ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — General manager George Paton remains consistent, leaning on collaboration to make decisions.
With the Broncos sitting at an underwhelming 4-4 given their schedule, he has not scanned for a nearby bus to throw coaches and players under. His posture since arriving has not changed. He carries playoff expectations, hearing the desperate plea from outgoing CEO Joe Ellis. He has supported coach Vic Fangio, embattled offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Privately, he has challenged them. Paton appears determined to ride it out with the coaches and Bridgewater. Left unspoken publicly, but seemingly understood is that if the Broncos fail to reach the postseason there will be sweeping changes with the coaches and under center.
With the Von Miller trade Monday, Paton acquired a second and third-round pick in 2022, absorbing $9 million of the linebacker's salary for the later selection, to create versatility in the draft. As such, Paton and five Broncos scouts traveled Saturday to Ole Miss to scout potential first-round quarterbacks Matt Corral and Liberty's Malik Willis. Paton has the draft capital to move up with a first, two seconds, and two-thirds. Or attempt a trade for a proven star like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson, pending resolution on his legal issues.
First, the Broncos must finish out the second half of the season, providing clarity on needs and allowing young players to develop like linebacker Baron Browning, safety Caden Sterns, and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. The Broncos are still in the hunt, but are climbing Mt. Evans in Crocs vs. Dallas.
Von is gone and Dak is back, leaving the Broncos as 10-point underdogs against Prescott's Cowboys.
What at the keys to the upset? Glad you asked.
Don't run from the truth
The Cowboys average 31 points per game when Prescott starts. The Broncos average 19.6 points. The only chance Denver has is to play keep away. Win the time of possession by running the ball. The Cowboys allow 88.3 yards per game on the ground, but that number masks the fact that teams trail against them so they pass more. Denver must commit to 35 attempts for Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams to shock the Cowboys.
Don't laugh. I know Denver is awful early in games. But this is a blueprint to a win, not a reflection of reality. The Broncos are 4-0 when leading at halftime. None of those victories came against a team with a winning record. Still, it points to how Denver could stage the upset.
Take it away now
The Broncos defense showed intensity, passion and purpose in the Washington game, especially Justin Simmons, Shelby Harris and Baron Browning. Simmons netted two picks. The Broncos remain undefeated — 3-0 — when winning the turnover battle. Can they sneak out a pick against Prescott or force Zeke Elliott to put the ball on the ground, something he has done more than any back since he entered the league?
Ready, set, action
The Cowboys defense is the most improved unit in the league. They play fast and aggressive, led by rusher Randy Gregory, rookie linebacker Micah Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs. Parsons is the leader for defensive rookie of the year honors, ahead of Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II. Diggs is a candidate for defensive player of the year honors with seven interceptions in seven games. Both, however, take chances and are vulnerable to play action. If Denver commits to the run, the middle of the field will be open for chunk plays. Can the Broncos execute them? The onus is on coordinator Pat Shurmur to figure it out.
Get Fat Albert
Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam has a chance to make a huge impact Sunday with starter Noah Fant out with COVID-19. Okwuegbunam is more athletic and dangerous after the catch. Get him the ball in space. If the Broncos win, Albert O will finish with at least 75 yards receiving.
Remember I said Diggs will hunt interceptions, leaving him vulnerable. Who could beat him? His former Alabama teammate Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy is due for his first 100-yard game this season, more comfortable in his second week back from a nasty ankle injury in the season opener.
There's no way the Broncos beat Dallas without stealing points either on defense with a pick-six or a takeaway on Dallas' side of the field or a special teams splash. After a horrible start to the season with a weekly misstep, the special teams coverage teams have improved. Shelby Harris has blocked kicks in back-to-back games. Block a punt, and the Broncos could be in business.
Troy's prediction: Cowboys 31, Broncos 20