ENGLEWOOD – The Broncos winning games is not old. For three decades, they crafted an image as one of the NFL’s most successful and storied franchises, reaching eight Super Bowls and winning three. The last came in 2015. That also represents the Broncos’ most recent playoff berth.
So, winning games for the Broncos is new. This year, anyway. After six straight losing seasons, the Broncos are inching back into the playoff conversation. They boast a 4-5 record, having posted three straight victories over the Packers, Chiefs and Bills.
The wins brought important footnotes: Green Bay was the first victory at home this season, they ended a 16-game losing streak to the Chiefs and they snapped a seven-game skid on Monday Night Football in eclipsing the Bills.
To be taken seriously as a contender, the first step is a return to .500. To reach the playoffs, a 10-7 record is likely required. That means Denver needs a 6-2 finish done in a particular way. All 6-2 records are not made equal. The Broncos must sweep the AFC opponents – that is the first tiebreaker – to give themselves the best shot. Go 6-2 with the losses against the Vikings and Lions, and Denver would likely get into the dance. Lose two games, and one or both are against the AFC, well the odds drop considerably to like 50 percent.
Let’s take that broad lens and adjust the focus tighter to Sunday night. The Broncos, who will be wearing blue tops and blue trousers, are favored to win. Here are my Denver7 keys to the Broncos posting a fourth-straight victory for the first time since 2016.
Bring Passtronaut Back To Earth
There is a little bit of Jeremy Lin’s Linsanity in Joshua Dobbs story. He landed in Minnesota two weeks ago – his fifth team in six years – and without practice came in relief and beat the Falcons despite not knowing the plays or his teammates’ names. The former NASA intern – thus “The Passtronaut” nickname – is smart, mobile, and humble. He has won back-to-back starts but is 2-7 this season when counting his games for the Cardinals. Minnesota’s offense fits him well. The key is to keep Dobbs in the pocket and prevent “second acts,” as linebacker Baron Browning described it. It requires coverage that is stickier than a Denny’s table after midnight. It helps that the Broncos have done this in back-to-back wins against Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.
Nowhere to run
The Vikings don’t run the ball much. And they don’t run it well, ranking 29th in the league at 85.7 yards per game and 28th in yards per carry (3.7). Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler are likely both playing. They are dangerous, but have yet to burst. The Broncos need to keep it that way, and that requires much better tackling than witnessed on Buffalo’s final drive on Monday night. Making Minnesota one dimensional makes it easier to blitz and disguise coverages against Dobbs.
Find that Man
T.J. Hockenson is not Travis Kelce. But he has done a heck of an impersonation the past two weeks, leading the league with 27 targets. Hockenson paces all tight ends with 681 yards. Denver must account for him, especially on third down with a combination of safety Justin Simmons and linebackers Alex Singleton and Josey Jewell.
Expect the Blitz
Under defensive coordinator Brian Flores, the Vikings blitz 49 percent of the time, easily the highest frequency in the league. But just when you expect them to bring the heat, they drop eight into coverage. It has created late nights and multiple coffees for the Broncos coaches. Talking to the Broncos linemen, they stressed the importance of communication, led by center Lloyd Cushenberry. And quarterback Russell Wilson must react better. His stats have dropped precipitously against the blitz this season, though playing at home should help. He has to identify his hot reads and get rid of the ball quickly. The Vikings safeties are ballhawks, and edge rusher Danielle Hunter tops the NFL with 11 sacks. Minnesota is stingy against the run, yielding 98.8 yards per game. However, the best way to throttle down a blitz is often to run into it. Javonte Williams is developing into a bellcow. Is this the game he scores his first rushing touchdown? The Broncos have only one rushing touchdown this season and that came from rookie Jaleel McLaughlin on Sept. 17.
In Russ We Trust
Wilson is playing like he’s a longer-term solution than envisioned when the Broncos started 1-5. In the last three wins, his quarterback rating is 71 – up from 41 in the first six games – and he has completed 73 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. The efficiency has paid off because Wilson has excelled in the red zone. If Wilson takes care of the ball, it dramatically increases the chances the Broncos will take care of the Vikings.
Clean it up
The Broncos offense has yet to reach its potential because of penalties. They turned four takeaways into only six points vs. Buffalo because of mistakes that left them playing off schedule. “We have to play cleaner football. And get better on third down. If we play a little bit cleaner football, we will continue to get better,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said.
Mims the Word
Maybe this is the week the Broncos finally get Marvin Mims Jr. involved in the offense (He has four targets and two catches over the past five games). But he ranks as the league’s best punt returner and kick returner. Minnesota is 22nd in punt return and kickoff return average against. Will the Vikings give Mims an opportunity? And, if so, can he make them pay like he has all teams?
Troy’s Prediction: Broncos 23, Vikings 20