DENVER – When Broncos fans are in the mood for a smile, they can go to YouTube and watch the 2015 AFC Championship game.
It's like entering a time machine full of food, fun, painted faces and goosebumps. The playoffs started Saturday with no Broncos. Having noses pressed against the postseason window pane stinks. It hurts more when you have won three Super Bowls and advanced to the playoffs 22 times in the last 43 seasons. Denver hasn't crept under the velvet rope of the NFL's big dance since winning Super Bowl 50.
It's been four long years, spawning anger, frustration, disbelief, and finally, hope. The Broncos are now at the intersection with their blinker on ready to turn the corner after posting three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1970-72. The good times don't come cheap, or easily. How can the Broncos return to glory? Glad you asked. My Denver7 keys for the road back to the postseason.
Lock keeps trending up
It is impossible to reach the final 12 tournament without good quarterback play. Of the 12 playoff quarterbacks, San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo had the worst touchdown-to-interception ratio at 27 to 13 followed by Buffalo's Josh Allen (20-9). Multiple stars boasted a 6-to-1 ratio, among them MVP lock Lamar Jackson, Seattle's Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. You get the point. The quarterback must take chances, while taking care of the ball. Jameis Winston's 30-for-30 documentary -- "What if I told you a quarterback couldn't stop throwing the ball to the wrong team?" -- is not a postseason path. Drew Lock finished the season with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Not perfect, but promising. Even more encouraging, he learned from his mistakes, morphing from gunslinger at Houston to game manager in wins over the Lions and Raiders. There's no reason Lock can't post 25 touchdowns with 10 picks next season. If he does that, the postseason drought will end.
Protect the investment
For Lock to continue microwaving his development, the Broncos must keep him upright. Denver finally ditched rigidity and adjusted to Lock, leaning on quick passes and his mobility. As I expected, Denver's line improved under coach Mike Munchak with Lock. In Denver's first 11 games with Joe Flacco (26) and Brandon Allen (nine), the Broncos allowed 35 sacks. With Lock starting, the Broncos yielded five in five games. That said, they can't be complacent. Denver needs to add a tackle in free agency or the draft to protect for the potential departure of Garett Bolles after the 2020 season and Ja'Wuan James' uncertain health with his left knee. Denver will be looking to add a guard as well with Ron Leary's future in doubt, and Patrick Morris could take over at center for Connor McGovern if his price tag doesn't fit in the budget.
Let's get this out of the way. DaeSean Hamilton had 11 catches in his last two games. That works. He had 47 in his previous 28 as a blocking tight end disguised as a slot receiver. I like Hamilton. He can be functional. But the Broncos need playmakers. General manager John Elway admitted Monday that the Chiefs are the target. You aren't beating the Chiefs 20-17. Denver needs to add a burner receiver. This is the best class since 2003. Those available if the Broncos want to land one with the 15th overall pick -- or trade back in -- include Jerry Jeudy, Tee Higgins, Laviska Shenault, Henry Ruggs, Justin Jefferson and Jalen Reagor.
The Broncos finished the season ranked 28th in scoring at 17.6 points per game. Only the Bears, Bengals, Jets and Washington were worse. With quarterbacks not named Drew Lock, the Broncos averaged 15.9 points. With Lock, they checked in at 21.4. That's better. That's not enough. The magic number is 23. Of the 15 NFL teams that reached that total, only four missed the playoffs (Tampa Bay, Dallas, Rams, Falcons). The Chiefs average 28.2 per game. Time to put nitromethane in the fuel tank. The floor should be 23 with a ceiling of 26.
First-year coach Vic Fangio boasted a defense that stiffened in the red zone, and ranked 10th at 19.8 points allowed. It was good, but improvement is required. The missing element? Takeaways. The Broncos started the season with a month of bagels, and finished with 17, a 25th ranking. Anything less than 25 takeaways is unacceptable and a guarantee to miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season for the first time since the 2006-2010 drought.
Run for it
The Phillip Lindsay story is terrific. We are all here for it. He's the first undrafted free agent to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first two seasons. And yet, the Broncos need more. A lot more. While Lindsay told me he will improve with a full season to work out -- he didn't do upper body lifts until three days before camp last summer because of wrist surgery -- and become a better receiver, the Broncos ground game requires oomph. The Broncos ranked 20th in yards per game (103.9), 14th in attempts and 21st in yards per carry. If those numbers aren't flirting with top 10 status next year, the playoffs will be a mirage not a reality.
Are you covered?
Wouldn't it be easy just to call Geico or State Farm to make sure everything is covered? The Broncos stand a real chance of losing Chris Harris Jr. in free agency, and Bryce Callahan, who missed this year with a faulty screw in his foot that was replaced, has never played 16 games in a season. The Broncos need to add a corner if Harris departs, and a linebacker like Cleveland's Joe Schobert in free agency. The Broncos boast two terrific safeties in Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons, but can't rely on Isaac Yiadom, Davontae Harris and De'Vante Bausby to solve the corner issues. Adding a veteran free agent or a pick in the first three rounds is necessary.