INDIANAPOLIS — Perhaps the Colts are a model for these 2019 Denver Broncos.
A year ago, Indianapolis started 1-5 under first-year head coach Frank Reich, and they appeared to have little shot at a playoff berth.
Three months later, the Colts walked off the field in Houston with a playoff win. The Colts, much like the Broncos in 2019, suffered a slew of close losses early in the season. They lost three one-possession games, including an overtime loss to Houston. But then they turned the corner — and they promptly won nine of their next 10 games.
The Broncos, meanwhile, also have three one-possession losses. A win over the Colts, though, would keep the Broncos on pace to be 4-5 before their Week 10 bye. If they can do that, they should be squarely in the wild-card hunt — and potentially the division race — entering November. A win over the Colts would also mean that after starting the season 0-4, they went 3-1 over the second quarter of the season. The hole the Broncos dug themselves won't be gone, but the improvement will be clear.
As the Broncos prepare for a game at Lucas Oil Stadium against the AFC South leaders, here are the key questions that will determine if Denver can get its third win of the season.
HOW WILL THE OFFENSE MOVE ON WITHOUT EMMANUEL SANDERS?
When Emmanuel Sanders tore his Achilles last December, the Broncos' offense sputtered in its final four games of the season. After breaking the 20-point mark in three consecutive wins in November, the Broncos averaged just 13.25 points per game in a four-game losing streak to conclude the year.
In Sanders' absence, then-rookie wide receiver Courtland Sutton saw his receiving numbers drop from his season averages. He recorded more than 40 receiving yards just twice and caught two or fewer passes on a pair of occasions.
After Sanders was traded to the 49ers on Tuesday, the Broncos will again adjust to an offense without the two-time Pro Bowler. This time, Denver will likely need more from Sutton, but they'll also hope for contributions from other players on the offense.
Sutton seems prepared to take on the challenge after taking a step forward in Year 2. He ranks sixth in the NFL in receiving yards through seven weeks and has nearly matched his touchdown total from his rookie season.
DaeSean Hamilton — a 2018 fourth-round pick — will be a part of a committee of receivers who will hopefully replace the rest of Sanders' production.
"I just [would] like to see a little more umph in his play," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Wednesday. "You know what I mean? Just a little more umph."
Hamilton has 11 catches for 106 yards this season.
Tight end Noah Fant, who expects to be available for Sunday's game after cutting his foot on Thursday, also factors into the situation. He has tallied 15 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown and will look to bounce back from a tough performance against Kansas City.
Of course, the offensive line also must cooperate. Ja'Wuan James is listed as questionable for Sunday's game, but it seems like a decent bet that he'll see his first playing time since Week 1. That should help the Broncos' line, which allowed eight sacks in Week 7. The blame, though, doesn't fall entirely on the offensive line.
"We have to block better, we have to get open, we have to make better reads and get the ball out quicker," Fangio said. "I know that sounds like a vanilla answer, but that's the truth."
If the Broncos are going to earn a win against the Colts, they'll need to adjust to life without Sanders more quickly and competently than they did during Sanders' last absence.
CAN VON MILLER GET 'SPICY'?
Von Miller entered the 2019 season with high expectations for what he could accomplish in Fangio's defense.
At least in the sack column, that has yet to materialize. Miller's 2.5 sacks are the fewest he's ever tallied through the first seven games of the season. That puts him on pace for the lowest season total of his career, with the exception of the 2013 season in which he played just nine games.
The Colts, meanwhile, have allowed just seven sacks all season, which is second best in the NFL.
"They're doing a good job of pass blocking and then the quarterback's hard to get down," Fangio said Thursday. "He's elusive [and a] big strong guy. He has shaken off some sacks and got away from sacks. It's a combination of good blocking and a quarterback being elusive and hard to get down."
If Miller take down quarterback Jacoby Brissett or record his first strip sack of the season, it should help limit an Indianapolis offense that ranks 15th in the NFL and averages 23.8 points per game.
It could be coming soon. On Thursday, Miller said he tends to play his best football as the football season continues and the calendar turns to November.
"I'm at peace and I'm just trying to play my best football and trying to put my best football forward," Miller said. "Around November is when I really turn it on, and I get spicy. I'm hoping the next couple of games will be good ones for me."
The Broncos are hoping Miller can get spicy a few days early for their late October showdown with the Colts.
CAN DENVER'S DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE CONTINUE?
Through seven weeks, the Broncos' defense is among the league's best. The unit ranks fourth in total defense and eighth in scoring defense. During the last three weeks, the Broncos' defense has allowed just two touchdowns and now ranks third in red-zone defense.
"Good play has been [number] one no matter what you're doing schematically," said Fangio when asked to explain the red-zone success. "Guys have a good feel for what we're trying to do down there, and we've done a good job of executing. We've played the run well down there when they have run it of late. We've made some plays in the passing game. It's just we've played good."
The Broncos, though, will face a balanced attack against the Colts. Indianapolis ranks 10th in rushing offense, and Brissett has the best passing touchdown per game rate in the league through seven weeks. He's thrown just three interceptions.
"He's done a solid job, I think," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said Tuesday. "He's definitely very underrated, he's making smart decisions and he doesn't beat them.I think as a quarterback that is the No. 1 thing you always want: Don't try to beat my own team. ... Try to put them in great situations to win, and that's what he does."
When the Broncos have been able to hold teams below 13 points, they are 2-0. When they allow more, they're 0-5. It's a tough ask each week to expect the defense to give up such a low point total, but it may be necessary against a team with a competent offense and a stingy defense.