DENVER — After a big road win against the Carolina Panthers, the Broncos return home to Empower Field at Mile High to see if they can back up that performance against stronger competition.
With a win, the Bills would clinch the AFC East for the first time since 1995, and Josh Allen and Co. are fresh off a prime-time win over the previously top-seeded Steelers.
Allen isn't the only talented young quarterback in this matchup, though, as Drew Lock won FedEx Air Player of the Week honors after a four-touchdown day in Carolina. It's clear Lock's development is still in progress, but he'll have a chance Saturday to prove he's on the path to performing like Allen, a dark-horse MVP candidate who has made a big jump in 2020.
This matchup is about more than those two players, and the Broncos will need strong performances from their entire roster to beat the Bills and complete a 2020 sweep of the AFC East.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can continue a late-season surge.
CAN A BEATEN-UP DENVER SECONDARY CONTAIN THE BUFFALO PASSING GAME?
The Broncos' passing defense struggled late in the team's Week 14 win over the Panthers, as Teddy Bridgewater completed 12-of-14 passes for 129 yards and a 105.1 quarterback rating in the fourth quarter. Carolina scored 17 points in the final frame, and the Panthers' success largely came through the air, as Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel combined for eight catches in the fourth. Denver had success early against the Panthers' passing attack, holding Bridgewater to just 62 passing yards in the first half, but the Broncos can't afford to let the Bills throw the ball at will.
The issue? Buffalo's passing attack is far more potent than the one Denver saw in Carolina. The Bills ranked third in passing offense entering Week 15, and Allen has completed more than 68 percent of his passes as he's earned a 28-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Allen has also added six rushing touchdowns on the season.
"He's having a hell of a season," Head Coach Vic Fangio said this week. "He's a big, strong guy who can run. He's tough to tackle in the pocket and he's tough to tackle when he breaks out of the pocket. They have some designed runs for him. He's seeing the field very well and throwing it very well. The guy has really emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the league, and I can remember when people were saying there wasn't enough good quarterbacks for the league and it seems like we're playing a good one every week, so I think that's disappeared."
Of course, the Bills' ninth-ranked scoring offense relies on more than Allen's arm. Stefon Diggs ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,167 and leads the NFL in receptions with 100. Cole Beasley isn't far behind, as the dangerous slot receiver has 71 catches for 838 yards and four touchdowns. The Broncos' injury issues on the back end of the defense only complicate matters. Denver lost Duke Dawson Jr. and Kevin Toliver II against the Panthers, and the team was already without Bryce Callahan, A.J. Bouye and Essang Bassey. If De'Vante Bausby, Michael Ojemudia or Will Parks can't play a full game, the Broncos will be hard-pressed to find a substitute.
Perhaps the Broncos' best hope against the Bills' passing attack is similar to how Denver held up against Kansas City: avoid giving up the back-breaking play and hold the opponent to field goals in the red zone. If Bradley Chubb — drafted two spots ahead of Allen in 2018 — can get to the quarterback, that'd be of great assistance, too.
CAN DREW LOCK REPLICATE HIS SUCCESS FROM WEEK 14?
Did something click for Lock against the Panthers? If so, Denver may have a much better chance of upsetting the 10-3 Bills than the national media would have you believe. In Carolina, Lock posted the third-highest single-game passer rating in franchise history as he completed 21-of-27 passes for 280 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. The most encouraging sign was that Lock avoided risky throws, stayed patient and took what the defense gave him in terms of short passes and check-down throws. Then, when he'd lulled the defense to sleep, he took advantage of deep opportunities to KJ Hamler to help the Broncos score.
Last week's win over the Panthers wasn't an isolated incident, either. Since he started 0-for-6 against the Dolphins on the heels of a four-interception game vs. Las Vegas, Lock has completed 54-of-79 passes for 701 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions and a 110.8 passer rating. That's winning football — and the return of Noah Fant should only help improve those numbers.
The Bills could challenge Lock with an opportunistic mentality that has helped Buffalo record the fourth-most takeaways in the NFL. Avoid those mistakes, and it's possible to find success against their 19th-ranked passing defense and 15th-ranked scoring defense. If Lock turns the ball over, though, the Broncos' chances may plummet. The emergence of Allen and the Bills' offense almost certainly ensures that.
CAN DENVER MAKE ANOTHER GAME-CHANGING SPECIAL TEAMS PLAY?
In Week 14, Diontae Spencer scored the first touchdown of his career as he returned a punt 83 yards for a score. The Broncos may need another big play to shift the game in their favor. That could be possible, as the Bills allow an average of 9.3 yards per punt return. The Bills, though, are equally impressive in their own return game. They rank fourth in punt-return average and second in kick-return average. The Broncos have allowed some big plays this season, and they'll need to make sure they don't give Allen and the Bills free yardage.
Then, of course, there's the matter of the kicking game. Brandon McManus had missed just two field goals all season, but he is not expected to play Saturday as he remains on the team's Reserve/COVID-19. In his place, Taylor Russolino is expected to make his NFL debut. Fangio said Thursday that if Russolino kicked on Saturday the way he did during Wednesday's practice, the team would be fine. That's a big if, though, particularly in a high-pressure environment.
Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon said Russolino's range extends beyond 50 yards, and the former XFL player made a 58-yarder during a game for the St. Louis BattleHawks. It will be interesting to watch, though, whether Vic Fangio chooses to go for any fourth-down situations in which he would normally opt for a field goal. And, if the game is close late, it's also entirely possible that the Broncos' Week 15 game could come down to Russolino's right foot.