Anybody who has followed the Denver Broncos for the past three seasons knows the script by now.
Peyton Manning comes out of the gate looking invincible, mercilessly picking apart opposing defenses and making Denver look like Super Bowl champions from September into November. But the storybook ending for Manning and the Broncos, wrapping up an NFL title to punctuate the quarterback's brilliant career, never materializes. Winter approaches and Manning loses his edge. The offense, built around his remarkable right arm, can't adjust.
In the 2015 preseason, with new coaches and strategy, Manning actually didn't click at all. So Bronco Nation naturally wonders if Denver is destined for major disappointment in 2015.
The simple answer for this one-shot football preview? No, the sky is not falling, especially when Denver clearly has one of the league's elite defenses.
Granted, Manning could blow out a knee or shoulder and all would be lost, but that was also true the past three years. In reality, the approach by new head coach Gary Kubiak has given the Broncos their best chance of reaching the NFL pinnacle this season.
They're fully committed to developing a run game — not for December or January, but from the start. They're also doing everything possible to save Manning from another case of peaking too soon and wearing out in the playoffs.
That's why you haven't seen anyone panicking because Manning didn't throw a touchdown pass in the preseason and registered only a paltry 63.5 quarterback rating. He didn't have to prove himself, but Denver's revamped offensive line and its runners needed all the work they could get.
How does this translate to the season ahead? Most likely, the Broncos won't be world-beaters in the first six games before their off week. They could lose either, or both, of their early road games at Kansas City and Detroit. But they still should be 4-2 or 5-1 coming off their bye and into November, when they will need to be ready for a treacherous six-week stretch that includes Green Bay at home, Indianapolis on the road, Kansas City at home, Chicago on the road, New England at home and San Diego on the road.
By then, if Kubiak's new script works, the Broncos won't be leaning too much on Manning or their defense. They'll control the ball on the ground, mixing runs with Manning's throws. And a typical game for No. 18 will look more pedestrian than recent years, more like 15-of-20 for 210 yards and two or three touchdowns.
What we've seen during Manning's time in Denver is that he can't produce another championship by himself. He needs that defense, with all those pass rushers and aggressive coverage guys, and he needs that running game, with C.J. Anderson the likely standout but Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson able to step in as well.
It probably adds up to a regular season more in the 11-5 range. But that wouldn't be a disaster, especially if Manning still has plenty left in his tank for the postseason. In fact, that's how Denver could win it all.
• Air Force: The whispers from Falconland have been highly optimistic, suggesting another 10-3 record with a bowl win might be realistic. The defensive depth is impressive, and junior quarterback Nate Romine has plenty of weapons at his disposal. From this view, the Falcons' game Saturday night against underrated San Jose State (8:15 p.m., ESPNU) should tell us how much to expect this season. Win it, and they really could go 10-3 again. Lose, and they'll still be capable of fireworks, but more in the 7-5 range followed by a low-rent bowl.
• Colorado: The pressure already was on for coach Mike MacIntyre at least to show promise and earn a bowl trip. That seemed feasible with quarterback Sefo Liufau carrying the offense and the Buffs facing an easy non-league schedule, but they were abysmal in the opening loss at mediocre Hawaii. Now it's hard to imagine CU finishing any better than 5-8, which might doom MacIntyre.
• Colorado State: Nobody knows what to expect from new head coach Mike Bobo, except that the Rams likely need time to adapt to a new system and quarterback. Their next two games, Saturday against Minnesota and Sept. 19 against CU at Denver, will tell a lot, but my guess is CSU will finish strongly and go 7-6.