For the Denver Broncos to ensure they do not have their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1971-72, they need to break out to a fast start.
They will look to do so Sunday at home against the Seattle Seahawks (4:25 p.m. ET), who have won three of the last four meetings between these former AFC West rivals, including the postseason.
Under head coach Pete Carroll's watch, the Seahawks have been notoriously slow starters, especially on the road. During his eight seasons at the helm, Seattle has only won one of its five season openers away from CenturyLink Field, including a 17-9 loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers last September.
While several factors have contributed to these sluggish starts, Russell Wilson and the offense deserve the most blame by being unable to put points on the board. Aside from putting up 31 points in a losing effort to the then-St. Louis Rams to kick off the 2015 season, the Seahawks have scored 17 or fewer points in every other road opener since Carroll arrived in 2010, including scoring only 12 points in a victory over the Panthers in 2013.
For the Broncos, it all starts with quarterback Case Keenum, who was signed to a two-year, $36 million contract to give Denver the stability at the position that it had lacked since Peyton Manning's March 2016 retirement.
The Broncos had the second-worst team-wide passer rating in the league last year. The move to Keenum should dramatically improve that and he is already bringing steadiness, leadership and good decision-making to a position that lacked all three attributes in the last two seasons, when the Broncos cycled through three quarterbacks who are no longer on the roster.
But if coach Vance Joseph's Broncos are to ensure that their 5-11 campaign of last year was an aberration, their young newcomers must produce as hoped.
Three rookies are listed on the first team -- running back Royce Freeman, outside linebacker Bradley Chubb and kickoff returner Phillip Lindsay, who will also be a rotational running back with Freeman and Devontae Booker. Rookie wide receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton will play extensively in three-wide receiver sets while sometimes spelling Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. First-year tight end Jake Butt, whose rookie season was scuttled because of a torn ACL suffered at Michigan, should see plenty of red-zone opportunities from Week 1 onward.
Denver has plenty of veterans left from its Super Bowl 50 run, but after a desultory 2017, it is the energy and talent of a mature-beyond-its-years rookie class that provide the best opportunity for this season to result in a turnaround.
The Seahawks are also a team in transition. Dating back to Carroll's arrival in 2010, Seattle has been one of the most consistent franchises in the NFL, reaching the playoffs six consecutive times, winning four NFC West division titles, and earning two trips to the Super Bowl. But after failing to reach the postseason last year with a disappointing 9-7 record, the Seahawks underwent an unprecedented transformation this offseason.
The Seahawks traded Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett to the Eagles and released defensive end Cliff Avril after he couldn't pass a physical due to a neck injury. Making matters worse, the team chose to let defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, tight end Jimmy Graham, and receiver Paul Richardson walk in free agency.
The "Legion of Boom" secondary disintegrated, with Richard Sherman being released and joining the 49ers and Kam Chancellor sitting out with a career-ending neck injury. But six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, after sitting out the entire preseason, announced plans Wednesday to end his holdout and report to the Seattle Seahawks.
"(I) worked my whole life for this..... I've never let (my) teammates, city or fans down as long as I've lived and don't plan on starting this weekend," the 29-year-old Thomas wrote in an Instagram post. "With that being said, the disrespect has been well noted and will not be forgotten. Father Time may have an undefeated record but best believe I plan on taking him into triple overtime when it comes to my career."
Amid the turnover, Carroll has remained upbeat and enthusiastic about the potential of his revamped football team in a rugged, much-improved NFC West. While media outlets and sports pundits overlook the Seahawks, the league's oldest head coach sees this year in a similar light to 2012 when the team's recent extended run of success began.
Last season, the Seahawks' offense proved to be putrid during the first three quarters of games, only for Wilson to become Superman during the fourth quarter. Among other reasons, Seattle moved on from offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to eliminate these lackluster beginnings, and at least in the preseason, Brian Schottenheimer's offense has been able to generate points during the early stages of games. Against the Broncos in a hostile road environment, the Seahawks will need to replicate these early successes from August in a meaningful regular-season game, especially with the defense breaking in so many new starters at critical positions.