Playing in Denver Early in the Season is a Death Trap
Consider this your yearly reminder that an early season road trip to Denver is a death trap. Since the merger, the Denver Broncos are 49-8-2 at home in games during the first two weeks of the season. That is a win percentage (85 percent) similar to what Nick Saban has done at Alabama (87 percent). Mind you, the league-wide win percentage in this scenario over this timespan is just 56 percent.
Recently, the Broncos have only gotten stronger in this situation, as they have posted a 19-1 record since opening their new stadium in 2001. These trends are particularly noteworthy this year as Denver will host the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1 and the Oakland Raiders in Week 2. The Broncos are not close to as talented as these two teams, at least according to Super Bowl odds, but the stats would suggest that, nevertheless, the most likely outcome for this home stretch is two Denver wins.
This Broncos team may not be a title contender, but trends that stretch through 2001 or 1970 do not exclusively include title-contending teams. Remember, we saw this scenario play out last season, too. After beating the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday Night Football game during the opening week, the Broncos, off a short rest, hosted the Dallas Cowboys. The result? A 42-17 blowout to get Denver to 2-0. The team would eventually finish the year on a 3-11 stretch.
This specific situation inflates the Broncos’ winning chances by so much that often what we believe to be truth heading into Week 3 of regular seasons is a mirage. Pinning down what causes this phenomenon is difficult. Almost certainly, it involves different levels of early season conditioning at Denver’s high-elevation stadium(s). When asked about the topic, former New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi once said, “It affects you. The oxygen you're breathing into your muscles isn't the same. You feel yourself gasping.” Anecdotally, you could make a guess that the Broncos, already trained in this environment, could gain their advantage through already being acclimated to the elevation.
Whatever causes this phenomenon, it is undeniable statistically, even if the public has not quite caught onto it. According to Pro Football Reference, the Broncos have gone 38-16-5 against the spread in this scenario since the merger. With 22 more wins against the spread than losses, Denver, again, leads the league in another category in this situation. For reference, the next best team (Atlanta) has just 12 more wins than losses against the spread in early season home games, about half of the Broncos’ rate. This suggests that, at least historically, books have misjudged how to value Denver at home early in the year.
For Oakland and Seattle, Denver’s home success puts them in particularly stressful situations. In the NFL, teams that start 0-2 miss the playoffs about 90 percent of the time. The standard for a playoff team is usually at least a 10-6 record and 1) few NFL teams can post a 10-4 record in a 14-game stretch and 2) even fewer which start the season 0-2 have the talent to go 10-4. Yearly, one-eighth to one-quarter of the league, realistically, is out of striking range of the playoffs after an eight-day stretch. Them’s the breaks.
This is why extra attention should be paid to the Raiders’ and Seahawks’ other games during this stretch. Oakland hosts the Los Angeles Rams, a 2017 division winner, in Week 1. Should they drop that Monday Night Football game, the machine that is Denver at home early in the year could effectively end their playoff hopes less than a week into their season. After opening the year in Denver, the Seahawks will make a second stop on their road trip in Chicago, where they will likely be a short favorite, if at all.
Right about now, you might start getting that sinking feeling if you are an Oakland or Seattle fan. I get it. Playing a team with an 85 percent win percentage (49-8-2) sucks when the rest of the league sits at 54 percent (728-612-7) in the same scenario. Someone has to do it, and, unfortunately, that someone right now is you. At the same time, it does seem unfair that the league leans right into Denver’s strengths. In 2016, the Broncos started the season off with two home games. In 2017, the Broncos started the season off with two home games. In 2018, the Broncos will start the season off with two home games.
We know that the NFL’s scheduling system allows for teams to make requests. It may be that Denver’s ownership, like gamblers, were in the dark about this subject until around 2016. It should be noted, though, that the Broncos were the only team to start the season off with two home games in both 2016 and 2017, a trend they will extend to three years now. If this is an accident, it is a very rare and very convenient accident.
The question to answer now is if we should even allow a team like Denver to continue to receive, requested or not, schedules that play so strongly into such an oddly specific, but consistent, trend. Seeing “@ Denver” as your team’s opening road game should strike fear in your heart, but the NFL does not need to go out of its way to amplify the Broncos’ victims when Denver is benefiting from the football equivalent of Mario's Magic Mushroom.