ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos first noticed the difference in the training camp following Peyton Manning's retirement. The candidates to start were Mark Sanchez, acquired from Philadelphia, and Trevor Siemian, who had two snaps of NFL experience. There were no obvious answers, only crossed fingers.
In the fourth season since Manning left the building, the Broncos will feature their sixth starter, a dizzying carousel that includes Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco and, for this week, Brandon Allen. Only Siemian owns a winning record (13-11). Allen brings mobility, energy and a chance to provide a lightning bolt to an acoustic offense.
When Von Miller considers Allen, he thinks of the pixie dust he witnessed in September.
"It's pro football. Quarterbacks, they break out every year. Everybody here has talent. It doesn't matter if they are first, second or third string. They have been the man at some point," All-Pro linebacker Von Miller said. "They just have to harness it. Gardner Minshew, nobody knew he was going to have the type of year he's having. He got a chance and took advantage of it. I am hoping for some of the same magic to happen for Brandon."
Allen orchestrating a game-winning drive, even sans a mustache, would bring joy to a frustrated fan base -- the Broncos are 14-26 over the last 40 games, their worst 2 1/2-year stretch since 1970-72 -- that has alternated between angry and demoralized in recent weeks. However, if the Broncos win, it likely won't be because of Allen.
As has too often been the case since 2016, the outcome will hang on the defense. The Broncos boast a 2-6 record, losing three games in the final seconds. However, the defense, after a clunky start, has meshed under first-year coach Vic Fangio. The Broncos rank 8th in points allowed at 18.9, and sit in the top five in many passing categories.
That bodes well when facing Baker Mayfield (pictured), who has plummeted from grace with a thud in his sophomore season. He has thrown six touchdowns with 12 interceptions. The Browns have allowed sacks, and Mayfield has been awful when scrambling to his right this season, showing a tendency to hold onto the ball longer while struggling with his accuracy.
"The mindset is that we have to put ourselves in position to win. If we play great defense at home, give our offense a short field, the chances of winning this game skyrocket," said safety Justin Simmons, who praised Cleveland's receivers, including Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. "As a defense we know we can knock the game out of the park if we just play and execute the way we are capable of. It's about us as a defense being the tone-setters we want to be."
Cleveland watches film. The Browns realize that their best chance to win on the road, reviving as season flattened in disappointment, is to run the ball. Nick Chubb has been the team's best offensive player. The running back, who is related to Broncos outside linebacker Bradley Chubb, ranks third in the NFL with 738 yards rushing. The Broncos yield 109.8 on the ground per game.
"We know we are going to have to stop the run," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said.
It speaks to how quickly things change in the NFL. A year ago, Mayfield arrived with hype, and upset the Broncos. This Sunday, the Broncos, without saying it, would likely welcome the ball in Mayfield's hands with the game on the line.
"I don't know what it is. I really don't. It's the same offense," said Miller of Mayfield, who walked out his weekly press conference this week after what he deemed an awful question. "(Mayfield) had so much success last year. He has better weapons this year with Odell, Jarvis (Landry), and Ricky Seals-Jones. I don’t know what it is. I really don’t. I don’t want to find out. I really don’t want to find out. I just want to go in there, play our game and do the best we can possibly do."
Joe Flacco's pointed criticism of the Broncos' fourth-quarter play-calling centered on offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello and coach Vic Fangio. Flacco found the conservative approach unfair if the team was going to win. Scangarello spoke Thursday for the first time since Flacco's comments. I asked him for his reaction.
“You’d have to ask what Joe meant behind that comment, but when I see Joe’s comments, I just saw a quarterback that had lost a game and he was very frustrated with how it went. We’ve lost a couple of heartbreakers. He’s a competitor and that stuff bothers him, whatever it might be, and I think in that moment something he said came out, but it’s nothing more than that," Scangarello said. "He’s in the building, he’s great and everything is good.”
Right tackle Ja'Wuan James (left knee) did not practice, and appears unlikely to play Sunday. ... Jeff Heuerman (knee) is also not expected to play.