Sunday night against the Chiefs provides the Broncos with a litmus test

Dec 3, 2021, 6:40 AM
Pat Surtain...
(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

The Denver Broncos have won three of their last four games. Two of those victories were dominant wins over the Cowboys and Chargers. Both teams presented high powered offenses that the Broncos were able to neutralize.

The Broncos are 6-5 and relevant in December for the first time in five seasons. The Broncos will now face the ultimate measuring stick as they prepare to play the Chiefs on “Sunday Night Football.” Based on the Broncos recent success, many are wondering if this is the season the Broncos defeat the Chiefs for the first time since 2015.

The match up with the Chiefs will be the litmus test. The Broncos will know after Sunday night if they are an up and comer or a contender.

This isn’t the first time a young Broncos team got on a hot streak heading into a game with the NFL’s best. The last time we saw this was 2011, and that Broncos team’s reality came crashing down to earth. Twice.

In 2011, the Broncos turned around a 1-4 start and made the playoffs with a record of 8-8. It was the season of Tim Tebow (and a great defense and Matt Prater). Sitting at 2-5, the Broncos won six straight and found themselves with a record of 8-5 heading into a showdown with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

All eyes were on the Broncos as they faced the Patriots. The Broncos six-game winning streak was the biggest story in sports. The Broncos were primed to take the crown from the Patriots dynasty.

Then, the game happened.

The Broncos were blown out by the Patriots, 41-23. As much fun as the winning streak was, playing a perennial Super Bowl contender proved the Broncos were close but still missing something.

The 2011 Broncos made the playoffs and upset the Steelers wild card weekend. Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas in overtime is an all-time great highlight. The Broncos success in 2011 was unexpected. Nobody expected the Broncos to make the playoffs, let alone win a playoff game.

What is rarely talked about is that the Broncos had to play the Patriots a second time in the divisional round of the playoffs the following week.

The Broncos were blown out even worse than the first game, losing to the Patriots 45-10.

Much like the current Broncos, the 2011 Broncos were young and exciting. They played hard and played to the end. In another similarity, the 2011 Broncos were also an organization in a five-year playoff drought.

When the Broncos play the Chiefs on Sunday night, they’ll find out how close they are. Beating the Cowboys and Chargers is a big step in the right direction, but both teams are inconsistent. The Chiefs are the very top of the NFL. The have been to the Super Bowl the last two seasons. Patrick Mahomes has only lost in the playoffs to Tom Brady. The Chiefs aren’t scared of anybody.

The 2011 Broncos were exciting, but the two games against the Patriots proved the Broncos were never a serious threat. That is why the Broncos pursued Peyton Manning. Having an exciting team is great, but playing for a Super Bowl is another level. Tim Tebow took a 1-4 team to the playoffs, won a playoff game and was still replaced. Tebow was replaced because there was a ceiling to his success which meant there was a ceiling to the Broncos success.

Tebow was not a long-term solution and his inability to stand toe to toe with Tom Brady put an expiration date on his time in Denver.

There are a lot of people that want Teddy Bridgewater and Vic Fangio gone next season. Given the Broncos recent success, a return for both is still on the table. If the Broncos can defeat the Chiefs this Sunday, that will go a long way for Bridgewater and Fangio. The game won’t be a final verdict on their futures, but it can make a very strong case for their return in 2021.

If the Broncos make the playoffs but lose twice to the Chiefs, a playoff appearance is much less impressive. The Chiefs aren’t going anywhere, so beating them is what matters more than anything. If the Broncos can’t beat the Chiefs, they won’t compete for a Super Bowl anytime soon.

A playoff appearance is nice, but it must matter. A trip to the playoffs only matters if a team can win the Super Bowl or build off the experience. The 2011 Broncos were never going to get to the Super Bowl, but they used the losses to the Patriots to guide them to the solution on how to get to the Super Bowl. Using the knowledge from their losses to the Patriots, the Broncos were able to make changes (Peyton Manning) and get to the Super Bowl in 2013 and 2015 (beating the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on both occasions).

If the Broncos win on Sunday night, then it’s time to discuss if they have all the pieces to make a deep postseason run. Of course, they must build off the win the rest of 2021, but at that point bringing back everybody becomes a real discussion.

A blowout loss to the Chiefs on Sunday night doesn’t mean the Broncos are bad, it just means they’re still a few pieces away from competing for a championship. If the Broncos lose big, George Paton will have to identify those pieces and make changes.

Sunday’s against the Chiefs will tell the Broncos everything they need to know about where they stand in the current NFL landscape. The Broncos need to use this game (and the rematch in Week 18) the same way the 2011 Broncos measured themselves next to the Patriots.

The 2011 Patriots dominance over the Broncos helped push the Broncos towards the success they found from 2012-15, hopefully the 2021 Broncos are on the same path.


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Sunday night against the Chiefs provides the Broncos with a litmus test