With free agency and the draft now behind us, we have a pretty good idea of which teams are filling holes and improving for 2014 (Broncos, Pats, Rams) and which ones appear to be headed the wrong direction (Dolphins, Cowboys, Chiefs).
So, as we patiently await training camp and suffer through that dead period of the offseason, our hearts naturally turn to.........speculation. Here's one sneak peak (of many, no doubt) at the season ahead and some early game-by-game speculation.
I thought it might be fun and instructive to apply probabilities to each game and add up those probabilities to project a season record. So, I've done just that. Here's the deal:
Week 1, I'm giving the Broncos a 90% chance of beating the Colts. That might be generous, but I'll explain my rationale below. Dittos for Week 2 against the Chiefs -- 90% chance of winning.
So, according to my methodology, we'll have a record of 0.9 "wins" and 0.1 "losses" after Week 1 and a record of 1.8 wins and 0.2 losses after Week 2. Make sense?
Yes, I realize that every game is a 100% affair (all win or all loss), but I look at it this way: If you play 10 games in a season with a 90% win probability, you should go 9-1. And in fact, looking at the 2013 season, there were probably 10 games that would have qualified as a "90% win probability" game -- all eight home games (sorry, Baltimore Beatdown, there was NO WAY you were going to win that Week 1 game last year) and road games in San Diego and Oakland. And with the Thursday Night loss against San Diego, we went 9-1.
I'm maxing out the probability of winning any game at 90% to account for the "Any given Sunday" (or in the Broncos' case, any given Thursday) effect and rounding every prediction to the nearest 10% because anything more precise than that would be pure hubris on my part.
Quick Review of 2013
So, let's apply the methodology to the 2013 season. It's challenging to think back to the 2013 preseason, before Von's suspension and the injury bug hit the defense, but here's roughly how I would have handicapped 2013:
BAL: 90% (revenge factor: no way the Ravens win that game)
@NYG: 70% (this game had folks concerned if you remember)
@DAL: 70% (we were favorites headed in, probably an easy win without the injuries on defense)
@IND: 60% (we were favored and probably win that game more often than not)
@NE: 50% (prior to the season, the talk was of Brady and his lack of weapons on offense, but this still looked like a "pick 'em" type game)
@KC: 70% (remember, the Chiefs looked like a 6-10 team at best prior to the season. Wins are tough in KC in November, though)
If my math is correct. that would have projected us out at about 12.6 wins. Throw in a couple of tight wins against the Cowboys and Chiefs (in KC), and the Giants and Texans both being FAR worse than expected when we played them and voila, 13-3.
This time of the year, fans naturally get infected with thoughts of best-case scenarios.
Chiefs' faithful are foreseeing a full season with their early-2013 defense combined with their late-2013 offense and a run deep into the playoffs.
Fans in Houston see the Texans leveraging an unstoppable pass rush, a rejuvenated offense under Bill O'Brien and Ryan Fitzpatrick and a soft schedule to make the Super Bowl run they were supposed to make in 2013.
You get the picture.
Before I get into my mathematical projections for 2014, I wanted to discuss the Broncos' best-case scenario, because it is downright scary.
In a best-case scenario, not only do you have one of the Top 3 pass rushing tandems in the NFL (Von and Ware), but those two are going to turn a solid supporting cast (Wolfe, Malik, Pot Roast, Sly, Vick, Q Smith) into an elite unit. Couple that with a potentially elite secondary, and -- best-case -- you're talking about a defense that can stand toe-to-toe with the Seahawks and Niners.
And, oh yeah, you've got that Peyton guy on offense, too.
So, in a best-case scenario, the Broncos roll the Colts and Chiefs in Weeks 1 and 2 (heck, in most scenarios, they're going to roll the Colts and Chiefs in Weeks 1 and 2), then find a way to win in Seattle Week 3.
Now, you're headed into the bye week (Week 4, yuck!) with legitimate visions of 19-0, although with a rough road in getting there (SF Week 7, @NE Week 9, @STL Week 11, @KC Week 13, @CIN Week 16).
Will the best-case scenario happen? Probably not. But hey, it's June and in June, all things are possible.
Game-by-game Projections for 2014
So, here we go on a more realistic projection of the 2014 season.
Week 1, home vs. Indianapolis
I might as well come clean right here and now: I hate the Colts. Not in a passionate, Tom Brady, "I hope you wake up one morning and forget what color your team's uniform is" kind of way, but more in a "These guys are frauds. Bellicheck exposed them and now they're regressing" kind of way.
They can't run the ball and can't stop the run. Game over against a team like the Broncos. Andrew Luck will put this team on his back and win his fair share of games against the NFL's weakest 2014 schedule, but not in Week 1. Broncos win this easily.
Broncos Win: 90%. Record: 0.9 wins, 0.1 losses.
Week 2, home vs. Kansas City
In my humble opinion, the Chiefs had 7-9 talent back in 2012 and, thanks to some atrocious coaching, no QB, bad luck and a losing culture, went 2-14. In 2013, they upgraded their head coach and QB and probably had 9-7 talent, then rode a soft schedule and good karma to an 11-5 record and early playoff exit.
With offensive line problems and no real offseason upgrades to speak of, I'm thinking they're back to roughly 8-8, which will probably lead to about a 6-10 record against a brutal schedule. Seriously, do you see the Chiefs beating anybody in the NFC West? The Cardinals MAYBE.
Broncos Win: 90%. Record: 1.8 wins, 0.2 losses.
Week 3, at Seattle
The Seahawks winning the Super Bowl was no fluke. That team is absolutely legit and will be again in 2014. Winning by 35, though? Yes, definitely a fluke. Peyton was not prepared for the crowd noise and threw together some hand signals (which the Seahawks promptly deciphered). The Seahawks' pass rush ended up in Peyton's head when they pwned Orlando Franklin.
Combine that with Pete Carroll doing a vastly superior job in getting his team to a perfect emotional pitch and the Super Bowl was never a contest.
This game being in Seattle, the Seahawks will be favored, and rightly so. But if they were to play this game 10 times, how many would the Broncos squeak out? Perhaps I'm optimistic, but I say 2 times out of 10, they figure out a way to play through the crowd noise and the emotion and find a way to win this game.
Broncos Win: 20%: Record: 2.0 wins, 1.0 losses.
Week 5, home vs. Arizona
This is a toughie, because I really like the Cardinals. They were a hair's breath away from making the playoffs in 2013 despite playing in the NFL's best division. I ask you this: How many AFC playoff teams could have played the Cardinals' schedule last year and made the playoffs? The Broncos? Yes. The Patriots? Probably. The Bengals? Maybe. The Colts? Probably not (although they did beat both the Niners and Seahawks). The Chiefs and Chargers? Not on your life.
But as much as I like the Cardinals, they're going to miss the suspended Daryl Washington on an order close to how the Broncos missed Von Miller last year. And I'm foreseeing Carson Palmer having one of his patented 5-INT games as VonWareWolfe, Pot Roast and friends get in his head. I just don't see the Cardinals coming into Denver and winning this game.
Broncos Win: 90%: Record: 2.9 wins, 1.1 losses.
Week 6, at the New York Jets
Don't underestimate the Jets. Fantastic Front 7 to anchor a generally good defense. And Michael Vick showed last year that he still has something left in the tank. If Geno Smith can't get it done at QB, the Jets won't have to rely on a serial Butt Fumbler as a backup plan.
This is a game that I think the Broncos win, but not easily and certainly not with 90% type consistency.
Broncos Win: 70%: Record: 3.6 wins, 1.4 losses
Week 7, home vs. San Francisco
The Niners have some red flags headed into 2014 -- Kaepernick is inconsistent and now sporting a monster contract, Aldon Smith is always a distraction, Jim Harbaugh's antics appear to be wearing thin and several key players are past their primes -- but my GOODNESS is this ever a talented team!
On a neutral field, I think you're looking at a Pick 'Em type game. In Denver, though, I think the Broncos win a hypothetical 7 out of 10 times. Count on this being a tough, bloody, ugly, type game with a 20-17 type of score.
Broncos Win: 70%. Record: 4.3 wins, 1.7 losses
Week 8, home vs. San Diego (Thursday night)
Q: Why is Peyton Manning arguably the greatest QB in NFL history?
A: Because he prepares better and reads defenses better than any QB in NFL history.
Here's the problem, though. Take away three days from Peyton's game preparation and you take away a good chunk of his mastery. I don't think it was any fluke that the Chargers exploited that last year and made the Broncos look flat and ordinary on a Thursday night. That short week is a great leveler.
I do believe Gase and Peyton will adjust this time around and figure out a way to win this game, but I don't think it's a given. I can't call this a "90%" type of game.
Broncos Win: 80%. Record: 5.1 wins, 1.9 losses
Week 9, at New England
This is one of the few scheduling breaks we get in 2014, giving Peyton an EXTRA three days to prepare after losing the three days the week prior.
The Pats figure to be back to full strength on defense, with a nice upgrade at CB in Darrel Revis (although the guy he replaces is no slouch!). The Broncos, though, have specifically built their defense to stop Tom Brady. I foresee VonWareWolfe and the D-Line throwing Brady out of his rhythm, and TJ Ward filling Brady with visions of Bernard Pollard. Yes, it's June, and yes, the Pats figure to be back in the AFC Championship game next year, but I REALLY like our chances in this game, all things being equal injury-wise.
I'm not sure how Vegas will handicap this game, but I see us as a very mild favorite.
Broncos Win: 60%. Record: 5.7 wins, 2.3 losses.
Week 10, at Oakland
Personally, I think the Raiders are going to surprise on the upside this season. They drafted well (for once!) this year and Dennis Allen has them playing with some heart. I just don't see them having the firepower to beat the Broncos this year, though.
However, the Matt Shaub factor keeps me from calling this a "90%" game. Shaub will single-handedly lose more than his share of games, but he'll also win some for you as well. Say what you want about him, he moves the ball. In all likelihood, he succumbs to the juggernaut Denver defense, but I'm going to hedge my bet just a bit.
Broncos Win: 80%. Record: 6.5 wins, 2.5 losses.
Week 11, at St. Louis
Biggest "trap" game on the schedule. Third straight on the road. On turf. Against a Rams' team that is quietly becoming quite competitive in the NFL's toughest division. Nice draft (their third or fourth in a row now) and a monster (Aaron Donald) to add to what was already a formidable Front 7.
What really scares me about the Rams, though, is that Sam Bradford may be a sleeping giant. He's had a career-long string of bad weapons, a mediocre offensive line, no real run support, coordinator turnover, front office instability and last year, a major injury. Once he puts it together, I can see him working his way into the Phillip Rivers / Matt Ryan / Matthew Stafford tier of NFL QB's.
Despite all the love, though, I see the Rams still being a year away from winning these types of games consistently. My buddy at work is a Rams' fan and he probably handicapped this game the best. "You may beat us," he says, "But you'll wake up the next morning and know you were in a battle."
Broncos Win: 60%. Record: 7.1 wins, 2.9 losses.
Week 12, home vs. Miami
Finally back home again after three straight on the road, this game should be a cake-walk. The Dolphins just don't impress me much. Their big offseason moves (Knowshon Moreno, Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas) were more about selling tickets than winning games.
I like Ryan Tannehill, but I think this is a year when the Dolphins succumb to the sheer weight of being a poorly-run and poorly-coached organization. This is a game we probably win 19 times out of 20.
Broncos Win: 90%. Record: 8.0 wins, 3.0 losses.
Week 13, at Kansas City
Oh, good grief. Kansas City in late November. Just ask John Elway how fun it is trying to win in Kansas City in late November and December. I'm going to stick to my guns here and say that the Broncos will be favorites, and would probably win this game more often than not (maybe 6 out of 10), because I foresee the Chiefs being in a legitimate tailspin by Week 13 (sort of like they were in 2013).
If you think this is going to be an easy win, though, think again. Don't be surprised if we lose this one.
Broncos Win: 60%. Record: 8.6 wins, 3.4 losses.
Week 14, home vs. Buffalo
I like the Bills. That trio of EJ Manuel, CJ Spiller and rookie WR Sammy Watkins is going to be intensely exciting. I'm certainly hoping they have the firepower to split with the Patriots, but I'm not sure they're quite ready to make that step.
One thing is for certain, though: Short of an "Any given Sunday" type of game, there's no way they come into Denver and win this game.
Broncos Win: 90%. Record: 9.5 wins, 3.5 losses.
Week 15, at San Diego
Mark my words. By Week 15, the Chargers will be done from a playoff perspective and playing for pride. They may be able to give the Broncos a scare simply because winning division games on the road in December is a tough thing to do, but unless the Broncos are beaten up by injuries at this point, I think we take this game without a ton of trouble.
Broncos Win: 70%. Record: 10.2 wins, 3.8 losses.
Week 16, at Cincinnati
This may be the most frightening game on the schedule outside of Week 3 in Seattle. I'm kind of high on the Ravens this year, so I'm foreseeing this being effectively a playoff game for the Bengals as they make a last gasp for their division and/or fight for a wild card slot.
The homer in me, though, says, "OK, if this is a playoff-type game and the Broncos' D Line is still bringing it by Week 16, can't you more-or-less take an Andy Dalton meltdown to the bank?"
Umm, well, yes. Yes, you probably can.
Broncos Win: 60%. Record: 10.8 wins, 4.2 losses.
Week 17, home vs. Oakland
Repeat of the 2013 season finale, this scheduling quirk hardly seems fair to the Raiders. I'll take it, though. The Raiders will have packed in their season long before Week 17 and will be playing for another Top 10 draft pick. I like Dennis Allen, so I'm hoping the Raiders at least overachieve a bit and help him keep his job.
Broncos Win: 90%. Record 11.7 wins, 4.3 losses.
So, there you have it
These projections leave us just a bit short of 12 wins. I'm thinking 12-4 probably sounds reasonable, with a ceiling of 15-1 if the defense jells and loose balls all bounce our way; and a floor of 9-7 if Peyton goes down early in the season or things otherwise fall apart.
At 12-4, you're probably looking at another fight-to-the-finish for the #1 seed in the AFC. Realistically, the Week 9 showdown in New England probably ends up determining where the AFC Championship game gets played.
Brady vs. Manning, what, XIX?
Works for me.