Every year at this time, one of my favorite rituals involves looking at the Denver Broncos' upcoming schedule, game by game, and predicting the season.
But it's hard to remember this task ever being as difficult as now, after all the changes and turmoil that have engulfed the team over the past year. OK, several years.
Out of that, Denver has a new coach in John Fox, a management structure led by John Elway, fresh optimism and new faces on the field. Yet, many of the same underachieving players and problems still are around.
By all accounts, there's a good feeling inside these Broncos. Fox has brought stability and togetherness, better than the team has had for perhaps a decade or more. But how does that translate to the 16 games ahead?
Can the Broncos really be that much better than the clumsy 4-12 outfit of a year ago? Will the defense improve that much, especially against the run? Will running back Knowshon Moreno, with only Willis McGahee as a proven short-yardage backup, be durable enough to bring balance to the offense? Can quarterback Kyle Orton benefit from the apparent improvements?
Questions still surround this Denver team. Remember, the franchise was willing only a month ago to trade Orton and go with Tim Tebow and Brady Quinn at quarterback, which would've meant conceding another rebuilding year of 5-11 or 4-12.
But the trade fell through, Orton proceeded to outclass Tebow and Quinn in training camp, the first offense showed real progress, and the starting defense didn't give up a preseason touchdown. So now the Broncos and their ever-hopeful fans wonder if they can become the surprise of this NFL season.
Don't count on it.
The schedule starts easy but soon becomes torturous. Even with a first half as good as 5-3 or 4-4, the Broncos face a second half dotted by home challenges against the New York Jets, Chicago, New England and Kansas City — all playoff teams from 2010. So let's not be too rosy with the predictions, OK?
With that thought, here are five areas of uncertainty that will determine Denver's fate:
• Lack of depth. You could see it in the preseason opener at Dallas, then in the finale at Arizona. The more that the Broncos have to depend on their backups, the less likely they will succeed in 2011. The dropoffs are most noticeable on the offensive line and at linebacker.
• Ground game. It's time for Moreno to have a breakthrough, and he's shown flashes. The playbook will focus much more on running first to open up the pass. But it still seems like the Broncos are one runner short, unless McGahee can become more like a 1A guy instead of a No. 2 just for using in third-and-short situations.
• Orton. Imagine, Denver was prepared to dump him for a fourth-round draft pick. Now he could become the difference between a modest turnaround and an outside shot at the playoffs. But can he be consistent, week after week?
• Run defense. Everyone anticipates Denver having a great pass rush, with Elvis Dumervil and rookie Von Miller converging from either side. But the Broncos have been awful against the run for years now. If you see them holding opponents under 100 rushing yards a game, and keeping the big plays to a bare minimum, that'll be a major positive sign.
• Inside linebacker. This middle spot has to be strong in the 4-3 alignment, and that's not a given. Denver will count on Joe Mays and rookies Nate Irving and Mike Mohamed, but the group looks suspect. They have to make plays, especially on first downs, or the defense as a whole will never be good enough.
What will happen in the months ahead? Game by game, in order: Oakland, win; Cincinnati, win; at Tennessee, win; at Green Bay, loss; San Diego, loss; bye week; at Miami, loss; Detroit, win; at Oakland, loss; at Kansas City, loss; NY Jets, loss; at San Diego, loss; at Minnesota, loss; Chicago, win; New England, loss; at Buffalo, win; Kansas City, win.
That adds up to 7-9, the most Denver realistically can expect.
Anything more than that, and John Fox should be NFL coach of the year.