DENVER — The Broncos' biggest test of the season is almost here.
On Sunday, the undefeated Broncos will welcome the Ravens to Empower Field at Mile High — and over the course of 60 minutes, they'll have a chance to prove themselves to the NFL.
"We have a great team coming up this week," Von Miller said this week. "It's really like a playoff game early in the season."
After a week of national debate about the strength of the Broncos' 3-0 start, they'll have the chance to silence the doubters.
Against a 2-1 Ravens team that has already taken out the two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs, that won't come without a fight. Lamar Jackson is one of the premier players in the league, and the Ravens traditionally have one of the league's top defenses.
A win, though, would push the Broncos to 4-0 for the first time since 2016 and solidify this Denver team as an AFC contender.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can earn their biggest win in years:
CAN THE BRONCOS SLOW DOWN LAMAR JACKSON?
Lamar Jackson's stats are hard to believe. The 2019 NFL MVP leads the NFL in both yards per carry and yards per completion. He paces the best rushing attack in the NFL, one that can tie an NFL record for the most consecutive 100-yard games if it hits the mark on Sunday. He's scored at least one touchdown in 39 consecutive games — the fifth-longest streak in NFL history — and Baltimore has topped 14 points in 46 straight contests.
"He can run, he can throw, he can do all types of stuff," Von Miller said Thursday. "He can shake guys in the hole and outside the hole. If you get him in space, it's a nightmare for anybody. You could be [S] Justin Simmons and it's a nightmare to tackle that guy. It's going to be a tough test for us. They have a tough team. They pride themselves on being physical and being a run-first team. We have to match them. We have to come out there, play our style of football and just take it one play at a time."
Jackson did not practice Wednesday or Thursday, but he returned to the field as a full participant on Friday — and he won't be easy to stop. Denver's best hope will be to force the Ravens into third-and-long situations and hope their third-ranked passing defense is up for the challenge. The Ravens have struggled this season on third down, as they ranks 30th in the league in conversions after the first three weeks. On third-and-long, they've been even less successful — and it could be a path to victory for Denver.
CAN THE DENVER DEFENSE WIN IN THE RED ZONE?
Since Fangio arrived in Denver, no team has been better than the Broncos in the red zone. Last year, the Broncos became the first team in at least 25 years to lead the league in red-zone defense in back-to-back seasons. And through three games in 2021, the Broncos are again No. 1 in the league. The sample size is limited — Denver has allowed just three red-zone trips and none over the last two games — but the Broncos seem to have a knack for bending without breaking on the defensive side.
"[It's] just the players playing good down there," Fangio said of the team's red-zone success. "Anything you do good in this league is due to players playing good. They've certainly done a good job down there in the past. We haven't had as many opportunities down there in the first three games as we normally have, but the Ravens get down there. They present a lot of problems."
The Broncos must again be excellent in Week 4, as the Ravens have the league's third-best red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 87.5 percent of their attempts. In a matchup of strength vs. strength, the Broncos could tilt the game if its defense can earn the edge.
CAN TEDDY BRIDGEWATER CONTINUE TO THRIVE AGAINST THE BLITZ?
Through three games, Bridgewater has been among the league's best passers against the blitz. When teams bring an extra rusher, Bridgewater has completed 19-of-22 passes for 236 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 150.9 quarterback rating, according to Stats Inc. That passer rating ranks second in the NFL, and Bridgewater will need to be up to the task again this weekend. The Ravens have blitzed the eighth-most times this season, and they're traditionally among the teams that bring the most pressure year after year. If Bridgewater can stand in the pocket and deliver, Denver should have a chance to put up points. There will be other key focus areas — including whether Denver can convert on third down and score in the red zone — but the offense's performance may rest on whether Bridgewater can make big-time throws against pressure.
"He's got a good feel for pre-snap where it might be coming from," Fangio said. "If he doesn't, he has an innate ability to react to what might surprise him, and he's calm. He doesn't rush his decisions. He's calm under duress and that pays off."
HOW WILL THE BRONCOS' OFFENSIVE LINE FARE?
The Broncos will start at least one reserve offensive lineman, as Netane Muti will make his second start of the season in place of Graham Glasgow. Denver could also be without Dalton Risner, who is listed as questionable for the matchup. And while the Ravens won't have former Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe available on Sunday, their defensive front remains imposing. Nose tackle Brandon Williams returns from the Reserve/COVID-19 list to help Calais Campbell fortify a defense that ranks ninth against the run prior to Week 4, and pass rusher Justin Houston will aid a pass rush that ranks in the bottom 10 in sacks this season.
Muti — and perhaps Meinerz — will need to be stout in pass protection to help Bridgewater, but the new-look offensive line must also help the Broncos gain yards on the ground when needed.
"The Ravens historically are very tough to run on," Fangio said Monday. "They have big defensive linemen, and they have good players. Their scheme is hard to run on at times, but we're going to have to find a way to grind some yards out of there."
HOW WILL DENVER HANDLE A CLOSE GAME?
The Broncos have cruised through the first three weeks of the season and have not faced a second-half deficit this year. There's no guarantee Denver will trail on Sunday, but it's likely they'll be in a closer game than the previous three weeks. If that's the case, it will be telling to see how the Broncos respond. Can the Broncos' defense come up with a big stop in crunch time? Can Bridgewater and Co. move the ball for needed points in the fourth quarter? Against a team like the Ravens, every possession will be critical — and the Broncos will need to make the most of them.
"I'm confident in our guys to be able to play winning football in any situation," Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "You have to try to win games, and you have to do it with the players that are available. I think as we go along here and we continue to improve, that's going to come up. I think all teams you play are good. There are just some games where you're ahead at the end, there's some games when you're behind, and there's some games when they're really close. You have to try to find a way to win and all those situations."