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Preseason power rankings: No. 26

How bad is the AFC West? Of the first seven teams on our worst-to-first ranking of NFL franchises, three of them come from the worst division in the sport.

No. 30 was the Raiders. No. 287, the Chiefs. And No. 26 is the Denver Broncos.

It’s a stunning fall for a team that has been competitive for years. But the decision to dump an experience offensive guru and to replace him with an inexperienced offensive guru and then to dump an experienced and stellar quarterback and to replace him with an experienced and crappy quarterback potentially spells doom in 2008, if not beyond.

No amount of draft picks can guarantee that the Broncos will find that which they had -- a bona fide franchise quarterback in Jay Cutler.

Regardless of whether Cutler asked out or whether he first developed an acute case of stickinassitis after the Broncos tried to swap Cutler out for Matt Cassel, the Broncos never should have let him go -- and if coach Josh McDaniels had any inkling that he didn’t want Cutler, he should have been honest with owner Pat Bowlen.

If, however, McDaniels had been candid with Bowlen, McDaniels would still be the offensive coordinator of the Patriots. (Or maybe the head coach of the Chiefs.)

The Cutler conundrum has created a separate problem between the Broncos and receiver Brandon Marshall, who is staging a passive-aggressive version of T.O.'s shirtless driveway situps assault on the Eagles, circa 2005.

Meanwhile, the Broncos have signed a bunch of running backs, drafted Knowshon Moreno with the No. 12 overall pick, and haven’t done much to beef up a front seven that was one of the team’s major weaknesses during the Shanahan era.

So it’s going to be a long year in Denver. And if the Broncos can’t take care of the Chiefs and the Raiders, McDaniels -- who like Browns coach Eric Mangini is behaving like their mentor without the license to do so that winning provides -- could be the former coach of the Broncos as soon as January.

Key Player: Moreno. He needs to have an Adrian Peterson-style impact on the offense, and then Kyle Orton or Chris Simms (or Craig Morton or Bubby Brister) will need to take advantage of the attention devoted to stopping the former Georgia star.

Rookie to watch: Apart from Moreno, the Broncos need a quick impact from cornerback Alphonso Smith, primarily since the 2010 first-round pick from the Cutler trade was dangled in exchange for the opportunity to snag Smith in round two.

Best veteran acquisition: The answer would be safety Brian Dawkins, if he were healthy. Considering the other veterans they acquired, an injured Brian Dawkins is still the best of the bunch.

Key game: Week Two versus Cleveland and Week Three at Oakland. If the Broncos lose both of these games, they could go winless through November. After the trip to Oakland, Denver plays the Cowboys, Patriots, Chargers, Ravens, Steelers, Redskins, Chargers, and Giants.