DENVER — The NFL schedule moves forward begrudgingly Sunday in Denver, the stakes of the game not changing, but the emotions roiling.
The Broncos host the Detroit Lions at 2 p.m., a must-win contest for a team harboring delusions of adequacy, if not the playoffs. Denver cannot afford a loss to the league's worst club with Cincinnati, Las Vegas, the Chargers, and Kansas City looming. But this became a different Sunday for the worst possible reasons.
Demaryius Thomas, one of the franchise's greatest offensive players and a Super Bowl 50 champion, passed away Thursday night in his Georgia home. The news shook the franchise to its core. The Broncos will honor Thomas on Sunday with a memorial at the plaza on the south entrance to the stadium. Denver will wear a No. 88 decal on its helmet and Thomas' number is painted on the sidelines. There will also be a pregame tribute to the former No. 1 pick who lit up the franchise with his 63 touchdowns and his megawatt smile.
Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles, one of 10 current players who were teammates with Thomas, stressed that the best way to honor Thomas is to reach the playoffs. It starts today. My Denver7 keys to victory:
Establish the run
Detroit does nothing well statistically on defense. Yes, they play hard and compete. But where the effort is fine, the talent is lacking. The Lions yield 131.1 yards on the ground, the second-worst in the league. This sets up as a big day for Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. My educated guess is that it will be a 60-40 split for the rookie. Both have played well this season, and Williams is coming off history, becoming the first Broncos rookie to eclipse 100 yards rushing and 75 yards receiving in the same game.
The Broncos have proven they can run the ball, logging 118 yards per game. However, winning time of the possession is not the goal. You have to win the game. And this could be a get-right Sunday in terms of mixing in explosive plays. The Broncos receivers have had one touchdown in the last six games. And Jerry Jeudy has yet to score a touchdown in a season limited to six games due to an ankle injury.
Courtland Sutton is a tireless worker, a captain. But the Broncos did not pay him to be a decoy. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur must get Sutton more targets, something that has not happened when Jeudy is on the field. In those six games, Sutton has 10 catches for 124 yards. Sutton has struggled with burst and creating space off the line of scrimmage, but there's no reason not to give him a chance on 50-50 balls. After all, the Lions are down to two healthy cornerbacks in starters Amani Oruwariye and Jerry Jacobs.
Stop the run
With the Lions dealing with injuries and COVID-19 issues, they will be compromised offensively. They are missing 19 percent of their roster on Sunday. They are down to third and fourth-string running backs with Godwin Igwebuike and Jermar Jefferson. Stuff the run. Make quarterback Jared Goff uncomfortable.
Take it away now
Goff is coming off a tremendous performance in the win over the Lions, Detroit's first. Goff plays conservative but is prone to turnovers when pressured. He has six fumbles and seven interceptions. It's time for Bradley Chubb to get on the board with a strip-sack.
Convert, my friend
For this to be a get-right game, the Broncos' offense needs to gain momentum on third down and in the red zone. They have been better on third down, but the lack of red zone touchdowns remains an issue. The 52 percent success rate ranks 27th. That won't work moving forward against good teams.
Play with emotion
Demaryius Thomas was a tremendous player. A future Ring of Famer. The committee meets as early as May to decide on new inductees, but it's unclear if an early admission will be considered for Thomas. Regardless, he will get in eventually. But as good as a player Thomas was, he was a better teammate. The Broncos can honor him today by playing with extreme effort and smiling. That is what I will always remember about DT. That disarming smile.
TROY'S PREDICTION: Broncos 27, Lions 13