Broncos’ NFC West opponents offer intriguing storylines in 2018

Aug 27, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) attempts a pass over Denver Broncos linebacker Shane Ray (56) during the second quarter of a preseason game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos find themselves matched up against the NFC West this season, bringing four games that could make for some very interesting football — and certainly interesting storylines. Despite being non-divisional and non-conference games, the matchups could turn out to be strong signals of if the Broncos are capable of pulling away from their downhill trend from the past two seasons, or if more work will be needed before the team can be considered playoff contenders.

With the release of the NFL regular season schedule on April 19, fans learned the order in which the Broncos will take on their NFC divisional counterparts. Denver will open the season against Seattle, then play Los Angeles and Arizona in back-to-back contests Weeks 6 and 7 before concluding their run through the division with San Francisco on Week 14.

As for the individual matches and what to expect, here’s how each one stacks up currently:

Week 1: vs. Seattle Seahawks

Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018 | 2:25 p.m MT 

On Sept. 9, the Broncos will welcome the Seattle Seahawks to the Mile High City to open their NFL season. It will also be the first time since the 2010 season, where the Broncos defeated the Seahawks 31-14.

No love has been lost between the two teams in recent history. The Seahawks defeated the Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII, shutting down one of the most prolific offenses in league history in the process. Just seven months later, the Seahawks once again beat the Broncos in Seattle 26-20 when running back Marshawn Lynch capped off a 65-yard drive. 

But where that matchup was a Super Bowl rematch between two extremely similar teams, the upcoming home opener will be a measuring stick for two teams rebuilding themselves in an attempt to get back in the playoffs. 

The 5-11 Denver Broncos have restructured several major positions on both offense and defense. The biggest offseason move made by the team was the signing of free agent quarterback Case Keenum, who is currently named the starter after general manager John Elway later dealt Trevor Siemian to the Minnesota Vikings. The team also released running back C.J. Anderson, essentially giving the starting nod to third-year Devontae Booker.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks have restructured their defense, cutting Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman and trading away defensive end Michael Bennett to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Seahawks have also added veteran kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who will be playing his first season not in a Raiders uniform. 

With no recent frame of reference, the only way to compare the teams now is the previous season. Seattle’s 9-7 record was far stronger than Denver’s 5-11. However, a weaker overall AFC conference shows that the Broncos might have a higher chance of qualifying for the postseason this year. History is also on the Broncos’ side in the matchup. Denver is 34-21 in the head-to-head matchups.

Week 6: vs Los Angeles Rams

Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018 | 2:05 p.m MT 

The Los Angeles Rams will be entering their second season both in Los Angeles and under head coach Sean McVay. The Rams are coming off of a breakout season, going 11-5 and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Despite losing to the Atlanta Falcons in the Wild Card game, the team showed a lot of promise behind second-year quarterback Jared Goff and a top-15 defense.

The Rams made several offseason moves to improve their defense, acquiring Marcus Peters in a trade from the Kansas City Chiefs as well as cornerback Aqib Talib from the Broncos. They also signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Goff also gained a new weapon when the Rams traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks in exchange for a first-round and sixth-round pick in the upcoming draft.

Three major storylines will play out during the game as well. Not only will the game be the first for Aqib Talib against his former team, but former Broncos’ defensive coordinator Wad Phillips will be going against the defense he helped create during his time in Denver.

Keenum will also get another chance to face off against his former team, having played for the team in 2014 before being cut. He was re-signed in 2015 and played through 2016 before being traded to Minnesota and led the Vikings to an NFC Championship appearance.

The Rams will most likely be heavily favored in the matchup, but some concerns are arising about the squad, especially surrounding the various personalities on their defense. The Rams’ performance will most likely reflect how well McVay can hold the locker room together during the season.

Week 7: at Arizona Cardinals

Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018 | 5:20 p.m MT 

Just four days after facing off against the Rams, the Broncos will travel to Arizona to take on the Cardinals. The Cardinals are coming off of an 8-8 season that saw their starting quarterback Carson Palmer suffer a season-ending broken arm early in the season. Backups Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton split the remainder of the season, combining for five wins and four losses, and the Cardinals missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. 

The biggest offseason move by the Cardinals was acquiring former Rams and Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford after Palmer announced his retirement. Bradford has been an injury concern his entire career, but the Cardinals have had a way of reviving quarterback careers, including Kurt Warner and Palmer, both of whom have lead the team to the playoffs.

Arizona may also be a draft-day rival with the Broncos. Arizona looks to bolster its quarterback ranks and may try to trade up in front of the Broncos in order to get one of four big-name quarterbacks that are predicted to go within the top 10.

Being the first – and only – Thursday night game the Broncos will play all season, it will be an interesting matchup as two teams who are trying to rebuild face-off. Keenum and Bradford will also share an interesting storyline in the matchup, as Keenum replaced Bradford in week two of the 2017 season, keeping the starting job and leading the team to the playoffs and an eventual NFC Championship berth.

Week 14: at San Francisco 49ers

Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018 | 2:05 p.m MT 

The last NFC West game of the season comes on Week 14, a time when the Broncos will find themselves either positioning for the playoffs or testing out younger players to make decisions for the future.

The 49ers are on a rapid upswing after going through three head coaches in three seasons. The hiring of current head coach Kyle Shanahan has seemed to stabilize the franchise, but the 49ers have still not had a winning record since 2013.

Shanahan was one of the finalists for Denver’s head coaching vacancy following the 2016 season, before Elway opted to sign Vance Joseph instead. Shanahan in 2017 was one win better than Joseph, in total, but each coach ended their respective first seasons at the helm moving in very different directions (and not in a good one for Joseph). It could be very clear by this game if Elway made a mistake in his decision.

49ers General Manager and former Broncos safety John Lynch is starting to set the team up for a significant playoff push after trading their No. 2 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft to the Chicago Bears for the No. 3 pick, as well as a third and fourth-round pick and a third-round pick in the 2018 draft. Lynch last year also traded for Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who started the final five games of the season, winning all of them and taking the team from a 1-10 start to a 6-10 finish. Garoppolo signed a five-year extension, and Lynch also picked up former Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman during free agency.

Despite the five-game winning streak to cap off the season, the 49ers do still have several questions. Shanahan is entering his second year as a head coach; before starting Garoppolo he led the team to a 1-10 record. The new quarterback may have been a simple flash-in-the-pan for his five-game stretch, and this season will be the first time he starts on a regular basis and plays a full 16-game schedule.

Overall, the 49ers are most likely to be favored in the game, but that can change simply as the season progresses. If one of the two teams are practically eliminated for the playoffs, they may not play their best players, thus skewing the game result. Despite being the latest game in the schedule of the four NFC West opponents, this game may wind up being the most important.

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