At this time last year, there was more excitement for the Denver Broncos' upcoming season then there had been in many years. Russell Wilson was going to start a new era of success. Denver could return to the playoffs for the first time since Peyton Manning retired.
That excitement lasted until the end of the first game. Nathaniel Hackett completely botched the final seconds of a loss against the Seattle Seahawks, settling for a 64-yard field goal. It was a sign of things to come. By the end of September, Broncos fans wanted Hackett fired. They had to wait until December to get their wish.
Every team has optimism heading into the season, but some teams have more optimism than others. Maybe they made a big addition like the Broncos with Wilson last year. Perhaps they finished last season strong and are hopeful for more success this season. Everything seems possible before Week 1 kicks off. But some of those teams dreaming big will come nowhere close to having a great season. Ask the 2022 Broncos.
Which team might be this year's Broncos? Let's look at some candidates:
New York Jets
This one is the closest match to the 2022 Broncos. The Jets have the longest playoff drought in the NFL. They have struggled to find good quarterback play, but traded for a potential savior in Aaron Rodgers. They also play in a very tough division. What if Rodgers' decline gets exposed in a new uniform, like Wilson last season? Maybe the defense regresses after a massive improvement from the 2021 season to last season. And if there needed to be another sign, Nathaniel Hackett is the Jets' new offensive coordinator.
Nobody thinks the Jets will be bad with their big upgrade at quarterback. But nobody thought that about the Broncos at this time last year.
It's more fun to focus on an 8-2 finish than a 1-6 start. But last season the same team was responsible for both. The Lions finished last season looking very good, giving themselves and their fans a lot of optimism going into the season. But the roster has holes. Who is Detroit's best receiver after Amon-Ra St. Brown? Are we sure the defense is completely fixed after it was mediocre at best last season? It's also a franchise that hasn't won a division title since 1993. If the Lions don't make the playoffs this season, it will be a long offseason in Michigan.
The Bills had an excellent 2022 season. They lost three games by eight combined points. But it ended in a really bad way, in a blowout playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. There was some Stefon Diggs drama in the offseason. And the rest of the AFC East has gotten a lot better. There's no guarantee the Bills make the playoffs with their tough schedule. Maybe the Bills' Super Bowl window has closed and we don't know it yet.
Only two teams, the 49ers and Chiefs, are a bigger betting favorites to win their respective division than Jacksonville. The Jaguars won the AFC South last season, but it's worth remembering they needed a late defensive touchdown to beat a Titans team quarterbacked by Joshua Dobbs in Week 18. They won a playoff game too, but needed a historic rally from a 27-0 deficit to beat the Chargers. The Jaguars were poor on defense last season and because they didn't have much salary-cap space, there weren't many personnel changes. And maybe Jacksonville wasn't as good as we remember last season, just fortunate to pull narrative-changing wins against the Titans and Chargers out of the fire. Perhaps we'll see them exposed a bit this season.
San Francisco 49ers
Last year, the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers were in the top five of consensus preseason NFL power rankings. Neither made the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in the top five too, and they finished 8-9 and were lucky to be in the horrid NFC South. We never figured the Rams, Packers or Buccaneers would have losing seasons (the Broncos were 11th in those consensus preseason power rankings; maybe the headline should have been "Which team is this year's Rams, Packers or Bucs?"). Most seasons, there is at least one team riding high in the preseason that misses the playoffs. Nobody saw it coming then, either.
Nobody believes the 49ers will be mediocre or bad. Nobody believes it can happen to the Chiefs, Bengals, Bills, Cowboys or Eagles either, but it will happen to some team near the top of the Super Bowl odds. The 49ers did not have a good offseason, with a bad draft and a lot of losses in free agency. They also lost defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, a bright coaching mind. Nick Bosa's contract holdout was still going on as the 49ers started preparation for their season opener. Brock Purdy seems to be healthy, but the 2022 Mr. Irrelevant needs to prove himself again. Maybe the 49ers' downside is being ignored? Nobody can fathom the 49ers or any top team falling off and struggling to make the playoffs, or missing the postseason altogether. But it will happen to someone.