ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Moments after his first draft, a question arrived in general manager George Paton's press conference.
Are you confident Teddy Bridgewater can lead the offense to 25 points per game?
Paton answered without hesitation that he could. In full transparency, it was my inquiry. I have maintained for the last few years that any chance of the Broncos contending rests on a functional offense. Trying to be the outlier has left the Broncos out of the postseason for five seasons and counting.
Denver has not averaged 21 points a game since Peyton Manning retired. Some of the years involved a lack of talent. That is no longer the case. And Paton demonstrated as much by securing Courtland Sutton ($34.9 million guaranteed) and Tim Patrick ($18.5 million guaranteed) to contracts this week. Such an investment is not made without believing their best football is ahead, which is an indictment, in my opinion, of the current scheme.
This brings us to Sunday. The Broncos sit alone in last place in the AFC West after the Raiders' victory on Thanksgiving. But they can do something about it. Five of Denver's final seven games are in the AFC West. Win four of five in division, and the Broncos likely reach the postseason. Anything less, and get the eeyore memes ready.
So what are the keys to the game? Glad you asked.
Ground, pound, ground again
I don't want to hear about how the Chargers have improved their rush defense the past two weeks. The Vikings eclipsed 100 yards, and the Steelers don't even pretend to run the ball unless they play the Broncos.
The Chargers yield 145.1 rushing yards per game, worst in the league, 4.7 yards per carry, second worst, and 13 touchdowns, third worst.
Rookie Javonte Williams leads all backs in yards among non-starters with 514. Might be time to feed the young kid like he's starving on Thanksgiving.
The Broncos remain red-faced in the red zone. They convert at a 50% touchdown rate, which ranks 29th. That's unacceptable, and worse than last season when they ranked 27th at 53%. Part of the issue is that Denver is dreadful inside the 10-yard line.
I say it every week to no avail. The Broncos require more creativity offensively. They need more motion, they need to use at least one trick play per game. They need to mix in uptempo concepts to help Teddy Bridgewater and protect him from Joey Bosa, who will going against backup tackles Calvin Anderson and Cam Fleming. They need variance. Anything to provide a jolt for an offense that averages 17 points per game at home.
Of the three standout receivers — Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy — one needs a big game. As my friend Nick Kosmider of The Athletic points out, the Broncos have yet to use Sutton when Jeudy plays. Jeudy and Sutton have appeared in four games together this season. In those games, Sutton had five catches for 83 yards. The Broncos are not paying him $34.9 million in guaranteed money to serve as a decoy. Figure it out. Like yesterday.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is becoming a star before our eyes. I was so wrong on him. You can listen to my Broncos Podcast with Troy Renck to hear why. But ultimately, he's more assertive than I thought and, for my money, a bigger, stronger version of Trevor Lawrence. He's not a dual threat, running more against man coverage. So that should not be an issue for the Broncos. Looking at when Herbert has struggled, the key is pressure from corners, pressure from unpredictable places. Broncos coach Vic Fangio has to be more aggressive even with rookie safety Caden Sterns expected to start in place of veteran stalwart Kareem Jackson (neck). The offense is not scoring enough points to beat a good team without takeaways.
Get Chubb Back
Pro Bowl outside linebacker Bradley Chubb was trending toward playing in his first game since the ankle pain became unbearable on the 19th play against Jacksonville in Week 2. However, Friday brought less optimism, no sense he was still moving forward. The Broncos must decide by Saturday whether to activate him off IR. They could and still make him a game-time decision.
Chubb's latest ankle injury led to the removal of bone spurs in September, mirroring the procedure on his opposite ankle before training camp. This has been a lost season for Chubb. But the Broncos are way better when he's on the field, especially against the run, and finishing strong is paramount, even if that means 20-to-30 snaps this week. But there's no guarantee he plays.
Special teams reversal
The Chargers special teams vary from inconsistent to awful. How about for a change of pace, the Broncos let somebody else ruin the game in the margins. In seven of 10 weeks, the Broncos have made a glaring mistake. Do that again Sunday, and it will likely be in a loss. Listen, the Broncos are in the mix. I want to be optimistic, but I can't trust this Denver team. I hope they prove me wrong. It would make a great story if they follow this current 2-5 stretch with a 5-2 finish.
Troy's Prediction: Chargers 24, Broncos 20