to be all kinds of fired up for revenge. I mean Barney Ross and his crew in The Expendables 2 type revenge. James Harrison makes a perfect Hale Caesar, by the way.
The Broncos are still learning their offense and each other. You don't want to be in "we're still figuring it out" mode when you play Pittsburgh.
The Steelers are banged up (Harrison and Mendenhall likely out) and depth, especially at altitude, really matters in the first few games of the season.
He's Peyton Manning. If you had to bet on one guy to come out and go, "Hey. Remember me? I'm still really freaking good," wouldn't Peyton be the guy?
I expect this game to be a grind and think the Broncos grind out a 20-17 win. (1-0)
WEEK 2 AT ATLANTA
Denver doesn't play a lot of games at Atlanta. I'll always remember the first Elway vs Dan Reeves game they played there with Elway and Shannon Sharpe hooking up for a 65-yard "screw you for messing with my career" score on their 4th play of the game.
On paper, this should be a memorable game with two good quarterbacks facing off, but it could be two running backs who have the greatest impact. The Falcons Michael Turner has averaged 5.3 yards per carry against Denver in 6 games. Knowshon Moreno will be returning to the town of his collegiate glory. I've enjoyed the Knowshon Moreno Era about as much as I enjoy fire ant bites, but perhaps this is the game Knowshon finally breaks out.
But I doubt it.
Even good teams struggle on the road. This one feels like a small step back and a 27-17 loss. (1-1)
WEEK 3 TEXANS
Elway's old clipboard carrying pal, Gary Kubiak, brings his Houston Texans to town. The same Houston Texans team that Peyton Manning is 16-2 against in his career with 42 Td's and only 8 picks. Unfortunately, this isn't "that" Houston Texans team. Most of those games featured the expansion Texans and the Super Bowl caliber Colts. This is the Super Bowl caliber Texans coming to town. Denver couldn't stop the run last year and Kubiak's teams run. And when they are done running, they have a deadly play-action attack. I just don't think the Broncos can slow them down.
Texans win this one in a wild west shootout, 31-28. (1-2)
WEEK 4 RAIDERS
Former Broncos coach Dennis Allen comes to town with the Silver and Black Holding Attack.
If the replacement refs are still working this week, I'm setting the over/under on penalties called at 23.5. Oakland shattered the mark for most penalties in a season last year. They had more whistles blown on them than the SEC guys on Wall Street.
After a few tough losses, this is where Peyton and friends start to hit their stride.
Broncos 34 Raiders 12 Refs 25 (2-2)
WEEK 5 AT NEW ENGLAND (stride broken)
45-10. That was the score in the playoffs last year. Is Peyton Manning worth 35 points? No.
The one possible scenario for a win is the same as last year, run the ball, run the clock, convert third downs. Obviously Manning gives you a better chance to move the sticks than Tebow does, but it's still not looking good.
Is the Broncos defense better equipped to play the Patriots? No. DJ Williams will still be missing. The Broncos linebackers in general are not great in coverage and were throttled by the Pats Wonder Twins duo of tight ends last year. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady exposed Denver's defensive faults like Gronk exposed himself in ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue. I don't see that changing.
The naked truth is the Patriots are taking this one 35-21. (2-3)
WEEK 6 AT SAN DIEGO
This is Monday nighter, so Denver gets an extra day to recover from their east coast travel and it's our first taste of the Manning-Rivers rivalry. It's also our first look at Eddie Royal: San Diego Charger. This is a bit of a crusher. I'm a big Eddie Royal fan, in large part because he reminds me so much of my all-time favorite Bronco, Rick Upchurch, who once dated Condoleeza Rice, but I digress. Royal is also great in Madden, which ups the love quotient. Royal was also really good against the Chargers. In his rookie season he had a TD and a game-winning 2-point conversion in a 39-38 thriller. The following year on a Monday Night, he had a kick return and a punt return for TDs. Even Upchurch never did that. So, a big part of me will be terrified every time the Broncos kick to Royal on this Monday night. It's been a big year for the Royals (The Jubilee, the Olympics, Prince Harry's Vegas vacation). I'd hate to think the Broncos are going to spend as much time staring at Royal's butt as the rest of the world has spent staring at Pippa's.
But, I feel good about this one, Broncos win 23-17. (3-3)
WEEK 7 BYE
WEEK 8 SAINTS
This is a big one. Peyton vs his dad's team. Joe Vitt will be back for the Saints, but more importantly, D.J. Williams should be back for the Broncos and like any good D.J., he'll be laying the hits. Manning is 2-2 against the Saints, but has a QB rating of 116.3 against them with 11 TDs and only 4 picks. John Fox has familiarity with New Orleans from his days in Carolina. Jack Del Rio saw the Saints in the pre-season AND the regular season last year, so he should be well versed in what New Orleans likes to do.
It's going to be a big night for Peyton, Broncos win 42-28. (4-3)
WEEK 9 AT CINCINNATI
The Broncos are 18-8 all-time against the Bengals. The last time they went to Cincy, Gus Johnson and every Broncos fan went nuts. Do you remember this.... ?
You know who's back on the Broncos this year? That's right, Brandon Stokley!
I've got a tip for you, Broncos win this one 12-7. (5-3)
WEEK 10 AT CAROLINA
The return of John Fox! Probably not how CBS will sell it. They'll get bogged down in the Peyton Manning/Cam Newton angles, but whatever.
The real storyline may be how well the Broncos athletes on defense, Miller, Dumerville, Williams and Bailey go about containing Cam Newton.
Something tells me Cam is a little too slippery and the Panthers sneak out a win, 24-21. (5-4)
WEEK 11 SAN DIEGO
There's a good chance San Diego comes in hot, winners of 3 straight after playing at Cleveland, home for KC and at Tampa Bay. But this will be their 3rd road game in four weeks and 5th in 7 weeks. Plus, I broke out the Doppler 9000 and I am predicting snow on 11/18/2012 in Denver.
Broncos sweep the Chargers. They win this one in the snow, 14-3. (6-4)
WEEK 12 AT KANSAS CITY
It looked like a tough game when the schedule came out. It's always tough in K.C. and always a little tougher in late November. But fortune has smiled on the Broncos as Matt Cassel will be out for this game, injured two weeks earlier in a game against Pittsburgh. (I can predict more than just the weather!) That means none other than Brady Quinn will be at the helm for this one!! The same Brady Quinn who couldn't get snaps in front of Tim Tebow in Denver. Oh, snap!
Broncos win this one, 17-0. (7-4)
WEEK 13 TAMPA BAY
Thanks schedule makers, thank you for sending Tampa Bay to Denver on December 2nd. With their previous four games at Oakland, home SD, at Carolina and home Atlanta, the only chill the Bucs players will have felt up until this point of the season is the ice packs on their bodies after every game. Couple that with the fact they just aren't very good and they'll be in full blown check-out mode, this looks good for the Ponies.
Broncos 27 Tampa Bay 6 (as in Fahrenheit, not Celsius) (8-4)
WEEK 14 AT OAKLAND
Always hard for one team to sweep the other, right? Well, since 2000, Denver has done it 4 times, and Oakland has done it to Denver twice. So it's not impossible. Did you know Peyton Manning has only played at Oakland twice in his career? He won both times, including a 31-26 win in the second to last regular season game he played for the Colts. Still, I never feel good about a visit to Oakland. It's kind of like going for a physical. You are nervous going in, you get held a lot and in the end you probably are going to take it up the ass.
The Raiders poke and prod their way to a turn your head and cough victory, 24-20. (8-5)
WEEK 15 AT BALTIMORE
I just started watching The Wire this year, so it would be easy to make all kinds of references to Omar, Stringer, McNulty and the rest, but that would be too cutesy and there is nothing cute about playing the Ravens this year or pretty much any other year.
It's encouraging to know that Manning is 6-2 lifetime against Baltimore with a QB rating over 100 and a TD/Int ratio of 6/2 in 8 games, but it's not that encouraging.
Manning vs Lewis is going to have a Rocky/Apollo after his Clubber Lang fight feel too it. Two war horses throwing blows one last time, and enjoying every second of it.
"Boy, you really move good for an older guy."
"You don't want any of this."
"Maybe I'm in here with the wrong guy."
Unless the Broncos have Herc and Carver eavesdropping on the Ravens play callers (sorry, couldn't resist), I don't like Denver's chances.
Ravens win it not at the wire, but going away, 30-14. (8-6)
WEEK 16 CLEVELAND
The Broncos are 18-5 all-time vs Cleveland. You may recall this win...
and then there was this one...
On top of that, Peyton Manning is 5-0 against the Browns (despite just 2 TDs and 6 picks).
So now that Cleveland has already gouged their eyes out, lets just jump to the end.
Broncos 40 Browns 7 (9-6)
WEEK 17 KANSAS CITY
Matt Cassel is back and he's not going to take it anymore! ....
OK, I'm done giggling now. Did you know Von Miller's linebacker coach in college coached former Chief great Derrick Thomas? Did you know Von Miller said this at the Senior Bowl in 2011 " I can never ever be like Derrick Thomas and I can never play like Derrick Thomas. But he played with a fanatical effort, a relentless effort. And that's what I can do. That's what I try to do - to play with that same attitude." Did you know Derrick Thomas holds the NFL record for sacks in a game with 7? Can you guess where I'm going with this?
Miller is going to sack Cassel 8 times in this game.
The Broncos win it 27-13. They finish 10-6 and win the AFC West.