Playing on the road is a difficult task for any NFL team. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, road teams have just a 42.5% win rate during the regular season. That rate is considerably worse in the playoffs, dropping to just 32.7% (this is probably a good place to remind you how impressive the Titans 2019 playoff run truly was and also how important it is that they earn the right to host postseason games in Nissan Stadium this year).
Some places are tougher to play than others though. Since 1970, the Ravens and Broncos lead the NFL in greatest differential between home win percentage and road win percentage. Baltimore wins 69.5% of their home games versus just 42.2% of their road contests while Denver wins 68.9% of matchups at Mile High and just 46.3% outside of Colorado.
For comparison’s sake, the Titans — who rank around middle of the pack in home versus road splits — win 54.3% of their home games compared to 41.4% of away games.
While Denver, in general, is a difficult place to play for opposing teams, it’s proven to be unbelievably tough on visitors during the first two weeks of a season. In home games during Week 1 or Week 2, the Broncos are an incredible 48-7 since 1975 according to Pro Football Reference, a staggering 87.3% win rate.
To put that in perspective, the 2001-2019 Brady-Belichick Patriots had a regular-season home winning percentage of 76.3%, so playing at Denver early in the season is tougher than playing the Brady-Belichick Patriots in Foxborough.
The Broncos are currently riding a 7-game winning streak when it comes to home openers. Some of the more recent results include beating the defending NFC Champion Panthers 21-20 on Thursday Night Football with Titans practice squad quarterback Trevor Siemian behind center in 2016, knocking off a good Chargers team 24-21 on Monday Night Football (again, with Siemian at the helm) in 2017, and beating the Seahawks 27-24 with Case Keenum at QB in 2018.
None of these Broncos teams were particularly good. The 2016 team — coming off their Super Bowl win in 2015 — went 9-7 led by a stout defense, but the 2017 and 2018 squads went 5-11 and 6-10, respectively, so it’s not as if this run has been skewed by a juggernaut Broncos team.
The primary reason for Denver’s home dominance? Altitude.
The effects of playing 5,280 feet above sea level, where the air is thinner and oxygen consumption is more difficult, have been well-documented over the years, but it still feels like it’s been undersold, especially when talking about the first couple weeks of the year when teams are still rounding into game shape.
Denver’s 9NEWS Sports team talked to Dr. Inigo San Millan, the doctor who runs the University of Colorado’s Sports Medicine and Performance Center, about the impact that altitude has on athletes:
The data from all those athletes led Millan to the conclusion that for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, a person loses 2 percent of their ability to consume oxygen and gets exhausted 4 percent faster than they normally would.
At one mile above sea level, that’s a 10 percent drop in your body’s ability to transport oxygen and 20 percent drop in time to exhaustion.
Millan also notes that people don’t sleep as well at altitude and they dehydrate more easily.
But doesn’t that impact both teams equally? Not really. Teams that are based in Denver have their bodies acclimate over time to the effects of altitude. Millan states that it takes at least nine days for the acclimation process to take place so arriving early isn’t really a viable option. In fact, Millan suggests that teams should try to arrive as late as possible to reduce the effects of poor sleep and dehydration.
The Titans will have to arrive on Saturday for this game due to COVID protocols restricting teams from traveling the day of the game.
Not buying the science? Take it from Mike Vrabel’s former teammate, Tedy Bruschi, who told ESPN that it feels like you’re gasping for air when you play in Denver.
“It’s real,” insisted former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. “It affects you. The oxygen you’re breathing into your muscles isn’t the same. You feel yourself gasping.”
There is no doubt that the Titans will be prepared for this effect. Playing in Denver less than a year ago helps in the sense that players won’t be caught off guard by the sensation of breathing thinner air on Monday night. Mike Vrabel played in Denver five times during his playing career and will know first-hand what his players are going through.
I’d expect to see Tennessee rotate players more often than normal, especially on the defensive line — that could explain why they went so heavy at that position on the 53-man roster — and possibly at other spots as well. Maybe we see David Long get a few extra snaps at inside linebacker to take some of the load off Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown. Maybe Johnathan Joseph and Kristian Fulton do some rotating with starters Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler.
On offense, the Titans can control the pace a little more and slow things down if they need to, but maybe this means a few more snaps for Darrynton Evans and Kalif Raymond than we might normally see.
However, these aren’t novel ideas. Other teams have certainly tried to handle the altitude as best they can and only seven have managed to do it well enough to come away with an early season W in Denver.
If you’re looking for reassurance that the Titans can find a way to become just the eighth team to win in Denver in the first two weeks of the regular season since 1975, well, this is the best I can do… the Broncos are “just” 3-2 at home on Monday Night Football in the first two weeks of a season over this time frame. That’s an extremely small sample size and not enough to form any real conclusions from, but hey, it’s something.
You could also make a case that not having 76,000 fired up Broncos fans screaming while the Titans are on offense will help, and that’s true… it will. But the fan noise is just one small element of the challenges presented by road games. Flights are uncomfortable for big guys and can promote swelling, sleep can be tough in strange environments, and there is just a general lack of comfort. However, all of that is still present late in the season when the Broncos home field advantage is far less abnormal. The only logical explanation for 48-7 is altitude and conditioning.
I don’t think you’ll get much argument that the Broncos are the more talented football team, especially not in light of the Von Miller and Courtland Sutton injuries suffered in practice this week. If you’re simply looking at position groups, I think you’d probably give Denver the nod at defensive line — where Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, Dre’Mont Jones, and our old friend Jurrell Casey are deep and talented — but pretty much every other position group favors Tennessee in this matchup.
The Titans will be hoping that ability, continuity, and experience win out over thin air on Monday night — and sure, no fans helps a little bit — but history says that an early season win in Denver would be quite an accomplishment and a good omen for the remainder of the season. Of the seven teams that have managed to escape Mile High with a Week 1 or Week 2 win in the last 45 years, none finished the year with a losing record.