With Tom Brady and Big Ben on the docket for the Broncos’ September, Drew Lock needs to pick up where he left off

No sooner had Broncos coach Vic Fangio walked over to the deep end of the pool when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ran over, unseen, and shoved him straight into the drink.

The first fifth of the dance card is a doozy, kids. Derrick Henry at home on Monday night, followed by Big Ben in Pittsburgh on short rest, then Tom Brady.

There’s a lot to like about the Broncos’ 2020 schedule, assuming the coronavirus pandemic allows everybody to follow the script as it was written Thursday. No three-game road junkets. A manageable AFC East swing before the weather gets nasty. A bye in Week 8. Brady early and Drew Brees (Let it snow!) late, both at home.

But here’s what can’t happen, if the autumn’s reality is to match the spring’s postseason-or-bust hype:

Another September like 2019.

Quarterback Drew Lock has to pick up right where he left off. Or thereabouts.

No excuses about a new system.

No griping about a new offensive coordinator.

No waiting for the engine to turn over.

“We’re going to have to grow up fast,” Broncos GM John Elway told NFL Network on Thursday night.

With Brady out of the AFC, the cluster battling for the final three postseason spots figures to be as wide as the Rio Grande Gorge. The Titans (Week 1) and Steelers (Week 2) are at the head of the class.

Tiebreakers matter.

So does a decent start, at first blush. According to the wiseapples at Sharpfootballstats.com, the Broncos only have six matchups against teams projected by the oddsmakers to win seven games or fewer, and four of them — at the Jets, vs. Miami, at Atlanta, at Las Vegas — fall within Weeks 4-10. If you’re going to get fat, it’s there.

Conversely, the Broncos draw 10 tests against opponents projected to win eight games or more. And five of those games land within Weeks 11-17, including the Chargers twice, Buffalo at home, New Orleans at home, and a trip to Kansas City the first weekend of December.

Even the kinder tussles, on paper, come with caveats. The Panthers and the Chargers before their first meeting have byes in advance of the Broncos showing up. And the Chargers leading up to their second meeting will have an extra few days of rest and preparation, given a Thursday night game the week prior. Ditto the Falcons and the Chiefs before that first Kansas City scrum.

On the flip side, Fangio & Co. get a few extra days’ run-up for a visit to New England and whomever coach Bill Belichick has running the show by Week 5. Unless Belichick is twice the genius he thinks he is, the Pats are projected to be swimming in that vast seven-to-nine-win pond, too.

“We’re going to introduce the world to the Denver Broncos early,” Elway told the NFL Network. “We were slow last year … we’ve got to figure out a way to get off to a quick start.”

No red-zone foibles.

No correctable penalties.

No forcing a young quarterback to have to try to make magic from behind the chains.

Given an extra postseason ticket, 10-6 should be enough.

A 9-7 finish might do it, if it’s the right 9-7.

Then again, the Broncos are 14-22 since 2017 vs. the AFC, 7-11 vs. the AFC West. An 0-2 start, and you risk living through 2016 all over again.

The Chargers get the Bengals and Panthers in September. The Raiders draw the Panthers and Pats. If you’re flipping the switch in Week 5 this time around, brother, it’ll already be too late.