DENVER -- The temperatures become colder, the days longer, the injuries harder to overcome. Winters are rugged in the NFL.
The Broncos represent no exception. They own a 4-8 record, aiming to avoid their fourth straight losing season for the first time since 1963-72. They have all but been eliminated in the playoff race for a fifth straight year. That has not happened since 2006-10.
However, there remains plenty to play for over the final four games. Drew Lock aims to secure his spot going into the offseason, though it is increasingly likely the team will bring in competition. The offense is seeking to establish an identity, and young players are receiving an opportunity, including right guard Netane Muti and cornerback Michael Ojemudia. And things became more unsettled as Garett Bolles was declared inactive with an illness, snapping his start streak at 60 games.
The Panthers offers a winnable game on Sunday. They, too, are 4-8, been hit hard by COVID-19 and their best player Christian McCaffrey (quad) remains sidelined. The Broncos can pull off the upset. Let's look at the Denver7 keys to victory:
Time to run
The Broncos have improved on the ground over the past three weeks, raising their season average from 106.9 to 118.9 yards per game, ranking 12th. A top-10 finish would represent a foundation entering an offseason when quarterback uncertainty looms. Melvin Gordon paces the Broncos in rushing yards (685), attempts (149) and touchdowns (six). This might be his last game this season with his DUI trial pending on Monday, which could lead to a three-game suspension.
Be Smart Lock
Drew Lock understands fans and media alike have the patience of a ferret on an espresso. He wants to be great right now. He just needs to be good -- and consistent. He has thrown an interception in seven straight games. Until he stops turning the ball over, progress is difficult to see, leaving him on the clock. His goal over the final four games should be a 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Action, play action
The Panthers' run defense is modest. The group yields 115.1 yards per game. Denver needs to commit to the run to set up play action. The Panthers are vulnerable in the middle of the field. There will be openings. This where Lock must improve. He has not hit intermediate passes with any consistency, leading to his league-worst 55 percent completion percentage.
With the middle of the field open, slot receiver K.J. Hamler could be poised for a career day. He had a bad drop last week against the Chiefs, but continues to show he's slippery after the catch. I would expect him to get at least five catches Sunday.
As it relates to the middle of the field, I have said Jerry Jeudy is better in space than NASA. However, he has found out that NFL teams can scheme players out of the game plan. He has faced No. 1 corners over the past three games, leading to 13 targets, four catches and 42 yards. In the previous three, Lock targeted him 30 times for 14 receptions, 230 yards and one touchdown. The point? Jeudy will get fewer chances, but he needs to make them matter.
Fits with Blitz
The Panthers lean heavily on their passing game. But they are not expected to have D.J. Moore. Teddy Bridgewater, on a personal six-game losing streak, takes care of the ball, but does not look to go deep. The defenses that have given the Panthers fits shared a common trait: they blitzed. The Falcons and Bucs caused issues with pressure up the middle. Time for coach Vic Fangio to turn up the heat with Alexander Johnson, Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, easing the burden on new starting corners Michael Ojemudia and De'Vante Bausby.
Avoid the big mistake
The Broncos will start rookie Netane Muti at right guard, and left tackle Bolles is out after waking up Sunday with an illness. That leaves Elijah Wilkinson and Calvin Anderson to man his spot. Bolles had never missed a game in four seasons. The Panthers don't generate much pressure, but a big mistake upfront could be costly in a close game, leading to a pick or a strip sack. Muti is the equivalent of a December call-up. With Graham Glasgow out with a foot injury, it makes sense to give Muti a look.
RENCK PREDICTION: Broncos 23, Panthers 20