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NFL Preview: Denver Broncos vs. New York Jets

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There were very, very few positives to be taken from the Denver Broncos‘ 2010 4-12 campaign. The league’s reigning sack king was lost for the year before the season began, Josh McDaniels brought Patriots-level espionage to the Rocky Mountains, and the Broncos struggled to put a competitive product out on the field any given week. It was the losingest season in franchise history.

But for one game in 2010 — one near-glorious “Orange Sunday” — the Broncos played well. In fact, they played extremely well. For one game, the 2-3 Broncos went toe-to-toe with a better opponent, the 4-1 New York Jets, and matched them punch for punch. They rattled quarterback Mark Sanchez most of the game, forced three turnovers, and were a fourth quarter defensive stop from a victory that could have turned their season around.

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Then Broncos safety Renaldo Hill did this:

Denver Broncos defender Renaldo Hill is called for pass interference pulling on the face mask of New York Jets' wide receiver Santonio Holmes during the fourth quarter of play Sunday October 17, 2010 at Invesco Field at Mile High. Photo by Joe Amon, The Denver Post

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A gentle tug of a facemask. He and Santonio Holmes intertwined and fell into one another, but Hill’s unfortunate finger placement resulted in a 46-yard pass interference penalty that gave the Jets the football on the two-yard line.

It was the largest gain the Jets had the entire game. 58 minutes into a Denver defensive reawakening, the turnaround became fruitless in the blink of an eye. The Jets won and went onto an 11-5 record and an AFC Championship Game berth. The Broncos limped to a 4-12 record, their turnaround lost in a flash of yellow fabric.

Did that penalty derail the Broncos’ season? Of course not. But I maintain it was detrimental to the psyche of a young team. They lost by 45 at home to the Raiders a week later, after all.

We can’t debate the ruling (that’s some pretty airtight photographic evidence right there), but we debated the rule. The New York Jets hardly earned their 24-20 victory in Mile High last season. They were gifted a win the second the referee’s yellow flag hit the grass. Such a trivial, incidental penalty shouldn’t change the outcome of the game. Coaches and players should.

Remember Orange Sunday.

The Broncos are six-point underdogs on their own turf in primetime against a team with only one more win than them — in the court of public opinion, these Tim Tebow-led Broncos are outmatched by Rex Ryan‘ Jets. The national media is expecting Rex Ryan to be able to construct a gameplan that will eliminate this new Broncos’ offense, ending the Tim-Tebow-option-read honeymoon two weeks in.

Does no one account for the fact that this gameplan effectively neutralizes the Jets’ greatest strength, its pass defense? Darrelle Revis, their best player, will only sniff a football when Lance Ball has already carried it seven yards past the line of scrimmage. The Jets have their work cut out for them.

But maybe Rex Ryan will be able to halt the Broncos’ 2nd-ranked rushing attack. Maybe they’ll be able to scheme something to slow Tim Tebow and company. That’s still completely discounting the way the Broncos defense handled the Jets offense a year ago. And these Broncos are better.

Purely record-wise, these 2011 Broncos are better than their 2010 counterparts. The 2011 Jets are worse. These Broncos, six-point underdogs at home, might just mop the floor with the Jets Thursday night. Among the biggest keys to the game will be playing smart enough to keep the refs’ flags firmly within their respective pockets.

Do that, then let these Jets try and earn a win against these Broncos Thursday night.