If you missed the past couple of weeks of intense film study on the Denver Broncos, you probably believe the Miami Dolphins next opponent to be what they've been since Peyton Manning arrived in 2012: A Super Bowl contender headed to the playoffs.
That isn't necessarily what these Broncos are right now.
The team the Dolphins will play Sunday is actually in some trouble.
Yes, the Broncos are 7-3 and lead the AFC West. But they've lost two of their past three games, including last week's upset at the hands of the St. Louis Rams. They've lost their toughness on offense. They're struggling with significant injuries. And, oh yes, the local newspaper ran a letter to the editor calling for the firing of coach John Fox.
"Comes with the territory," Fox lamented on Wednesday.
The issues start right at the top for Denver. Manning, a future Hall of Famer, is in something of a drought. He has thrown two interceptions in each of the past three games after starting the year with 22 TDs and only three interceptions the first seven games.
Manning had never thrown multiple interceptions in three consecutive games as a Bronco before now. And it is the first time he does so since 2010.
So, of course, that has led Manning to become somewhat introspective because he's looked at the mirror lately and believes the reflection needs improvement.
"I just made a couple of poor decisions and that resulted in some negative plays and put our team in some tough spots," Manning said of the latest loss. "[It] kept us from scoring opportunities, so I just have to be able to be more consistent in the decision making and then I think as an offense we just have to get back to finishing those drives.
"We moved the ball fairly well all season and for whatever reason recently we’ve gotten down to the 30-yard line or not even in the red zone last week and just stalled. We’re certainly starting off the drives well; we just have to finish them well and that’s kind of the offense goal for me. Just being more consistent, finishing the game with better decisions."
If Manning's decision making was the length and breadth of Denver's problems, that team would be dealing with a temporary issue. But the problem seems deeper than that.
The offensive line in front of Manning, for example, is a mess. Yes, the word "mess" is neither technical nor complimentary. But how else to put it when the Broncos brought in former Dolphins guard Richie Incognito -- who hasn't played in a year -- for a workout to see if he might be an upgrade.
And this unit is indeed needing improvement. That's the reason two weeks ago center Manny Ramirez was moved to right guard. Right guard Louis Vasquez was moved to right tackle. And reserve Will Montgomery was installed as the starting center.
This on a line that had already started the season with former starting right tackle Orlando Franklin at left guard.
The line the Dolphins will face is in transition. And the transition hasn't been kind. They gave up two sacks, four quarterback hits and six hurries of Manning against the Rams, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Denver's offensive line, by the way, has accounted for 29 of the team's league-high 87 penalties. The 29 penalties break down to 15 false start penalties and 14 holding penalties.
"It's worse than bad — it's horrendous," Mark Schlereth, the ESPN analyst and ex-Broncos Pro Bowl offensive lineman told the Denver Post. "I watch every game of every team every week. It's bad technique-wise, athleticism-wise, toughness-wise. If I was grading, giving an F would be kind.
"I went back and looked at the last three games — they don't block anybody," Schlereth continued. "I mean, if it's not penetration, they're horrible from an athletic standpoint at getting to the second level. So they lose the line of scrimmage, getting shoved in the backfield, and then at the second level, half the time three guys are shoved back a yard or two and two guys have to completely spin around because they've missed their guys and they're watching the action, lantern-holding, like: 'Be careful in there, it's really nasty!"
There are other worries. The Broncos may not be at full strength on Sunday.
Receiver Emmanuel Sanders suffered a concussion against the Rams and had not been cleared to practice. He told reporters he considered himself "questionable" for Sunday. Tight end Julius Thomas, who has 12 TD receptions, also did not practice Wednesday or Thursday because of an ankle injury. He said earlier he's "day to day."
So the Denver passing game might have fewer options. And, oh, did I mention their running game is not very good?
The Broncos are 27th in the NFL in rushing. Three times this season and twice in the past three weeks the Broncos have not been able to run for even 50 yards in a game. Last week, offensive coordinator Adam Gase seemed to have so little confidence in the run game he simply stopped calling those plays. The Broncos ran only 10 times against St. Louis.
"In my opinion, we lost that game because I didn’t play well enough in the passing game," Manning said. "Did we throw it a lot? Yes we did. There were plays to be made and I didn’t make them. No matter how many times you run it or throw it you have to produce when you do it and so that is what I’m disappointed about that I didn’t execute the plays that were called the way they were supposed to. So if you’re looking for productivity, you are looking to have the threat on any given down to do different things but certainly looking to produce."