DENVER -- With dizzying acceleration, a model franchise that was the gold standard of the the NFL five years ago has become the target of frustration and anger.
The calendar flipped to November, and the clocks turned back. The Broncos would like to fasten their seatbelts in a DeLorean and go back in time. Today, they stride clumsily into Empower Field at Mile High with two issues creating gnawing concern. Denver has not won a home game since Dec. 29 of last season, and the cosmetically-enhanced offense has the same tired, bags-under-eyes look.
The Broncos are 0-3 in Denver, a number that has made Sunday's game a must-win to feed the parking meter of contention. It has been a difficult week. For COVID-19 reasons, the Broncos have lost starting right guard Graham Glasgow (positive test), offensive line coach Mike Munchak and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who was placed in isolation on Sunday morning after either a positive test or close contact to someone who has contracted the virus.
But this is the reality of the 2020 season. No excuses.
Denver is an underdog against the Chargers, but it matches up well. My Denver7 look at the keys to a much-needed victory:
Lock it down
For the first time as a starter, criticism has arrived at quarterback Drew Lock's doorstep. While the Chargers look like they might have their quarterback for the next 10 years in Justin Herbert, Lock has the next 10 games to prove he's the man. He has regressed this season in Pat Shurmur's offense, completing 55 percent of his passes. He has one touchdown pass in 13 quarters and three over his past seven games. It's time to get him in rhythm and simmer down with the deep strikes. Load up on short slants to Jerry Jeudy, crossing routes to Noah Fant and screens to Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon. When those work, then unleash the deep strike. The Chargers are ripe for a Lock rebound. Los Angeles ranks 23rd in both passing yards allowed per game (253.2) and interceptions (three).
Hey Jeud take a sad song and make it better. The Broncos drafted Jeudy in the first round to serve as a catalyst not a decoy. His frustration last week was noticeable as was Fant's. On nine targets, Jeudy has four catches for 52 yards over the past two games. That's not acceptable. He must average eight targets a game, allowing him to create damage with yards after the catch. His role should be amplified with Tim Patrick potentially limited, if he plays at all, because of a hamstring injury.
Short and sweet
Did I mention that the Broncos need to revive their screen game? Gordon averaged 50 catches a year the past three seasons. He's on pace for 34 receptions. While Gordon has been uneven in the run game, sabotaged by fumbles, he can be a complementary weapon in the passing game to take pressure off Lock. Check downs are not a bad thing, especially early in the game.
Dig the Ground
The Chargers are decent against the run, in part, because teams pass so well against them. That said, the Broncos cannot be one dimensional. It will set up Lock for failure. The Chargers yield 113 yards on the ground. That is the Broncos average per game. They need to reach that figure to create balance, and it remains a realistic goal with Lindsay expected to play after clearing concussion protocol. He has been the Broncos' best offensive player the past two weeks.
Sack attack Justin Time
Justin Herbert has been breathtaking. Per NFL Network, Herbert needs 306 passing yards to eclipse Cam Newton's record of 1,847 through his first six starts. Herbert is on pace to break the all-time rookie single-season record set by Andrew Luck (4,372). He has been terrific. But he will hold onto the ball. Opponents boast 10 sacks of Herbert. The Broncos have 14 sacks and 22 quarterback hits over their past three games. They need at least two sacks and seven hits to win this game.
Feel the urgency
Fant made it clear earlier in the week regarding the underwhelming offense: "It's time to put up or shut up." It applies to the entire team. The Broncos promised this season would be different, that they would end the four-year playoff drought. Yes, they have been hurt by injuries, but it would be a huge disappointment if the Broncos are virtually knocked out of the playoff race on Nov. 1.
Stop the sabotage
Is it possible for the special teams to play a clean game? Not be good. Just ordinary. The Broncos special teams have contributed to opponents scores on a dropped snap on a punt, a blocked punt and a kickoff return for a touchdown. The outside leverage on the kickoff return by the Chiefs was a fundamental breakdown by young players who took bad angles. They need better. Or just average. This is a must-win. A disciplined, smart effort is required, especially at home. The latter is the only reason I give the Broncos a slight bump in this contest.
RENCK'S PREDICTION: BRONCOS 25, CHARGERS 22