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Potential woes with tough foes

By Mike Klis
The Denver Post
Posted: 08/13/2009 01:00:00 AM MDT Updated: 08/13/2009 01:43:09 AM MDT

Most years, a team's schedule lines up so clean and orderly, it looks nice on a refrigerator door.

This year, the Broncos might have to keep their schedule on a leash. Their list of opponents don't line up so much as they menacingly congregate into a pack of forecasted doom.

"Because they have what is probably the most difficult schedule in the NFL, the Broncos have a very tough road in 2009," said Jay Kornegay, who is a Denver native, Colorado State graduate, lifelong Broncos fan - and executive director of the Race & Sports book for the Las Vegas Hilton.

Even the most orange-shaded expectations might struggle to reconcile their optimism versus the reality of the schedule. Josh McDaniels has a chance to become

Denver Broncos

a special head coach, but have you seen that schedule? The offense should be good even without Jay Cutler, but what about that schedule? The defense has to be better than last year, and if the offense is just as good, the Broncos should improve on their 8-8 record from last year.

Then again, there's that schedule.

Difficult? There is the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the previous season's Super Bowl champs, the New York Giants.

There is Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

There are two games against the three-time defending AFC West champion San Diego Chargers with a healthy Shawne Merriman and LaDainian Tomlinson. And there are four games against the NFC East, traditionally the NFL's roughest, toughest and glitziest division.

According to projections made by the Hilton sports book, the Broncos are the only team to have the six highest-rated teams on their schedule. This formidable sixsome does not include the Dallas Cowboys, who should be formidable, or Ray Lewis' Baltimore Ravens, who went 11-5 last season and made it to the AFC championship game.

"The thing about rating how tough this year's schedule is, it's based on what happened in 2008," said Broncos' defensive end/linebacker Elvis Dumervil. "There are a lot of teams just like us who shuffle things around. I like the fact that people say we have a tough schedule. We'll find out what we're made of."

True, the NFL is playing in an era when every year a team such as the Miami Dolphins will go from worst to first and a team such as the Seattle Seahawks will go from first to dreadful. All the Broncos need is for Pittsburgh to stumble, the Patriots and Chargers to get old, the Colts and Ravens to drop off. And the NFC East to soften and all will be well.

"I think Josh will have these guys playing very competitive," said Jim Miller, former NFL quarterback and now an analyst on NFL Sirius Radio. "But I don't think they're ready to beat those teams."

An even scarier thought regarding the Broncos' schedule: What happens if the supposedly weaker teams such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Oakland and Kansas City improve more than the cachet of strong opponents decline? Broncoland just gulped.

To help promote parity, the NFL arranges for the previous year's division winner to play the winners of other divisions, while the second-place teams play other runner-ups, and so on.

Great concept, but not always well-executed. San Diego will play Tennessee and Miami, who as surprise division winners last year are expected to slip this year, while the Broncos drew the second-place Patriots and Colts, annual Super Bowl contenders.

"I think the Broncos got

Post Poll - Broncos over/under Las Vegas bookmakers pegged the Broncos to win seven games this season. Would you bet the over or the under?  Over: This young team will surprise the league. They have the talent to make the playoffs.  Under: Easiest bet I've ever made. No way they win seven games with that schedule.  Push: The house always wins for a reason. I'll take their word for it. a tough break with their schedule," said former general manager and NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly. "I think you'd rather play Tennessee and Miami than New England and Indy."

The difficulty of the schedule is the principal reason Kornegay and five of his wise guys gathered in a Las Vegas room last spring and placed the Broncos' over/under win total at 7 1/2, meaning you would bet "over" if you thought the Broncos would win 8 or more games, and "under" if you thought 7 or fewer. Then Brandon Marshall acted up and most of the bets started pouring in on the under. The Broncos' victory line is currently at 7.

Yes, the perceived falloff from Jay Cutler to Kyle Orton at quarterback was a factor in setting the over/under. The enormous transition in the coaching staff, roster and implementation of a new system was also considered.

"But the schedule was a huge factor," Kornegay said.

To avoid missing the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year, the Broncos will have to figure out how to navigate a playoff-caliber, regular-season schedule.

"I pay no attention to what people say about the schedule," McDaniels said. "Because anybody who talks about the schedule doesn't have any idea how tough the schedule is really going to be. Nobody said Atlanta, Miami, Baltimore and all those teams were going to be pains in the butts last year. So who are going to be those three or four surprise teams this year? I don't know.

"And then there's the teams that go from 11-5 and 12-4 to 6-10 and 7-9. If people want to rest on last year, they're going to be sorry for it."

Mike Klis: 303-954-1055 or mklis@denverpost.com

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