Mike Shanahan (and probably every other NFL head coach) liked to break down the regular season into four quarters. During his time in Denver, he’d gauge how his Broncos teams were faring by evaluating them in four-game increments.
A 4-0 or 3-1 stretch was a success. Going 2-2 was staying in the race. And 1-3 or 0-4 was a sign that things were careening dangerously off course.
Using this time-tested logic, the 2012 version of the Broncos are definitely headed in the right direction. They avoided disaster early in the season, posting a 2-2 mark during the first four games while settling into an entirely new system and getting Peyton Manning comfortable after 18 months of not playing. And in the season’s “second quarter,” they’ve been even better, going 3-1 to put themselves in prime position at the midway point.
That’s a great start. In fact, it’s better than most people expected; few had the Broncos going 5-3 through eight games, even those who picked Denver to win the AFC West. So in many ways, the season is ahead of schedule.
But it’s time to start thinking bigger. Shooting for 10 wins and a division title are no longer the goal; in fact, merely reaching those accomplishments would be somewhat of a letdown at this point.
The Broncos need to set their sights higher. They need to aspire for more grandiose things.
Moving forward, the final eight games of the regular season should be all about one singular goal: Getting one of the top two seeds in the AFC.
There’s a huge difference between simply making the playoffs and being a No. 1 or 2 seed. It’s a much easier path to the Super Bowl, having to only win two games instead of three and playing at least the conference semifinal at home. It’s why the last five Super Bowl teams from the AFC have been a one or two seed. So if the Broncos are to have genuine championship aspirations, finishing as one of the conference’s top two teams is critical.
It’s safe to assume that Houston is uncatchable at 7-1; they sit two games ahead of the Broncos, plus they hold the tiebreaker on the strength of their Sept. 23 victory in Denver. But the Ravens seem less than daunting, despite their 6-2 record; they’re not playing their best football, as injuries have mounted, and the Broncos get their shot at them head-to-head on Dec. 16.
So more than likely, snatching the No. 2 seed will mean passing New England in the standings (although Pittsburgh, a team Denver beat in the opener, is in the mix at 5-3, too); Right now, both teams are tied with 5-3 records, but the Patriots hold the tiebreaker because of their victory over the Broncos on Oct. 7. So in order to beat out Bill Belichick and Company, Denver is going to have to finish with a better overall record.
How doable is that? It’s once again time to break out the Mastermind’s strategy of breaking the season into four parts.
If the Broncos can go 3-1 in both the third and fourth “quarters” of the season, they’ll finish 11-5. The first batch of games features a trip to Carolina, a home game against San Diego, a visit to Kansas City and Tampa Bay at Sports Authority Field; three wins seems very attainable. And the second batch includes trips to Oakland and Baltimore, followed by back-to-back home games against Cleveland and Kansas City; Denver will be favored in at least three of those games.
But that might not be good enough. Looking at New England’s remaining slate of games, the Broncos probably can’t count on the Patriots losing three more games. In the second half of the season, the Pats play fives times at home (Buffalo, Indianapolis, Houston, San Francisco and Miami) and have three road trips (New York Jets, Miami and Jacksonville). Two losses isn’t guaranteed; three is a stretch.
So that means the Broncos have to shoot for the moon. They need to set their sights on doing something beyond good; they have to strive for greatness.
If Denver can get the second seed, they have a legitimate shot at making a trip to New Orleans in February. They’d get a first-round bye, play the Divisional Playoff game at home, and then either host the AFC Championship game or have to travel to Houston for the title tilt; it’s hard not to like the Broncos’ chances in that scenario.
If they don’t finish No. 2, they’ll host a Wild Card game, travel to New England in round two and then be on the road for the second week in a row with a Super Bowl berth on the line. Even the biggest optimist can see that road is daunting.
So the mission the rest of the season needs to be 7-1 or 8-0. If the Broncos want this season to be special, they need to be almost perfect the rest of the way.
Every team wants to win every game. But that’s not a realistic goal for most of them. In Denver, however, it is attainable.
The Broncos are playing good football on both sides of the ball. The schedule is very favorable the rest of the way. And the guy playing quarterback in Denver has made a habit of stretching together long winning streaks in the NFL.
It’s time to think big. It’s time to run the table.