Why the Denver Broncos are suddenly the NFL's most surprising team

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·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·4-min read
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It's not really much of a surprise the AFC West looks like it's going to be one of the NFL's toughest divisions this season. It is home to the conference's two-time reigning champion, the same team that won the Super Bowl in the 2019 season.

The AFC West has two undefeated teams: the Las Vegas Raiders, who have not come by any of their three wins easily, two of which went to overtime; and the Denver Broncos. Those reigning conference champs, the Kansas City Chiefs, are last in the division.

That can change in a hurry of course. If this year's edition of the Chiefs is anything like the past few years, they could rip off a 10-game win streak and all will be right in K.C.

Denver is the most surprising of the NFL's five undefeated teams, coming into the regular season with such low expectations that two of my Yahoo Sports colleagues picked head coach Vic Fangio to be the first to lose his job this season. That was certainly a logical choice, since Denver was 12-20 over Fangio's first two seasons and the Broncos' defense last year — Fangio's bread and butter — was terrible, allowing nearly 29 points per game.

Thankfully for Fangio, Matt Nagy is Matt Nagy, and if anyone's seat is hot three weeks into the season, it's Nagy's in Chicago.

In Denver, it's almost the opposite. Failing a massive collapse, not only would Fangio's job seem safe, there's a high chance the Broncos are postseason-bound for the first time since 2015, the season they won the Super Bowl.

How high? According to ProFootballReference's Statheads, 74.8 percent. 

From 1990 through 2020, 155 teams started their respective seasons 3-0, and 116 of them made the playoffs. There were two teams who won just two games the rest of the way after a three-win start, but let's stick with the positive.

Mike Ford of the Denver Broncos celebrates a play against the New York Jets in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Bart Young)
Mike Ford of the Denver Broncos celebrates a play against the New York Jets in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Bart Young)

On Sunday, Denver was clicking, shutting out the New York Jets, 26-0. Steady Teddy Bridgewater was 19-for-25 passing for 235 yards, completing passes to eight receivers, and watched his defensive teammates beat up poor rookie Zach Wilson with eight quarterback hits, five sacks and two interceptions.

(Not to brag, but someone — we won't name names — predicted Bridgewater would lead the Broncos to the playoffs this season as you can see right here.)

Bridgewater was the starter for the Panthers last season, but Carolina was so anxious to move on from him that it's paying $14 million of his salary this year. Well, he has been nothing but solid. Over three games he has completed 76.8 percent of his 95 pass attempts, with four touchdowns and no picks, and a career-high 8.7 yards per attempt. 

Denver has been unstoppable on fourth down so far, converting on all five tries, and boasts a 13-minute time-of-possession average advantage. 

The defense has been stingy, allowing just 222 yards per game and four total trips inside the red zone this season, is holding quarterbacks to 52.4 percent passing and allowing only 3.6 yards per rushing attempt. 

But. Yes, there's a but. 

But for all the good feelings in Denver right now, all of them earned, the Broncos haven't had a tough schedule. Their opponents, the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars and the Jets, are a combined 0-9.

That's not Denver's fault; you can play only who's on the schedule. And had the Broncos lost last week in Jacksonville or Sunday against the Jets, fans would have been upset their team dropped what should have been a win.

In Week 4, when the Broncos host the Baltimore Ravens, we should get a better sense of who they are and if they've been beneficiaries of a favorable schedule or are really one of those annual teams that unexpectedly show significant improvement in the win column. Week 5 is on the road against Pittsburgh, and Week 6 has the Broncos playing a division opponent for the first time, the currently undefeated Raiders.

If there are areas the Denver coaching staff is pointing to as potential trouble spots, third down on offense, where the Broncos have converted just 13 of 37 chances, has to be among them. The defense is allowing a 38.9 percent third-down conversion rate, which can always be improved. And while the Broncos have done well protecting the football, the two turnovers they do have both came well inside the red zone. 

Those will all get looked at, if they're not already. Fangio told reporters after the game he would start working on the Ravens as soon as he got home Sunday night. 

But 3-0 is 3-0. There are worse places to be. Just ask those Chiefs, who right now are looking up at Denver in the standings.

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