BRONCOS

Ranking the Broncos’ games by potential prime-time appeal

May 10, 2023, 1:03 PM

We know the Broncos won’t play on Black Friday. That assignment belongs to the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. We also know the Broncos won’t go back to the United Kingdom … or to Germany, either.

Everything else remains wide-open – including the number of national-TV windows filled by the Broncos.

Last year, the trade for Russell Wilson put the Broncos into the nationwide spotlight. Five of their first eight games landed in windows where the Broncos game was the only one on-air — four in prime time and one on a Sunday morning from London. And in four of those games, the nation was left talking — for the wrong reasons, mainly about the Broncos’ offensive foibles, wretched game management — or both.

Denver went into the season with seven national-TV windows. Mercifully, NBC flexed out of a Sunday Night Football game with Kansas City last Dec. 11. But that still left the Broncos on national TV six times, including the Christmas Day Massacre at the hands of the Rams.

Almost no one expects as many national-TV games this time. But the Broncos will be prime-time players at some point. And some games are more appealing than others.

1. Jets at Broncos

Nathaniel Hackett’s return to Denver — with Aaron Rodgers, his old friend, now facing the team that long appeared poised to acquire him via trade before the Packers balked. There wouldn’t be a more delicious opening to the entire season than this game on the second Monday of September.

2. Chiefs at Broncos

This was supposed to be a Sunday Night Football tussle last December. But the Broncos collapsed, and NBC decided to give up a Patrick Mahomes game just to avoid putting the Orange and Blue on national TV one more time. Funny thing is, it turned out to be a pretty good game as the Broncos nearly rallied from a 27-0 deficit. The guess here is that the Broncos won’t fall behind four scores this time around.

3. Broncos at Lions

If you unpack this game, it bleeds storylines, none richer than the student-vs.-mentor coaching duel between Dan Campbell and Sean Payton. And if it lands on Thanksgiving Day, so much the better. Ratings have shown that NFL fans will watch on that holiday, no matter who plays.

4. Broncos at Dolphins

The Mike McDaniel and Bradley Chubb storylines would make this an easy sell. McDaniel grew up in Colorado, served as a Broncos ballboy during his high-school years and was a young assistant for the club in 2005. Chubb, of course, decamped for South Florida in a midseason trade last year and promptly signed the massive contract extension that did not appear imminent in Colorado. And the first-round pick the Broncos acquired in the Chubb deal became part of the compensation for Payton. Also, something nutty has happened in each of the last two games between the teams in Miami Gardens: the Tim Tebow-led comeback from a 15-0 deficit in 2011 and, in 2017, when then-Miami coach Adam Gase called an on-side kickoff — which succeeded — when the Dolphins led 33-9 with 10:21 left in the game … which eventually begat the Broncos calling two timeouts in the final 11 seconds of the game as they tried to score a window-dressing touchdown.

5. Broncos at Bears

Despite the Bears having the league’s worst record, this one is saucier than it might appear. There’s the Justin Fields angle; the Broncos were one of the teams to pass on Fields — which, according to Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson, was at least partially due to Fields’ medical history. Now, if Wilson has put things back together, any Fields-Surtain debate can be put to rest. However, it will remain an interesting “what-if” scenario.

6. Packers at Broncos

This might be a decent early-season prime-time game, because both teams are among the league’s mystery boxes. What will the Broncos look like with Payton — and how will the Packers be without Rodgers? It’s difficult to peg the future of Green Bay’s young starting QB, Jordan Love. This is the sort of matchup that fits well in an early-season Monday night spot: two teams with large fanbases and substantial interest, with almost no clue how their game might unfold.

7 and 8. Broncos at Chargers / Chargers at Broncos

Last October, the clubs played their first prime-time game against each other since Week 1 of 2017. Although it went to overtime, the extra time was turgid. Neither team generated a first down after regulation play ended. Only a muffed punt return — when P.J. Locke blocked near Montrell Washington, causing the loose ball — and subsequent field goal prevented what would have been the Broncos’ first tie in 35 years.

9. Broncos at Chiefs

Six of the Broncos’ last nine trips to Kansas City landed in prime time. Four of them were decided by multiple scores. It seems like the Broncos’ home half of this series is the better bet; however, NBC had that matchup for SNF last year and flexed out of it.

10. Vikings at Broncos

Minnesota is a massive regression candidate. The Vikings had a negative point differential — minus-3 — despite going 13-4. Their struggling defense appears to be little-improved. One gets the sense that if Minnesota has a slew of prime-time games, that they might find themselves flexed out of at least one.

11. Broncos at Bills

If you get this in the early season, fine. But only the TV networks want a prime-time game in western New York in the final two months of the season. Mainly because they might get a snow-globe game like Buffalo’s Saturday-night home tussle with Miami last season. In general, you root for this game to happen in September or early October, lest the gales of November come early along the Great Lakes.

12. Browns at Broncos

These two teams got the least from their massive quarterback investments last year. This could work as a early-season prime-time game … otherwise, it might be one worth putting as one of a few games that could be flexed into a Saturday late-season slot. This could be an exceptional duel if Wilson and Deshaun Watson both rebound.

13 and 14. Broncos at Raiders / Raiders at Broncos

If the goal is to minimize national-TV exposures of the bottom half of last year’s AFC West table, slotting them a joint prime-time window might work. But there are other, better chances to get the rivals in prime time. Their last seven duels have been Sunday afternoon tilts, and that’s likely where their 2023 battles belong. Still, the games are typically compelling — even when both clubs are down.

15. Patriots at Broncos

This matchup isn’t what it used to be. What was once a prime-time-worthy duel now looks poised for a regional audience.

16. Commanders at Broncos

Washington might join the Broncos in the club of “teams with new owners” by the time the regular season dawns. And the Commanders could be a feisty team, especially if the glimpses of brilliance from second-year QB Sam Howell aren’t a fluke. Nevertheless, this seems destined for a 2:05 Sunday start time.

17. Broncos at Texans

If the NFL said, “These two teams get just one prime-time game,” this is the option to burn off that semi-obligation on a Thursday night. Sort of like how the league once handled Jaguars-Titans when both clubs battled for last place in the AFC South. But with Amazon Prime pushing for better games — and now possessing the license to take teams for multiple short-week games in a season — that notion is out the window. The main storyline here revolves around head coach DeMeco Ryans, who the Broncos interviewed, but the Texans landed.

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Ranking the Broncos’ games by potential prime-time appeal