Predicting how the Broncos will fare in each game of the 2021 season

Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton (14) celebrates after a touchdown catch against the Los Angeles Rams during the second quarter at Empower Field at Mile High.
Aug 28, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton (14) celebrates after a touchdown catch against the Los Angeles Rams during the second quarter at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

From 1973-2015 the Broncos never had consecutive losing seasons. They’re now coming off a streak of four straight losing seasons, something that hasn’t happened since the darkest days of the illustrious franchise’s history.

After making a series of big moves this offseason, will this finally be the year they turn it around?

Here, we’ll go game by game through the Broncos’ 2021 schedule and break down each of their opponents, in an effort to forecast the upcoming year of Denver Broncos football.

Easy opening slate

The season opens up with the Broncos taking a trip to Metlife Stadium to face the New York Giants.

It would be hard to draw up a better first course for the monstrous Broncos defense that will look to devour opponents with a devastating pass rush and a suffocating secondary at the hands of the defensive maestro, Vic Fangio.

New York’s offensive line looked lost in the preseason and there’s no reason to expect they won’t be one of the worst units in the league. Daniel Jones has always been susceptible to turnovers and that should be exploited by Denver’s defense, especially given Jones’ lack of protection. To make matters worse, even the Giants’ expensive skill group, headlined by Saquon Barkley and Kenny Golladay, is suffering through injury. With all that at his disposal, Jason Garrett will attempt to outwit Fangio.

It might be an ugly game for Denver’s offense, but it’s tough to see the Giants putting up more than 20 points.

That story will play out throughout the first three games, as the Broncos then face the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets in the subsequent weeks.

While Trevor Lawrence, Laviska Shenault and D.J. Chark make the Jaguars’ offense semi-intriguing; a porous offensive line, hideous depth, Darrell Bevell and the rest of The Urban Meyer Experience drags the unit down. Meanwhile, their limited front seven and bottom-of-the-league secondary should roll out the red carpet for a potential coming-out party for Denver’s offense.

Finally, the Broncos will head home to Denver to face the dismal New York Jets. While the upgrade to Robert Salah and Mike LaFleur from Adam Gase at head coach and offensive-play-caller is a welcome one, the prospect of sending an inexperienced rookie, underperforming line, and subpar skill group into Empower Field at Mile High — which is sure to be rocking for its first home game with fans since December 29th of 2019 — feels dubious. It will be the toughest test for the Broncos’ defense of the first three games (but that says more about the other two opponents than it does about the Jets), and the easiest test for the offense.

Prediction: 3-0

AFC North bonanza

It is paramount that the Broncos get off to a strong early start, as the schedule quickly becomes much more difficult, with Denver facing a host of AFC North teams.

First, they have a home matchup with Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. While the Baltimore defense figures to take a slight step back and their offense has been decimated by injuries, they present a dangerous mobile-quarterback option Denver’s defense already struggled with in the preseason. They also have one of the sport’s most exceptionally talented players at the sport’s most important position, leading to the Broncos’ first loss of the season.

A trip to Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers presents another difficult challenge, but there’s a reason why Pittsburgh is one of the favorites for regression in the AFC. Losing Alejandro Villanueva and Maurkice Pouncey hurts an already bad offensive line. The departures of Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton and Bud Dupree, plus the heavy reliance on players returning from injury, make the defensive unit more prone to regression than they otherwise would be.

That’s too many flaws for a well-past-his-prime Ben Roethlisberger to overcome, resulting in a Broncos victory.

Denver’s first intradivisional matchup will come the next week, as the Las Vegas Raiders come to town to square off in a potential Wild Card showcase.

While the Raiders appeared to be an interesting team on the rise last season, the dissolution of their offensive line poses major concerns that are likely to trickle down throughout the roster.

Vegas’ line wasn’t great last season, but it still managed to finish top-10 in ESPN’s pass-block win-rate, leading to a resurgent season from Derek Carr — who no longer seemed gun shy or afraid, now that he had a semi-reliable line. Now that the line has been reconstructed, there’s reason to believe Carr will not have that same confidence he showcased in 2020, leading to regression towards the mediocre play we saw from 2017-2019.

Meanwhile, though the defense does look improved on paper, but not living up to on-paper improvements has been the story of the Raiders’ defense for the better part of the last decade. Who was the last Raiders’ defensive addition (acquired via free agency or the draft) that lived up to expectation or improved upon their prior play? Khalil Mack?

New coordinator Gus Bradley doesn’t inspire much confidence either, as he’s had very little success since leaving the Hall-of-Famer-laden Legion of Boom in 2012. Over the past eight seasons, he has produced more than twice as many bottom-10 scoring defenses (five) as he has top-10 scoring defenses (two). His over-reliance on an outdated and non-varied Cover-3 scheme has allowed his units to be exploited relatively easily, on a consistent basis in recent years.

However, after what figures to be a relatively easy bout with the cellar-dwelling Raiders, the Broncos have to travel on a short week to face the Cleveland Browns in primetime. While the records of the two teams project to be similar, the Browns remain the more talented team with the better head coach and quarterback, assisted by the ‘Dawg Pound’ in what is sure to be a hostile environment. Outside of maybe the Broncos’ game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead, this is the hardest game to imagine them winning all season.

Expect Cleveland to humble Denver in this one, rolling to an easy victory.

Prediction: 5-2 (2-2)

A trip through the NFC Least

After a humbling defeat to the Browns, things won’t get much easier for the Broncos, as they then have to play host to the Washington Football Team, and their own domineering defense, before traveling to Dallas to face the Cowboys, who project to have one of football’s most explosive offensive attacks.

Both of these matchups feel like relative coin-flips.

Washington’s team is constructed very similarly to the Broncos, with a loaded defense, enticing offensive skill group, and troublesome quarterback situation. However, where the Broncos appear to have the much better overall roster, Washington might have the better quarterback and almost certainly has the better coach.

Dallas’ team is the polar opposite of Denver, outside the fact that both have hyper-talented, young receiving rooms. The Cowboys will be looking to outscore and outlast their opponents on the back of that receiving core and star quarterback Dak Prescott, with a porous defense that will seldom get stops. However, it’s fair to wonder if Prescott can overcome the Cowboys’ numerous talent deficiencies, questionable coaching staff, while also battling injuries of his own.

While the Broncos should be able to escape with a win in one of those games, the teams all seem too evenly matched for Denver to complete the clean sweep. For the sake of this column, we’ll say they run into a good Ryan Fitzpatrick game, and fall short, before stealing one from the Cowboys in Jerry World.

However, the next week’s matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles should have the Broncos licking their chops. Philadelphia’s roster is in one of the worst states of any in the entire NFL, and the quarterback and head coach don’t inspire much confidence. There’s potential for Jalen Hurts’ mobility to give Denver’s defense fits, but ultimately, Philly’s offense seems far too one-dimensional for that to be a game-breaker.

The Broncos finish with a 3-1 record against the NFC East, only dropping a close home game to the eventual divisional champions; the Washington Football Team.

Prediction: 7-3 (2-1)

Divisional carousel

This last stretch of the Broncos’ season is easily the largest of any, and it’s also the most consequential, considering five of Denver’s six divisional games come in the final seven weeks of the season.

Fortunately, the Broncos will have a bye week to help them gear up for the arduous road laid out before them, but right after the bye, they’ll have to battle the Chargers and Justin Herbert at Empower Field.

The Chargers present a real problem for the Broncos in the AFC West this year.

New head coach Brandon Staley should help the defense — which will be much healthier and more talented this season — play above the sum of its parts. Meanwhile, Herbert should guide the offense towards excellent production, especially now that their top-flight running back, Austin Ekeler, is back in the picture.

However, with all that said, there is also plenty of reason for pessimism in regard to the 2021 campaigns of Herbert and Staley.

It’s undeniable that Herbert was a top-10 quarterback last season, but his success was strongly tied to dominant performances in high-variance facets of the quarterback position — like performing well on downfield throws, and exceptionally well under pressure, especially for a rookie. Herbert could certainly continue to dominate those aspects of his job, but historical analysis of the quarterback position suggests that isn’t likely.

A good comparison for this logic would be Carson Wentz; who played at a historically dominant level on third-downs — a generally high-variance analytic — in 2017 and looked like an MVP, before regressing towards the mean in future seasons to become the version of Wentz we know and feel so indifferently about today.

Meanwhile, in regard to Staley, it should be noted that being named head coach is just the end of his meteoric rise over the past few years. As recently as the 2016 season, he was the defensive coordinator for a Division-III school. He might be out-kicking his coverage as a head coach, and even if he is well-suited for the job, it might take some time to adjust to the new role. Also, while he had tremendous defensive success with the Rams last year, he also had the two most dominant defenders in the sport to support his innovative defensive scheme. The Bolts don’t have that same talent.

While those concerns are legitimate, there’s way too much to like about the Chargers to have the Broncos sweep their season series. A home win off the bye, followed by a road loss to the Chargers in Week 17 feels like the proper prediction.

After their first matchup with the Chargers, the Broncos will pack their bags and head to Arrowhead, for what was previously described in this column as Denver’s toughest game of the year. Not to pat one’s self on the back, but that description is apt.

Kansas City has long been one of the most brutal environments to attempt to steal a road win in, and ever since the arrival of Patrick Mahomes, that task has gone from brutal to impossible. It should be noted that this Chiefs team projects to be the worst of the past three seasons, but they’re still head-and-shoulders better than the Broncos and they’ve seemed to have Denver’s numbers in recent matchups.

They will send the high-flying Broncos hurtling back towards the earth with a thunderous defeat in Week 13. The Week 18 matchup in Denver should be closer, especially if Kansas City is resting starters, but ultimately, the Chiefs will keep their win streak against the Broncos alive for another year.

After a brutal divisional stretch that sees Denver squeak out a win against the Chargers and lose convincingly to the Chiefs, the team will have an opportunity to gasp for air against the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals.

The Lions are presently in the ‘tear-down’ stage of their ‘tear-down and rebuild’, and while they have the potential to be frisky under uniquely-tempered head coach Dan Campbell, their talent deficiencies should remove almost all possibility of them upsetting the Broncos in Denver. Their offensive line is poor, their running back talent doesn’t ‘wow’ one unless D’Andre Swift can construct a breakout season, Trinity Benson has a legitimate shot to be the team’s best wide receiver, and Jared Goff — who has seemingly been outed as a product of his surroundings — has arguably the worst surroundings of his NFL career.

The Broncos easily get a home win against the NFC’s worst team.

They then get to stay home to face one of the AFC’s worst teams.

The Cincinnati Bengals have been the NFL’s worst franchise at any point over the past three decades where Marvin Lewis wasn’t heavily involved in the team’s operations. There’s a reason people credited Lewis with raising the Titanic.

With Zac Taylor in the big chair instead, the Bengals have once again sunk back into the icy depths of the NFL waters. Joe Burrow showed promise last year, but he’s attempting to return from a gruesome injury he isn’t far removed from, behind a still-questionable offensive line. The young skill group boasts a lot of promise, but Ja’Marr Chase has so far looked like an utter disaster, dropping three times as many passes as he caught in the preseason, and boasting a drop rate of 75%.

For sake of reference, Broncos Country lost their minds when their rookie receiver posted a drop rate of 8.8%. Jerry Jeudy’s memorably horrific game against the Chargers last year showcased a drop rate of 40%.

Cincinnati’s defense doesn’t look much better, and going from Carl Lawson and William Jackson III to Trey Hendrickson and Chidobe Awuzie is a clear and sizable downgrade that will likely ripple throughout the defense.

After getting back on track with those should-be easy wins, the Broncos will face a divisional carousel of the Raiders, Chargers and Chiefs, respectively.

As we’ve already taken an especially close look at each of these three opponents and how they stack up with the Broncos, we’ll be briefer here.

The Raiders at this point figure to be in utter disarray, as they already project to be the dregs of the AFC West, and already have set a problematic trend of collapsing down the stretch. That helps the Broncos get their first-ever win on the road in Vegas.

Los Angeles posses a much less intimidating home-field advantage than Vegas, but they’ll still manage to beat the Broncos in Week 17. At this point in the season, whatever early struggles Brandon Staley and Justin Herbert might have had in their first matchup should have been sorted out, and with the Chargers in third place in the division, battling to make the playoffs, the Bolts manage to split the season series as the more desperate team.

Finally, the Broncos head back home to close the regular season out against the Chiefs. While the Chiefs are the much better team, there’s also a good chance they’ll be resting starters this week, leaving the door open for a Denver upset.

However, in this forecast, Denver has performed so well through the first 17 weeks that Kansas City doesn’t have enough cushion to risk sitting starters. This game will determine the outcome of the division, and with the Chiefs’ backs up against the wall, they’ll conjure a rousing performance on their way to a confident win over the Broncos.

Prediction: 11-6 (4-3)

The aftermath

With the Broncos closing the regular season at 11-6 they’re able to make the playoffs as the sixth seed in a loaded AFC.

In this first round, they once again travel to Cleveland to face the Browns, but there will be no John Elway miracles this time around. While the game is much more competitive than the prior Thursday night matchup, the difference between the Browns’ offense and Broncos’ offense proves to be starker than the difference between the two defenses. Baker Mayfield is able to make plays Teddy Bridgewater is unable to, and Denver’s season will come to a close.

While obviously disappointing to end the season with a loss, the campaign will serve as a return to the winning ways the franchise is used to, saving Fangio’s job. Unfortunately, Tom McMahon won’t be so lucky, after continued poor special teams performances.

Alongside McMahon, Bridgewater will also draw the short straw, fair or otherwise. A laundry list of talented veterans, headlined by Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, is set to hit the market this offseason. The potential for an upgrade, while stringing along the continued hope of Lock’s development, feels like the tact George Paton and Co. will take.

They could opt to draft someone, in which case holding Bridgewater would make sense, but there are few (if any) quarterback prospects in this draft class that have the ceiling — let alone likely projection — to compete in a division with Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes.