ENGLEWOOD -- Wednesday morning at UCHealth Training Center, fall arrived. A rub-hands-together wind circled the facility, a reminder of the advancing schedule.
Uncertainty surrounded the NFL three months ago, with real questions on whether the season would be played. The league has marched on, clumsily at times as it navigates COVID-19 positive tests, rescheduling eight games last weekend alone.
The Broncos had three games switched, creating a lost bye week, and a matchup with the Patriots this Sunday. It works against Denver, with quarterback Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore in line to play.
"I would rather go in to Foxborough and beat Cam Newton and Gilmore than go in there and not beat Cam Newton and Gilmore and be coming home with the Patriots able to say, 'Well, what if we had all our players, then what would have happened?" left guard Dalton Risner explained to me, choosing to embrace the challenge.
There is one clear advantage for the Broncos when widening the viewing lens. It adds another line to Drew Lock's resume. He is moving well in practice and showing good velocity on passes as he rebounds from a strained right rotator cuff. He will start even if coach Vic Fangio insists on not announcing it before the Broncos' first drive Sunday.
How Lock plays, and, more importantly, develops has emerged as my central theme for the remainder of the season.
Entering Week 6, we figured to have a better read on Lock after his 4-1 cameo a year ago. He has only played five quarters. Getting him on the field, and keeping him there, has never been more important — not only for the team's success, but its future.
When the season ends, the Broncos must know whether Lock is the man moving forward. No ambiguity. No maybes.
And there are a confluence of reasons why:
First, the Broncos could end up with a top 10 draft pick. The temptation to take a quarterback could exist with Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Trey Lance available. It won't if Lock plays well, and proves he's not keeping the seat warm for the 10th starter since Peyton Manning retired.
Secondly, have you watched the AFC West this season? One of the easiest ways to forecast a team's stock is to compare quarterback play in the division. As it stands, the Broncos rank last with a thud.
Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes will be in the MVP conversation for the next decade. He has already won the trophy once and a Super Bowl MVP award. And remember, the Broncos have not beaten the Chiefs since Manning retired, dropping nine straight. They were blitzed last season.
Las Vegas' Derek Carr is forcing critics to bite their tongues. He led an upset of Mahomes last weekend, and is enjoying a renaissance with 11 touchdowns, one interception and a career-high 8.2 yards per attempt.
And Los Angles rookie Justin Herbert has widened eyes with his play. He is winless in four starts, but that's not his fault. He has thrown for 1,195 yards, nine scores and three picks. Chargers cornerback Chris Harris Jr. told me, "He's real nice. I knew from day one. He's a quiet guy, just a kid. But in practice all he does is throw great balls."
Which brings us to the Broncos. Their three starters — Lock, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien — have thrown six touchdowns with six interceptions. Denver ranks 27th in net passing yards at 214.3.
Listen, the Broncos are not climbing any ladder rungs in the league if they have the worst quarterback play in their own division. By season's end, it would be nice to fashion an argument for Lock ranking second. He might not get there, but he must be in the discussion. If he's obviously not, that becomes a chilling concern.
Lock has shown brilliance, especially against Houston last season. If he recalibrates on the deep strikes in this offense, he will be a valuable core player going forward. But if he gets hurt again — saddling him the label as injury prone — or underwhelms, it will force a sobering look in the mirror. Is Lock the quarterback for now and now on? If not, will that lead to more sweeping changes with the front office, coach and coordinators?
A playoff berth is a stretch. It will likely require an 8-4 record over the final 12 weeks. That is a longshot to be earned. But much can still be gleaned: namely, answers on Drew Lock.
Tight end Noah Fant is questionable to play, but is trending in the right direction with his high ankle sprain. ...
Fangio said it's doubtful that cornerback A.J. Bouye (shoulder) returns from IR and plays this week. ...
Left tackle Garett Bolles missed part of practice, but returned after tending to a minor family matter. Bolles has been the Broncos' best offensive lineman this season. "Had a tough offseason? A tough three years. He has cleaned up his game. Very few people supported him. He's showing everybody that talked badly about him. There's no one I want to succeed on our team more than Garett," said left guard Dalton Risner. ...
Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore are in line to face the Broncos this Sunday. ...