DENVER --The Broncos have little choice but to take their games as they come -- especially for a 15-day stretch of autumn that, as a whole, represents what Robert Frost would have called the point where "two roads diverge in a yellow wood."
The Broncos would prefer the smooth trail. But the 49ers, Chargers and Patriots offer the potential for a bumpy ride. And if the Broncos look ahead, they set themselves up for failure. The rival Chargers co-leaders visit just 96 hours after the 49ers take the field, but the Broncos can't get caught with even a passing glance at the AFC West co-leaders.
"They're going to have all our focus and when it's time to focus on San Diego, we'll focus on them and when it's time to focus on New England, we'll focus on them," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "For right now, we're focused on San Francisco."
A demanding stretch of games is nothing new to the Broncos, who opened with the Colts, Chiefs, Seahawks and Cardinals. That quartet finished a collective 45-19 last year, and all remain viable playoff contenders this season.
But cornerback Chris Harris Jr. insists that what looms now is is different from that quartet of games, in which the Broncos went 3-1.
"No, I don't think we've been through the gauntlet yet," Harris said. "I think this stretch right here is the gauntlet -- especially because we've got two games in a short period of time. And then you've got to go to the road to New England. I would say this stretch right here is the 'gauntlet stretch.'"
Surviving the first third of the gauntlet could rest on success in the three keys.
1. CONTAIN COLIN KAEPERNICK.
The Broncos' basic strategy will be two-fold use their defensive line to put the 49ers' quarterback under duress, and then make sure that their linebackers and safeties can prevent Kaepernick's explosive runs to the outside, while not sacrificing coverage responsibilities and leaving open receivers downfield.
This is a difficult, delicate balancing act. The ability to generate pressure up front could be aided by the absence of 49ers guard Mike Iupati and the potential deactivation of right tackle Anthony Davis, who is questionable with knee and ankle injuries and was limited in practice.
But on the flip side, the Broncos' linebackers must corral Kaepernick without Danny Trevathan, who will be out until at least Week 15 after being placed on recallable injured reserve. Nickel linebackers Brandon Marshall and Corey Nelson did well keeping the Jets' Geno Smith confined last week, and will need to do so again while dealing with targets like Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis underneath.
"The good thing is we'll have our pass rushers there, we'll have our fast guys in and (Kaepernick) will ll get his yards here and there," Knighton said. "It's hard to stop scrambling quarterbacks in this league, especially the guy that has the ability to throw down the field."
- PROTECT PEYTON MANNING.**
As was the case last week, the pressure the 49ers mount will originate from 3-4 defensive ends working in five-technique or under-tackle type roles. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are one of the league's most effective power pass-rushing tandems, and their pressure forces a quick disintegration of the pass pocket and allows the 49ers to withstand the suspension of edge rusher Aldon Smith.
The Broncos had trouble containing the Jets' pass rushers last week, and both of the sacks they allowed came from three-man rushes. Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase attributed them to "communication errors" that are "very correctable."
"This group is pretty tough on themselves," Gase said of the offensive line. "I mean they know if they have a mistake, they're accountable. They make sure -- you don't even have to say anything. They're going to tell you, 'Hey, I need to do this.' This group really takes command of their own room and makes sure that they're held accountable with each other."
3. MAINTAIN CONTROL OF THE GAME'S TEMPO.
Beyond Kaepernick, the 49ers are capable of mounting lengthy, clock-chewing possessions powered by running back Frank Gore, who passed the 10,000-yard milestone earlier this season and posted consecutive 100-yard games against the Eagles and Chiefs before mustering just 38 yards on 16 carries in St. Louis last week.
Anquan Boldin is also crucial to the 49ers' ability to grind out long possessions, and has moved the sticks on 46.7 percent of the 45 times Kaepernick targeted him this year.
"People said he couldn't run, he couldn't do this, he couldn't do that. He's been a pretty good pro for a number of year," said Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio. "We know him well. He's an ultracompetitive guy (and a) tough guy; I love the way he plays."