ENGLEWOOD — The Broncos achieved all their goals this offseason — acquiring Russell Wilson in a blockbuster trade, signing free agents Randy Gregory and D.J. Jones and landing new owners, the Walton-Penner group, with deep pockets and a thirst for doing things the right way.
Now, all they have to do is win. For everything that has gone well over the past six months, the reality of the NFL remains sobering. The standings matter over everything else.
The Broncos begin their road to redemption on Monday night in Seattle in the franchise's most anticipated opener since Peyton Manning's debut in 2012. The Broncos are relevant again, but that will change if they don't end their streak of five straight losing seasons and six years without a playoff berth.
While the glare is on Wilson on Monday, understandably so, the outcome could be rooted in the ground. The team that runs best will likely win, and both feature strong rushing attacks.
The Broncos boast Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon, arguably the best tandem in the league. Thunder and Thunder, as they prefer when nicknames are brought up, combined for 1,821 yards on 406 carries for 12 touchdowns last season. The 4.5 clip turned heads, and is a baseline figure for this season.
"I hope we come out there and light it up," Gordon said. "We need that as a team and we want to do it for (Wilson), too."
Of questions surrounding the Broncos, Wilson ranks near the bottom. He is 19-4 in primetime games in Seattle. He has a history of playing his best under the brightest lights. And while no one questions the ability of Williams and Gordon, the Broncos' transition to an outside zone run scheme creates pause. Denver did not run the ball well in the preseason with backups. However, the starters have shown promise in practices and in the joint workout against the Cowboys.
Nothing quiets a crowd more than a soul-snatching run game.
"We are going to do what we do. We are talented. We were born to run the ball, that's just what it is," Gordon said.
Added Williams, "I feel like everything is the same. Outside zone — it’s just running the ball and making the cuts. I feel like people try to make it more complex than it is at times, but it’s still just playing football.”
The Seahawks allowed 113.6 rushing yards per game last season, ranking 17th in the league. They added defensive end Shelby Harris, the Broncos' popular veteran.
Denver ranked 15th against the run (111.3 yards per game), but it was deceiving. The Broncos could not get off the field against the Browns, Eagles and Raiders in crushing losses.
Seattle presents a challenge with Rashaad Penny. He found his stride at the end of last season. The former San Diego State star delivered 135-plus yards and a rushing touchdown in four of his final five games. He aims to join Hall of Famers Jim Brown (1958) and O.J. Simpson (1976) and former standout Adrian Peterson (2012) as the only players to post 150-plus rushing yards and a rushing score in three straight games.
The addition of nose guard D.J. Jones remains central to the Broncos' success. He is an elite run stuffer, and should help solidify the Broncos middle along with Dre'Mont Jones and reserve nose guard Mike Purcell.
Seattle will focus on protecting the ball, limiting the exposure of quarterback Geno Smith on dangerous throws. How they run will likely determine if they have any chance to win.
It all starts with Penny.
"First and foremost, we have to be able to tackle him. He shows that throughout all his past that he can break tackles. You have to be sure you get two hands on him and wrap them up. For him, it's just about containing and understanding that we're going to have to make some good tackles on him, because he's got a great stiff arm," Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said.
"He's a downhill runner, and he's got a little shift to him. He's a really good player.”