ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- This much remains clear: Thursday is a critical game. How big depends on the outcome. If the Broncos lose to the Cardinals -- a one-win team -- the temptation to make changes will increase dramatically.
Last week, Broncos CEO Joe Ellis offered tepid support of coach Vance Joseph, stopping well short of a vote of confidence. Wednesday, Ellis did not rule out a midseason coaching change if the Broncos failed to rebound from their current four-game spiral.
"We did it in 2010 (with Josh McDaniels), I think. So we’ll see, we’ll see," Ellis told The Athletic at the owners meetings Wednesday. "I’m trying to stay focused on one game at a time and see where we go from there, and having conversations with (general manager) John (Elway) and see where we go."
So for all those who think speculation about Joseph's status is media driven, well, I can't help you. If management is committed to a coach for the season, they squelch talk with definitive statements or action. The Broncos, who are 1-11 in their last 12 road games dating to 2016, are keeping all options open as they assess a season that has turned sour following a 2-0 start.
It ties back into Von Miller's press conference, which echoed what teammates told me. Multiple players believe they need a victory to secure Joseph's job. It doesn't mean Joseph will be fired following a loss, but the sense of urgency is real.
"I wouldn't say it's must-win, but we are going to kick their ass, though. Make sure you put that up there," Miller said defiantly. "They are going to get our best this week. Last week, the week before that, whatever, this week, Thursday night prime time, they are going to get the Broncos' best."
If nothing else, this game between teams with a combined 3-9 record has some juice. One Arizona radio station calls it "The Pink Slip Bowl," believing Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike McCoy could be fired with another dreadful performance. Can the Broncos find a way to succeed for the first time in a month? My Denver7 keys to a victory:
The Unreal McCoy
The last time a team allowed back-to-back 200-yard rushers and 593 yards? In the lyrics of Outkast -- "Forever, forever, ever, forever, ever?" -- and throw in a never for good measure. Arizona's David Johnson is up next. If he goes off, no jobs should be safe. Seriously. McCoy is potentially coaching for his employment, with coach Steve Wilks saying, "I would say all our jobs are in jeopardy, including mine if we don’t win.”
A former hybrid star in 2016, Johnson has struggled this season in McCoy's offense, rushing for 297 yards on 92 carries. Working in the Broncos' favor, McCoy continues to misuse Johnson in the passing game, settling for dump-offs. The keys are simple for the Broncos: run blitz since the Cardinals almost always run up the middle. Stop scheming the attack to allow the runner to bump outside, and limit the missed tackles with better effort and toughness.
Back it up
Miller promised a win. What made it so odd is he never talks trash or provides bulletin board material. As the face of the franchise, he made public what he has told teammates. It was a fascinating show of confidence. Now he has to back it up. A strip sack would go a long way in accomplishing that against a depleted Arizona offensive line.
Be Ready for Uptempo
Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen boasts three starts. He showed proficiency in the uptempo attack last Sunday against Minnesota. The numbers suggest the Broncos should feast, but Sam Darnold had a similar resume and torched Bradley Roby in a rout two weeks ago. If the Broncos can't produce pressure against's McCoy's three-wide scheme, the irony would be rich. Per the Arizona Republic's Kent Somers, the Cardinals offense is putrid: 1,323 yards, fewest by an NFL team through its first six games since 2009; 302 plays, fewest since 2005; 21.9 percent third-down conversion rate, lowest since 2010.
Run for it
The Broncos own the blueprint for collecting yards between the 20s. The red zone? Not so much. But this week, running the ball will pay dividends. The Cardinals' rush defense is awful. Arizona has allowed an NFL-worst 10 rushing touchdowns, with opponents averaging a league-best 34 carries per game. The Broncos need to trust Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman -- with Andy Janovich as a lead blocker -- to do work to set up play action.
Inside job for Case
The run game only matters if Case Keenum makes opponents pay. He received the contract he wanted from the Broncos. The Broncos have not received the play they expected. Keenum, whether because of a new offense, a sore knee or regression to mean, has not found traction. He has more interceptions this season than he did last year. That said, he played well indoors last season, going 8-1 with 12 touchdowns and two picks. Perhaps a night in the State Farm Stadium bubble can help him get his groove back.
The Broncos' problems are numerous. Among them? They fizzle in the second quarter, if not the first half. They have scored 23 second quarter points. Only two teams are worse. There's no excuse this week. Arizona has scored 24 second-quarter points. The key for Denver is staying in the game. They have been outscored 200-72 in the first halves of their past 12 road games. They have lost 11 of those games.
The best way for the Broncos players to support Joseph is to play well and stay disciplined. Stupid penalties crush them on the road. They haven't won a meaningful road game since Dec. 4, 2016. Red faces are one thing. Lose this game, and there could be pink slips. I said after the Jets loss I would not pick the Broncos to win on the road until they, you know, won. But if not now, then when?
Renck Prediction: Broncos 21, Cardinals 18