CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- The finish matters little without an effective start. Vance Joseph walks knee-deep into opportunity and urgency in his first season as the Broncos head coach. Denver begins with four of their first five games at home. Lose two of those, and the brink inches under their toes before the first snow.
The evolution will be televised nationally as the Broncos open at home on Monday night against the Los Angeles Chargers at 8:20 p.m. It's the first of five prime time games.
"My eyes go to Week 1. It's important to get off to a great start," Joseph said. "It's a home game and it's in division."
The opponents surfaced months ago, but fans only learned when games would be in a much-awaited release on Thursday night at 6 p.m.
SCHEDULE RELEASE | See the ENTIRE Broncos schedule here.
Primetime games will include the season opener; a Sunday Night Football game on Oct. 15; a Monday Night Football game on Oct. 30 versus the Giants in Denver; a Sunday Night Football game on Nov. 12 vs. the defending champion Patriots in Denver; and a Thursday Night Football game against the Colts in Indianapolis on Dec. 14.
While the schedule will feature a lot of orange in the national spotlight, it also brings some problems. The Broncos boast the most difficult schedule in terms of opponents' winning percentage. The Broncos linebacker, No. 54, pitted against the Giants receiver and one-time Bronco. Twitter might explode when Marshall tackles, um, Marshall.
"I can't wait for that," the Broncos' Marshall told Denver7.
Under Joseph, the Broncos will wade through a gauntlet after missing the playoffs with a 9-7 record a year ago. The Broncos start at home, always a good thing, but their bye week arrives a bit early for players' tastes. Joseph believes it can be a positive.
"I think the (anticipation of the) bye week is always based on where your team is at that moment -- injuries and how you rest your football team. Early, mid or late, it’s all game planned around where your team feels. Having it early after four games, it’s a good deal. I place the season in quarters. In the first four weeks, we get our first quarter over then we have our bye. It’s always good. You hope to be successful obviously in that first quarter. But, to have that chance in week 5 to reboot and reset it again is important," Joseph added.
Denver will host AFC West rivals Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Oakland followed by New England, Dallas, Cincinnati, the New York Jets and the aforementioned Giants. The delicious storyline of Tony Romo facing the Cowboys as a Bronco, always a longshot, dissolved when Romo accepted a broadcasting gig with CBS. This doesn't mean there won't be intrigue, particularly against the Chiefs, who swept the Broncos a year ago, Oakland, the budding contender, and New England, the reigning world champions who spent the offseason restocking their cupboards. Playing under the bright lights has become a welcomed routine in Denver.
"I like the amount of prime time games. We're used to having a hard schedule. It's been like that every year," All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr. told Denver7. "The bye week after Week 5 is a negative to me. I like it more at the end of the year."
Added quarterback Trevor Siemian to Denver7, "I think a lot of guys are just curious when the bye week is. Already knew who we were playing so sequence and time of year isn't too big of a deal."
Road games provide real impressions.
The one certainty about future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning? He could roll out of bed and win in a visiting park. The Broncos owned the AFC West under his four-year watch, winning 15 straight divisional road games entering last year. The Broncos were broomed in AFC West stadiums last season, ambushed in losses to the Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders.
The Broncos will travel to those teams, while also playing at Washington, Buffalo, Miami, featuring former Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase in charge, Indianapolis and Philadelphia. The Colts game arrives on a Thursday, creating a quick turnaround after the Broncos host the Jets on Dec. 10. The Broncos lost at San Diego on Thursday night last season, creating issues in the division moving forward.
According to Joseph, success hinges on the defense
“Playing good defense on the road is always a must—keeping the point totals low and controlling the football, not turning the football over. Two out of three are division opponents. Two out of three are fairly easy trips (travel-wise). We do have a trip to Philly, which is a cross country trip. It’s important to be a good road team. You have to play well on the road to be a playoff team. It doesn’t bother me. Obviously, three straight is a great challenge. I’m looking forward to it," Joseph said.
Denver's preseason opponents were released last week with official dates announced Thursday. They play, in order, at Chicago on Aug. 10, at San Francisco on Aug. 19, which will include Broncos' shared practices in Santa Clara, home against Green Bay on Aug. 26, which could determine the winner of the quarterback derby, and Arizona at home on Aug. 31.
Troy Renck's predictions:
Vs. Chargers: This isn't the Dodgers. They have Philip Rivers, not Clayton Kershaw. Los Angeles must walk through a mess of moves and makeshift homes that could create issues early in the season. You can't win the AFC West in September, but you can lose it. This must be a win. 1-0.
Vs. Cowboys: This game became decaffeinated when Romo retired. Dallas is a scary opponent and offers a real litmus test for the Broncos' promised improved run defense. Can they stop slow Ezekiel Elliott, and force Dak Prescott to throw into the turbulence of the No Fly Zone? I say yes. 2-0
At Buffalo: The Bills remain unpredictable. They can beat anyone or lose to anyone. Even with good weather, this sets up as a trap game with Oakland waiting in Denver the following week. This is one of the losses that will create pangs as the season advances and the postseason hopes teeter. 2-1.
Vs. Oakland: The Raiders made this rivalry personal again. Coach Jack Del Rio relishes in beating the Broncos. Oakland manhandled the Broncos in prime time, but without Derek Carr in the season finale offered no resistance. Given the Broncos' road issues in the division last year, this is a swing game. The physical toll of facing three run-oriented, bruising teams will prove too much. 2-2.
Vs. New York Giants: The Giants can't handle prosperity. The best thing for the Broncos is the Giants entering this game hot. It means they are due for a perplexing loss. New York can win ugly. But their best player is a receiver, Odell Beckham Jr. The Broncos do well in those matchups. 3-2.
At Chargers: Broncos' fans will elbow themselves into the converted soccer stadium. The Chargers will receive juice from their weird setup early in the season. And yet, the Broncos will not get broomed again in road AFC West games. 4-2.
At Kansas City: No team provides more matchup issues for the Broncos than Kansas City. The Chiefs mirror the Broncos. They are willing to win low-scoring, redzone-stifling games. 4-3.
At Philadelphia: Carson Wentz boasts breathtaking talent. In Year Two, he will remain prone to turnovers and secondary disguises. The Broncos defense should win this with a pick six. Paging, Aqib Talib. Mr. Talib come to the white courtesy phone and pick up your football. 5-3.
Vs. New England: Tom Brady crushes teams. But he has a losing record in Denver. He played one of his worst games in years last season against the Broncos. It didn't matter because the Broncos scored three points, and argued in the lockerroom afterward. Referendums on first-year coaches are unfair. Oh well. It's the nature of the beast. If Joseph wants to curry favor with the populace, he will find a way to upset the champs. I believe they will come up just short. 5-4.
Vs. Cincinnati: The Bengals have shown a knack for gashing the Broncos with big running plays. Have I mentioned improved ground defense could determine if Denver returns the postseason? The Bengals are shrugged shoulders. They are also trending the wrong direction. 6-4.
At Oakland: This is where the Raiders featuring Derek Carr becomes problematic. He's good. MVP-quality good. And he refuses to throw picks. Oakland can become methodical, and rely on its monstrous offensive line. The only way the Broncos' win this game is if Oakland fans have soured on a slumping, relocated team, negating an increasingly real home field advantage. 6-5.
At Miami: Adam Gase is a human Red Bull. He works tirelessly, demanding excellence from his players while holding them accountable. He created a winning culture, and you better believe he wants to beat the team that didn't hire him as a head coach. 6-6.
Vs. New York Jets: The Jets are the type of team that gets other teams back on track. They make silly mistakes, and do not feature an offense capable of winning on the road. 7-6.
At Colts: Andrew Luck experienced a lost season a year ago because of injury. He is in danger of not realizing his potential because of a porous offensive line. However, he plays like a combination of Joe Montana, Tom Brady and Cam Newton against the Broncos. Can Denver prevent him from making plays with his feet? They are due. 8-6.
At Washington: Washington is one of the NFL's great tease teams. They win games they shouldn't and lose at the worst possible times. Kirk Cousins vs. the No Fly Zone? He won't like that. 9-6.
Vs. Kansas City: Fitting. The Broncos will require a win over their rival to reach the playoffs. Having this game at home can't be overstated. Denver lost to Kansas City at Sports Authority last year, a defeat that changed their entire season. Redemption will arrive on New Year's Eve. 10-6.