DENVER — The NFL continues to prepare as if the season will begin on time. The schedule will be released Thursday at 6 p.m. on NFL Network.
Uncertainty remains the only known commodity. As such, the schedule could turn into a rough draft since there is no clarity on which cities will be permitted to have large public gatherings. For now, the league remains focused on developing protocols for reopening team facilities, the eventual return of players, training camp start dates and whether games will be played without fans or a small percentage to allow for safe social distancing.
There has been talk in league circles about pushing the division games to the end of the year in case the season is abbreviated, a nod to competitive balance. The NFL continues to have time on its side. The first game is scheduled for Sept. 10. As they watch and learn from the NBA and MLB, the NFL moves forward. Is 16 games realistic? Nobody can say.
But the schedule remains a delightful diversion to debate. Opponents have been known since the end of last year. The Broncos' home slate includes the Bills, Dolphins, Saints, Buccaneers, Titans, Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs. The road schedule features the Jets, Patriots, Panthers, Falcons, Steelers, Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs. The Broncos were slated to face the Falcons at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, but all international games have been scratched this season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Make no mistake, when you play an opponent matters. Why didn't the Broncos reach the postseason a year ago? They opened the season with four straight losses, including three to teams that failed to producing a winning record (Oakland, Chicago, Jacksonville). They finished 7-5, but were punished for a underwhelming September.
Knowing this could need a rewrite in a week or a month, I present my Denver7 favorite storylines for the 2020 season:
Drew Lock vs Patrick Mahomes
The Broncos' entire offseason appeared to be a reaction to Kansas City's catalytic attack. The Chiefs have lost twice the past two seasons when the opponent failed to score 30 points. That is the number to beat them. If Lock becomes the Broncos' longtime answer at the most important position, his career will be measured, to some degree, by his head-to-head matchups with Patrick Mahomes. He is 0-1. The Broncos are not on the same level of Kansas City. But the goals should be clear: split the season series -- that means snapping a nine-game losing streak to the Chiefs — and closing the gap after Denver was outscored 53-9 last season.
Von Miller vs. Tom Brady
Outside linebacker Von Miller wakes up with a smile. He remains optimistic even in the face of sobering facts. This year, for the first time since 2016, he is talking about the Broncos as a contender. He admitted he needs to rebound after an eight-sack season, his lowest total since 2013. Miller, 31, believes he can lead the league in sacks and win Defensive Player of The Year honors. Having a big home game against Tampa Bay's Tom Brady remains imperative. Miller has sacked Brady 7.5 times, third most behind Alex Smith (eight) and Philip Rivers (16).
Vic Fangio vs. Drew Brees
For the Broncos to snap their four-year playoff drought, they must navigate a rugged home slate that includes: Mahomes, Brady and Brees -- two future Hall of Famers and one, in Mahomes, on track for Canton. Beating Brees requires creative schemes. Fangio will be put to the test, matching wits with Saints boss Sean Payton and Brees. Brees is 2-8 against the Broncos, part of which was compiled with the Chargers, easily his worst mark against any team.
Melvin Gordon vs. Chargers
The Broncos made the surprising move to guarantee running back Melvin Gordon $13.5 million this offseason. He doesn't require Siri to find the end zone, posting 47 touchdowns over the past four seasons. He bolted from the Chargers, admitting that his holdout last season impacted his relationship with some teammates. Now they will be adversaries. Gordon admitted he will enjoy facing his former team. Let the barbs and yards fly.
John Elway vs. Adam Gase
If Elway were still playing, this would be a delicious matchup. Still, it means something because of the past. Jets boss Adam Gase once worked for the Broncos. As the head coach of the Dolphins in 2017 he rubbed the Broncos' noses into the dirt. Miami converted a successful onside kick while leading 33-9 in the fourth quarter. Gase, it has been theorized, was upset with Elway for possibly hurting his chances of landing the 49ers job when Jim Tomsula was hired. Regardless, there is friction. And that's always a good thing when it comes to a critical road game.
This was the most anticipated road game on the schedule, with apologies to the shuttered London game. I envisioned roughly 30,000 Broncos fans in attendance for the Broncos' first game in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium. That remains clouded in mystery. Regardless, it begins a new chapter in an old rivalry at beautiful facility that conjures images of a spaceship.
By gosh, Josh Allen
The Broncos lost to the Bills last season in a ghoulish road performance. Quarterback Brandon Allen completed 3 of 14 passes for four yards in the second half, leading to a benching the following week for Lock. Allen, the former Wyoming star, connected on 15 of 25 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 56 yards. The Broncos selected outside linebacker Bradley Chubb two spots ahead of Allen in the 2018 draft. Allen remains a work in progress, needing to improve his accuracy to take the next step in his promising career. Lock showing well against Allen with Chubb causing havoc would make the decision to pass on Allen a lot easier to reconcile.