Are the 2021 Denver Broncos a better team than their 2019 or 2020 counterparts? Head coach Vic Fangio has voiced his belief in the affirmative many times this season, including on Monday.
“I think we’re a better team than we’ve been in the past," Fangio said. "Simple as that.”
Is that a factual statement, though? If Fangio is referring to the Broncos' roster when he states the team is better, then yes, he is absolutely correct. However, the difference in the results this season vs. the previous two are nominal based on opponents played.
Along with a better roster, the Broncos have a better quarterback than in the recent past. When examining every major statistical category, Teddy Bridgewater has been an upgrade over Drew Lock and Joe Flacco. The team just looks more talented when watching the games. You would think this would lead to more wins.
At first glance, the Broncos' 6-6 record would indicate that they're having more success in 2021 than the past two years. Denver has two more victories through 12 games than it did last year and three more than it did in 2019. That doesn’t tell the whole story, however.
Strength of Schedule
The fact of the matter is, the Broncos have faced a significantly easier schedule through the first 12 games this season. Denver's opponents have been weaker, therefore wins have been easier to come by.
- 2019: S.O.S. through 12 games = 0.528
- 2020: S.O.S. through 12 games = 0.597
- 2021: S.O.S. through 12 games = 0.486
The records of the opponents faced in 2021 are considerably worse than the prior seasons. Facing weaker opponents should lead to more victories.
I would argue, that the significant difference in strength of schedule should have led to more than plus-two in the win column. For comparison, the difference in strength of schedule would be like playing a team with a record of approximately 7-5 in 2020 versus 5-7 in 2021 through 12 games.
Strength of Victory
The Broncos have not only faced weaker teams in 2021, their wins have not come against particularly better opponents.
- 2019: S.O.V through 12 games = 0.417
- 2020: S.O.V through 12 games = 0.354
- 2021: S.O.V through 12 games = 0.417
The Broncos' strength of victory in 2021 is identical to 2019, meaning they've beaten teams of the same caliber. Denver is better than in 2020, but not significantly better. This indicates that the team has made slight improvement from 2020 to 2021, but not from 2019 to 2021.
Furthermore, the Broncos have not had many signature wins. Three of Denver's four wins (75%) in 2019 and 2020 came against teams with records at 0.500 or below through 12 games. In 2021, four of six wins (67%) have been against teams with a record below 0.500 through 12 games. That isn’t a massive difference.
In all three seasons under Fangio, the Broncos lost only one game to a team with a losing record. Fangio has only beaten teams with a winning record once in 2019, once in 2020, and twice in 2021.
Both of these metrics indicate the Broncos struggle to win against better competition under Fangio. Therefore, the team has not significantly improved when facing stiffer competition.
The Broncos only have four signature wins in the past three seasons. In 2019, Denver beat the Tennessee Titans earlier in the season but through game 12, that opponent was 7-5. In 2020, the Broncos bested the Miami Dolphins (8-4).
In 2021, the Broncos were victorious against the Dallas Cowboys (8-4) and division-rival Los Angeles Chargers (7-5). When it comes to signature wins, the Broncos have one more than in the past two seasons. That is the biggest improvement that can be singled out in this examination, but it's only a one-game improvement.
To further analyze the Broncos' past three seasons, I analyzed how many double-digit losses the team has posted. In other words, were the Broncos competitive in their losses?
In 2019, Denver lost three times by 10 points or more. In 2020, the Broncos lost four times by 10 points or more while in 2021, they lost four times by 10 points or more. The Broncos have been just as competitive in their losses across the board.
At 6-6, it would seem that the Broncos would be much closer to earning a playoff berth than in years past. That isn’t the case, though.
In 2019 and 2020, the Broncos were the 11th seed in the AFC. Currently, Denver is the 12th seed. However, the gap is definitely more narrow between the current 7th seed and the Broncos — with only one game separating them without considering tie-breakers. In the two prior seasons, the Broncos were out of the hunt by three and four games at this point in the season.
The fact of the matter is, whatever improvement the Broncos have made on the roster, it hasn’t yet translated to a significant improvement in the standings. It's wonderful that the Broncos are still playing meaningful games in December, but the biggest reason for that is because they played three awful teams to start the season.
Starting out 3-0 has kept the Broncos in the playoff hunt compared to starting 0-3 in 2019 and 2020. In both previous seasons, the Broncos faced three teams that did not have losing records.
What would have been the outcome in 2021 if the Broncos had played better teams to start the season? Would Denver really be in the playoff hunt in December?
Regardless of what Fangio says about the current team, the results don’t corroborate his statement. He has not taken a better roster to a significant improvement in the results that count.
The bottom line is this, no matter how improved the roster might be, the coaches need to utilize that roster correctly to significantly improve in wins. There are five games left to play and the Broncos players know that they're all important.
Fangio and the Broncos may shock everyone. It would be a wonderful Christmas present to Broncos County if the team took its playoff hopes down to the wire. The bad news is, based on the upcoming opponents and how the Broncos have fared against stiff competition, it would not be a stretch to predict that this team finishes with a record similar to 2019 which was one game below .500 at 7-9.
Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasHallNFL.
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