DENVER -- The path exists. It remains cobbled, uneven and boasts a breath-stealing slope. But there is a lane for the Broncos to return to the playoff conversation.
To this point, they have played the NFL's toughest schedule per opponent's winning percentage. Win today in an upset, improve to 5-6, and the foes look more Lilliputian going forward: Cincinnati, San Francisco, Cleveland, Oakland and the Chargers. Only the Chargers enter today with a winning record.
The first step arrives today. The Broncos require traction at home against the Steelers, who are 15-1-1 in their last 17 road games. My Denver7 keys to a win:
1) Win turnover battle
The Chargers dominated the Broncos last Sunday. But Denver picked off two of Philip Rivers' passes, including Von Miller's game-changing interception. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said it best this week. "If they throw 40 times, we need two picks." He's right. You can give up yardage in today's NFL, but the great equalizer is taking the ball away multiple times.
2) Stop the run
The Broncos rush defense ranks 27th, allowing 127.9 yards per game. The Steelers run for 97 yards per week. The reality is, this represents a better matchup for Denver than you might think. The Broncos have yielded 78 yards per game over the last four, and haven't allowed a rushing touchdown since Oct. 14. Making the Steelers one dimensional carries risk, but Ben Roethlisberger will take risks.
3) Von on fire
More passes provides additional opportunities for the Broncos' best player, Von Miller, to alter the outcome. He and rookie Bradley Chubb know tackling Big Ben is like cutting down an oak tree. Miller and Chubb lead the NFL in sacks by a duo with 19. They need to combine for two sacks today with one turnover.
4) Roby shows out
Cornerback Bradley Roby played his best game of the season against the Chargers, picking up Harris, who struggled to manage his frustration. Roby must neutralize JuJu Smith-Schuster as Harris matches up with Antonio Brown. The problem then becomes tight end Vance McDonald. Perhaps Will Parks will get more reps in coverage after Su'a Cravens and Josey Jewell were schooled by Antonio Gates last week.
5) Phil it Up
Phillip Lindsay needs 60 yards to set the Broncos rushing record for an undrafted free agent. There's nothing flukish about Lindsay. He brings energy, attitude and production. The Broncos need to lean on him while using doses of Royce Freeman to soften the middle of the Steelers' interior.
6) Play it off
If Lindsay is effective, it sets up play action and bootlegs for Case Keenum. Keenum was awful through three quarters last week then went Tim Tebow in the fourth quarter. So stay with me. Run the ball. Use play action. And sprinkle in uptempo throughout drives to keep Pittsburgh off balance and provide Keenum cleaner looks. And please don't fall in love with three-wide sets. It invites sacks and turnovers.
7) Crowded House
The Broncos need to restore homefield advantage to be taken seriously as a contenders. Let the noise and altitude work (even as thousands of Steelers invade the stadium). To do that, the Broncos need to lead for large chunks of the game.
RENCK'S PREDICTION: Broncos 27, Steelers 26