Season's Greetings

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has his work cut out for him.

However, if Griese continues to improve, Terrell Davis returns to anything like his MVP form and the five veteran starters up front -- center Tom Nalen, guards Dan Neil and Mark Schlereth, and tackles Tony Jones and Matt Lepsis -- continue to get the job done, the Broncos offense could very well catapult Denver back to the top of the AFC West and a date in the playoffs. Certainly, they'll be inspired by frustration with last year's hard luck. Looking for a secret weapon? How about second-year running back Olandis Gary? Filling in for the injured Davis last year, Gary set a Broncos rookie record for rushing (1,159 yards), caught 21 passes and scored seven TDs. For most teams, he would be the prized starter. Here he can give fellow Georgian Davis an occasional breather while tormenting opponent defenses.

If Shanahan is to get the job done this year, he'll have to get in gear early. On opening night, September 4, the Broncos face not only the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams but also the sneering wit of Dennis Miller. Maybe Romanowski will go up to the ABC booth and rip the guy's tongue out. After that, the team's out-of-division schedule looks deceptively weak: Atlanta, New England, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New Orleans, San Francisco. But beware the AFC West. Kansas City appears over the hill (how will Derrick Thomas's death affect the Chiefs?), and San Diego seems so hopeless that it's turning to problem child Ryan Leaf for help. Mike Holmgren's Seattle Seahawks will likely be very tough, though, and the Oakland Raiders -- you remember them, the psychopaths in the silver hats? -- could be even tougher. Widely regarded as the best .500 team in the NFL last year, Al Davis's fun-lovers lost eight games in 1999 by a total of just 34 points. They had the fifth most-productive offense in the league (third in rushing), and their tenacious defense held opponents under twenty points a game. In 1999 the Broncos managed to beat Oakland twice (16-13 and 27-21) and have generally had their way in recent seasons with this most hated rival. But look out for the Raiders this season: On paper at least, they loom as the Broncos' most potent divisional threat.

As for Mike Shanahan, this is the year he will be called to task -- or should be. Barring another plague of injuries or having to use Craig Morton against the Chargers, he once more has the horses to reach the playoffs and win. If he doesn't, then Bowlen probably shouldn't give him the chance to tee it up in 2001 at Good Corporate Neighbor Stadium, or whatever they choose to call the place.

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