DENVER -- Finally.
After interruptions, two rescheduled times and a battery of COVID-19 positive tests, the Broncos will face the Patriots on Sunday at 11 a.m. at Foxborough. It represents the Broncos' first game in 17 days. That time allowed for Drew Lock to heal his strained right rotator cuff and return to the starting lineup. However, it also cleared a path for Patriots stars Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore to clear COVID-19 protocols.
The Broncos arrive as heavy underdogs, aiming for their second straight win as they attempt to return to relevance.
It will not be easy or fair. The Broncos clearly got inconvenienced, if not the shaft, with the adjustments. Three of their games were moved, they lost their bye week, and this Sunday should have been a rebound home game against Dolphins. That said, the team that grows comfortable being uncomfortable will win. No excuses.
A look at my Denver7 keys to a Broncos victory:
Stifle the run
The Patriots rank second in the NFL in rushing with a multi-layered attack. Newton is the hub of the wheel with 149 yards and four touchdowns. Without Newton against the Chiefs, the Patriots almost ran in place. He brings a versatility that is unique. The Broncos smothered him in Super Bowl 50 with a simple game plan -- hit him repeatedly, even after the whistle if necessary. Newton lost his appetite for carrying the ball. However, the Broncos don't boast the same type of ferocious tacklers. If linebacker linebacker Alexander Johnson or defensive end Shelby Harris can deliver a big knock, perhaps it will slow Newton's roll. Former first round pick Sylvester Williams is active today as the Broncos look to beef up their interior.
Run to daylight
Melvin Gordon experienced the kind of week I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. He was arrested for a DUI on Tuesday, held out of practice Wednesday, missed Friday with a non-COVID-19 illness and did not travel because he was contagious. While many fans are furious with Gordon, a newcomer to the team this season, he has played fine, pacing the team in rushing and touchdowns. With Gordon out, Phillip Lindsay reclaims the starting role he held his first two seasons. He understands this is a chance to grip the job as he plays for the first time since the first half of the season opener because of a turf toe injury. Royce Freeman will be needed as well for 7-to-10 carries as Lindsay's workload will be monitored.
Win, Lose, Drew
If the Broncos establish the run, it will open up deep strikes for Lock. The Patriots don't rely on pressuring the quarterback, but they make life difficult with disguised coverages. They are the masters of providing no-scouted looks. When a deep strike appears, Lock can't miss. Lock did not play well in the season opener, and has only logged five quarters this season. He's eager to take that first hit and get on track. The Broncos offense has been brutal this year, plagued by using three quarterbacks in four games. Denver ranks 28th in points and 29th in yards per game. But Lock's return creates hope. If he completes 65 percent of his passes, the Broncos have a chance. But Lock cannot turn the ball over, and must keep an eye on where the Patriots' Chase Winovich is lined up.
Few wide open spaces
Belichick is the master of removing an opponent's top players. He employs a variety of strategies. Sometimes he uses his top corner to mute a team's second receiver, while mixing looks for the top threat. So will Gilmore guard Tim Patrick or Jerry Jeudy? One of those two must have a big day for the Broncos to win.
High and tight
Without tight end Noah Fant (high ankle sprain, should play vs. Chiefs) and receiver K.J. Hamler (hamstring), the Broncos are compromised. Fant's injury means rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam is active for the first time. He and Lock formed a dynamic tandem at Missouri. It would be nice to see offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur employ Albert O in the red zone or on third down as a mismatch on a safety or linebacker. He could make the difference even with only two or three catches.
This is one of the few games all year where the Broncos special teams are ranked ahead of their opponent. It is said weekly in this space, and it bears repeating. Wouldn't it be nice if the Broncos played clean on special teams, meaning no blocked punts, dropped snaps, stupid penalties or caught punts inside the 10-yard line? Make a play that makes the Patriots nervous.
Road to nowhere
The Broncos need to survive the first punch. They are not built to rally on the road, where they are 11-23 since Super Bowl 50. For the Broncos to contend, they must put pressure on a Patriots team that has had limited practice time over the past two weeks.
Renck's Prediction: Patriots 24, Broncos 17