Let's start this preview of what to expect from the Denver Broncos in 2009 with an immediate warning: Don't make sweeping judgments based on what happens in the season opener Sunday.
For those who don't pay close attention to the rest of the National Football League, the Cincinnati Bengals rank among the NFL's most dangerous darkhorses, and they'll be looking to make a bold statement at home against Denver.
So, if you were counting on the Broncos jumping to a 1-0 start, count again. More likely, Cincy quarterback Carson Palmer will have luck choosing among his many targets, led by Chad Ochocinco, Chris Henry and Laveranues Coles, while runner Cedric Benson finds holes up the middle. No matter what Denver can do offensively, it won't be enough.
The temptation, especially for those so quick to condemn the Broncos in August, will be to assume the absolute worst.
Go ahead, be a pessimist. But perhaps, before you totally give up on Denver for 2009, it might be smart to consider some other factors:
• Kyle Orton. All right, let's all admit that Orton is not Jay Cutler — and move on. But Orton did look very sharp in two games, until that fluke finger injury ended his preseason early. He'll be a work in progress, along with the rest of the offense. But I'll stand by an earlier prediction: Orton will throw more touchdown passes this season than Cutler will, in part because Denver's receiving corps is deeper.
• Knowshon Moreno. His preseason amounted to three carries in the first game. Whatever plans the Broncos have for their rookie runner, they're a deep, dark secret. But with Moreno back to full speed, he will add a dimension. He'll probably show his potential more in glimpses than full games early on, but in the back half of the season, if not sooner, Moreno will become a true weapon.
• Josh McDaniels. Learning as he goes, the young head coach has made some mistakes, and he'll make more. But just remember that, as New England's offensive coordinator, he was planning on a full 2008 season with Tom Brady at the helm. After Brady was lost for the year in Week 1, McDaniels nurtured backup Matt Cassel to a superb season. If the coach can do anything close to that with Orton, who knows?
• Brandon Marshall. Granted, he's the biggest uncertainty. But he's still a Pro Bowl receiver, and even if he's been slow to learn the playbook, Marshall still can influence defenses. Denver still might decide to trade him, but if not, and if the offense suddenly begins to click, Marshall might become a happy camper again.
• Defense. As with the offense, Denver showed only small portions of its overall package during preseason. Still, from all indications, the Broncos eventually will be much stronger against the run, much better at the safeties and much better at linebackers. That should add up to better consistency, and a unit that doesn't wear out in December as happened the past three years.
Given all that, what should we expect from Denver? The schedule has provided winnable games early and late, with a brutal stretch in the middle. My guesses:
September (2-1): This means losing at Cincinnati, then defeating Cleveland at home and winning at Oakland, which will awaken Denver's fans for the first time.
October (0-3): Dallas and New England at home, followed by a trip to San Diego and a well-timed off week. Those games would be ominous for the best of teams. But don't be surprised if the Broncos come very close against the Cowboys or Patriots.
November (3-2): More challenges, including Baltimore, Pittsburgh (home), Washington, San Diego (home) and then the New York Giants (home) on Thanksgiving night. The real turnaround starts with winning those home games.
December-January (3-2): Two wins against Kansas City and one against Oakland, sandwiching respectable road losses to Indianapolis and Philadelphia. Visiting Philly on Dec. 27 could turn interesting if the Eagles have a bad year and the Broncos are in the wild-card hunt.
That adds up to 8-8, but 6-4 after Halloween. And most Denver fans would take that 8-8 today, no questions asked.