ENGLEWOOD — There is freedom in clarity. The Broncos need not bother summoning Sheldon Cooper to figure out the math. Denver needs to win its final three games and receive some help to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015. As it stands, the Broncos’ playoffs odds sit at 79 percent if they finish 10-7, which would include a 7-5 mark in the AFC, the first tiebreaker.
It starts Sunday night on Denver7 at 6:15. The Broncos face the 3-11 Patriots, the worst New England team ever under legendary coach Bill Belichick. Yet, the remain dangerous because of their defense, having pretzeled the Steelers’ playoff dreams with an upset two weeks ago.
The Broncos know they are not good enough to overlook anyone, especially with the stakes so high. Given New England’s injury issues and the Broncos’ motivation, Denver should win its fifth straight home game for the first time since 2014.
My Denver7 keys to victory in what could be a snow globe game at Empower Field at Mile High with the Broncos wearing their snow-capped helmets:
Slow the roll
The Broncos defense works when it dictates. That means playing well on first down. The Lions crushed Denver last week, collecting 448 yards, including 185 on the ground. The Patriots will look to exploit the Broncos upfront with a steady diet of Ezekiel Elliott. The Broncos need a big day from D.J. Jones and Zach Allen to keep New England under 100 on the ground.
Remember the Browns game? The Broncos led 17-12 late in the third quarter. They stayed patient on the ground even when it was not humming. The Patriots devour teams on the run, ranking second best in the league. But Denver must stay patient long enough – I would start Samaje Perine in favor of Javonte Williams -- to set up the play-action strikes to Jerry Jeudy and Marvin Mims Jr. Courtland Sutton might spend this game as a decoy in double coverage.
Make it count
The Patriots will take chances to create turnovers. Russell Wilson must make them pay with at least one deep pass of 40 yards. This game can be more gritty than pretty. But there must be a majestic rainbow in there somewhere. Snow actually benefits offensive players, but the wind could be an issue in the passing game.
Ball security is job security
Wilson receives more scrutiny than any Bronco. His future remains in flux, despite being on pace for 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Coach Payton unloaded on him at Detroit – was it over a previous timeout, checking to the wrong run play on third down – and Wilson needs to play better. During the Broncos’ five-game winning streak, Wilson threw for eight touchdowns with two turnovers. Over the team’s current 1-2 stretch, he has four touchdown passes and five turnovers. He must balance taking chances with taking care of the ball. Denver can only lose this game if it turns the ball over.
Special teams alert
The Patriots struggle on special teams. Marvin Mims Jr. is due a big return on a punt or kick. Jalen Reagor delivered on kick returns for the Pats last week. Mims needs to win this one-on-one matchup.
Take, Take, Take
The Patriots offense ranks dead last at 13.3 points per game. Bailey Zappe has had moments, but he will put the ball in danger, especially with top target Hunter Henry out with an injury. While it’s time for the offense to carry its weight, the Broncos’ blueprint calls for at least two takeaways. New England has given the ball away 22 times. No reason the Broncos cannot cause a few more.
When teams make the playoffs, unlikely stars emerge. Is the week Denver receives a chunk play from Jaleel McLaughlin or an interception from Fabian Moreau? What about Tremon Smith causing a fumble on a return? These are the type of added wrinkles that pay dividends down the stretch.
Troy’s Prediction: Broncos 23, Patriots 15