DENVER — Given the environment, the noise, the personal nature of the contest, it is not shocking the Broncos lost their opener. It's how they lost that resonated this week. Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett showed that the moment was too big for him, electing to let Brandon McManus kick rather than Russ cook.
Among multiple options, a 64-year-yard field goal represented the worst from an analytical point of view. Kickers are now 2-for-41 in NFL history from at least that distance. The Broncos vow to learn from this — they needed a miracle boot because of 12 penalties and four red zone trips without a touchdown — and make corrections in Sunday's home opener vs. the Texans.
The urgency remains real. As bad as the odds of making a Lumen Field record field goal were — the long is 56 yards — the chances of reaching the playoffs at 0-2 are not much better. Since 2007, 125 teams have gone winless in their first two games and only 12 reached the postseason. Seven teams started 0-2 last year — Colts, Jets, Jaguars, Giants, Lions, Falcons and Vikings — and all missed the playoffs.
Hackett, who has been nationally panned for how he handled the final minute against the Seahawks, understands what is at stake. The Broncos need to win and make a solid impression at home, where they are only 23-26 since Super Bowl 50. Re-establishing homefield dominance is critical.
My Denver7 keys to a victory:
Running with purpose
The Broncos offense posted 433 yards and 20 first downs, an encouraging opener. The problem? They lacked balance, passing 42 times and running 19 times, despite Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon averaging 5.32 yards per carry. I expect close to a 50-50 split between run and pass on Sunday. The Texans play a chunk of Tampa Two zone coverage, creating elasticity in the run game. Jonathan Taylor gashed the Texans for 161 yards on 31 carries. Williams and Gordon should be around 135.
Russell Wilson performed well in his debut. But the Broncos failed to finish drives. The Texans allowed four pass plays of at least 20 yards last week and 33 first downs. Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton should both eat, totaling 150 yards with at least one score. Jeudy is better in space than NASA. Get him the ball and let him run like he did for 43 yards after the catch on his 67-yard touchdown. And let's not wait until the second quarter to target them.
Burst the pipes
Outside linebacker Bradley Chubb asserted his dominance in the second half, posting two sacks and unveiled his "Paper Chase" dance, one he used during his junior year at N.C. State. Chubb, Gregory and Browning must pressure quarterback Davis Mills. He's sound mechanically, but can be forced into mistakes. The Colts posted two sacks last week. Denver's goal should be to top that number.
The Broncos put themselves in a vulnerable position with seven first-half penalties, part of 12 overall. It goes back to the adage, play with emotion, but don't be emotional. The Broncos committed silly mistakes that extended drives. Those vanished in the second half when Denver held Seattle to five first downs. Time to channel the energy in a positive direction from jump.
Talk, talk, talk
There were predictable missed assignments, an accepted, for me anyway, consequence of the starters not playing in the preseason. For argument's sake, the Seattle game will be a viewed as a disappointing mulligan. The communication must be tightened up. The expected return of linebacker Josey Jewell should help, and a second game together for the offensive line to experience Wilson's audibles will accelerate their development.
Don't run from the truth
The Texans want to run the ball. They produced only four rushing first downs in the opener. Dameon Pierce and Rex Burkhead combined for 73 yards on 25 carries. Slowing Pierce is the key to making the Texans one dimensional, leading to third-and-long passing downs with the crowd at full throat.
Special Teams improvement
Excluding the 64-yard field goal miss because of the statistical improbability of making it, the special teams still had issues. Montrell Washington played like a rookie making his debut, averaging 3 yards on punt returns and 17 yards on kick returns. The Broncos countered by yielding 26 yards on kick returns and Corliss Waitman's one punt went 36 yards. Again, significant improvement is needed across the board. This is a get-right game in a near must-win situation.
RENCK'S PREDICTION: Broncos 30, Texans 17