While there’s no denying the Broncos’ humiliating Super Bowl defeat still smarts (and probably will for a long time to come), it somehow seems like an eternity since that ugly day. Perhaps that’s because the seven months between “35” and this weekend have been filled, sports-wise, with a Nuggets’ flop, an Avs’ fizzle, and a full-on Rockies’ face-plant.

Damn, we missed football.

As year three of Peyton Manning 2.0 launches, the Broncos are once again among the favorites to return to the Big Dance. But with a tougher schedule, some new players, and a few holdovers with uncertainties of their own, it’s anyone’s guess which way that pointy ball will bounce in 2014. The following questions will determine the team’s fortunes. We’ll revisit them throughout the season, but for now we can’t be anything other than pumped for Sunday night’s kickoff.

1. Number 18’s health—It couldn’t be simpler: As long as Peyton can continue staying upright the way he has the past two years the Broncos will always be a threat.

2. Wes Welker—His embarrassing suspension (and reaction to it) after a positive test for a banned substance obscures the fact that his three recent concussions may have already begun to spell the end of his career. With Eric Decker no longer a safety valve, which of Denver’s other receivers will fill this considerable void?

3. The running game—Knowshon Moreno is in Miami, leaving Montee Ball as the likely top workhorse. The onetime collegiate stud needs to solidify his ball possession issues if the Broncos’ want to keep opposing defenses off balance.

4. Ryan Clady—One of the game’s best left tackles missed most of last season. If he can return to form, the Broncos’ already formidable offensive line looks even better.

5. Von Miller—And speaking of returning to form, before blowing out his knee Miller showed some flashes of Lawrence Taylor-esque disruptiveness. Can he reach that level again?

6. The newbies—Last year’s defense was so middling that team president John Elway saw fit to revamp it via free agency, adding Pro-Bowlers DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Aqib Talib, among others. Given all the points this offense is likely to rack up, the Broncos’ D doesn’t have to be great, but if they’re even a little above average it could give them the end-to-end balance they need to topple the Seattles, New Englands, and San Franciscos of the league.

And now, a bone-chilling aside: The Broncos play all three of those teams this year, two of them on the road, which brings us to…

7. That schedule—On paper, the Broncos don’t have anything resembling a breather until week 10 at Oakland, and even that one is the second of three straight roadies. (They do play the relatively mediocre Jets in week 6, but it’s in New York against a very tough defense.) If the team can emerge from the Black Hole with at least six or seven wins, the rest of the slate sets them up for a likely division title and a strong shot at home field advantage in the playoffs.