ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It's difficult to project at this point in the year how games will play out this fall. The NFL Draft hasn't yet happened, and we're still months away from training camp.
We won't truly know for months which games will impact the playoff race and which ones will fade from memory after a few years.
But that won't stop us from trying to guess which games will define this season. Here, then, is a look at the five most-intriguing games of the Broncos' 2019 slate.
5. Week 11, at Vikings
This game features big-name quarterbacks — Joe Flacco and Kirk Cousins — and a Broncos connection, as former head coach Gary Kubiak now coaches for the Vikings. But more than that, it represents the start of a daunting road stretch that could define the Broncos' season. Starting with the Vikings in Week 11, the Broncos will play four out of their first five games after the bye on the road. That includes trips to Buffalo, Houston and Kansas City, with a home game against the Chargers sandwiched in between trips to Buffalo and Houston. If the Broncos can survive the month out on the road — perhaps by finishing 2-2 or 3-1 — they should be in good position to make the playoffs. But those stretches are never easy. In 2017, the Broncos faced a three-game road swing and lost all three. A game in Minneapolis could provide an early indication of whether the Broncos can make more of the opportunity this season.
4. Week 1, at Raiders
The good news is, Broncos fans get to see their team play in a nationally televised game against one of the franchise's biggest rivals. The bad news is, they're going to have to wait quite a while. As the second game of a "Monday Night Football" doubleheader, the Broncos and Raiders will be the last two teams to kick off in 2019. Since the Broncos are playing in the Hall of Fame game and will begin training camp early, that means Denver fans will have the longest amount of time to wait between when camp begins and that first regular-season game arrives. But if you can make it, the game should be quite the reward. In what could be the Broncos' final trip to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, they'll see a Raiders team that now features wide receiver Antonio Brown — and also a former Bronco in linebacker Brandon Marshall. With three first-round picks in next week's NFL Draft, the Raiders could still add plenty of more talent, so their team could look much different than the group that finished last year at 4-12. That should make the final game of Week 1 an exciting one — and one that could set the tone for the season.
3. Week 9, vs. Browns
Last season's game against the Browns ended in heartbreak and ended the Broncos' postseason chances. After a late fourth-down stop, the Broncos had one last chance to score and salvage their playoff aspirations. But Denver couldn't get close enough for a field-goal attempt and they fell 17-16 to a team that made some noise late in the year behind quarterback Baker Mayfield. After this offseason, that buzz is only louder. The Browns added former Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to their roster and now have a unit that is loaded with talent. Mayfield, Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt, Nick Chubb and David Njoku can all cause problems for a defense. Add those players to a defense that includes Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon and Denzel Ward, and it makes some sense why the Browns are among the teams expected to contend in the AFC. So while this isn't a divisional game and doesn't feature the same connections as some other contests might, it's as good a measuring stick as any for how the Broncos stack up across the league.
2. Week 2, vs. Bears
The Vic Fangio game. Wherever it showed up on the schedule, it was going to be circled by Bears fans and Broncos fans alike. But the Week 2 setting means it also offers the Broncos a chance to set the tone for the season. The Bears won the NFC North in 2018 and boasted the best defense in football. If not for a late field-goal attempt that clanked off the post, the Bears would've advanced in the playoffs and may have had a shot at a Super Bowl appearance. And while the storylines for this game will likely revolve around Khalil Mack and the defense that Fangio left behind, head coach Matt Nagy knows how to direct an offense. He and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will aim to get the best of Fangio's defensive system, which they should both know well. History suggests the Broncos should have a good chance of coming away with a win. Since 2001, when the Broncos' new stadium opened, Denver has earned a 21-1 record at home in Week 1 and Week 2. And a win in Fangio's first home game would be quite the way to welcome the Broncos' new head coach to Denver.
1. Week 7, vs. Chiefs
To be the best, you've got to beat the best. And right now, it's hard to dispute that the Chiefs sit atop the AFC West. Kansas City has won the division in three consecutive seasons and came within a few plays of the Super Bowl in 2018. Behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes' 50 touchdowns last year, the Chiefs boasted one of the league's most dangerous offenses. And though they lost a few defensive pieces this offseason, including Justin Houston and Dee Ford, they also added big-name players like Tyrann Mathieu. If the Broncos are going to challenge for the AFC West, they'll likely need to at least split their pair of games next year against Kansas City. Last year, in a "Monday Night Football" game at home, the Broncos came within a last-minute overthrow of doing just that. In this "Thursday Night Football" game at home, the Broncos will be able to catch the Chiefs on short rest in a setting that tends to favor the home team. In 2018, home teams were 11-3 on "Thursday Night Football," excluding games that were branded as "Thursday Night Football" but played on Saturday. Could this be the game in which the Broncos snap a seven-game skid against Kansas City?
Week 3, at Packers
There may be no field in professional football as famous as Lambeau Field. The 81,000-seat stadium has served as the Packers' home stadium for more than 60 years, and the Broncos will return in Week 3 for the first time since 2011. Denver fans likely remember their team's last game against the Packers with fond memories. In a "Sunday Night Football" matchup in 2015, the Broncos dominated the previously undefeated Packers in a 29-10 victory. Wearing their blue jerseys, the Broncos showed the country the type of team they could be at their best. The Week 8 game was a major moment during the team's Super Bowl 50 season. Lambeau Field, though, hasn't been as kind to the Broncos. Denver is 0-4 in Green Bay, including a 49-23 loss the last time the two franchises met at Lambeau Field. The Broncos, however, hold the 1-0 edge in Super Bowls. John Elway and the Broncos, of course, beat the Packers in 1997 to earn the franchise's first world championship.
Week 8, at Colts
This matchup doesn't have quite the same allure as it did when former quarterback Peyton Manning would take the field against his former team. Over the last several years, though, it's still provided several of the Broncos' best highlights. In 2016, Von Miller finished off the Colts with a devastating dip move to get past the Colts' right tackle. He pulled the ball away from Colts QB Andrew Luck, and Shane Ray scooped up the ball for a touchdown and a two-touchdown lead. A year later, the Broncos beat the Colts in a "Thursday Night Football" contest on the road. This year's version of the Colts, however, may be a tougher test. The Colts bounced back from a 1-5 start last season to make the playoffs and advance to the divisional round. They'll look to take another step in 2019 led by Luck and All-Pros Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson. On a difficult schedule, this could be as tough as a test as the Broncos see all season.
Week 13, vs. Chargers
Between a Week 9 game against the Browns and a Week 16 game against the Lions, the Broncos will play just once in front of their home crowd. That's a span of either 48 or 49 days, depending on if the Broncos face Detroit on Saturday or Sunday. The one game that will split up that long trip away from Broncos Stadium at Mile High is a Week 13 game against the Los Angeles Chargers. And with as challenging a road slate as the Broncos will face during that stretch, it will likely be critical for the Broncos to get a win in their lone opportunity at home. The Broncos, who split the season series against the Chargers in 2018, had won their last five home games against the Chargers before a loss last year.