As the Broncos head into the final quarter of their season, there's still plenty to prove — both as a team and as individuals.
"I'm just looking at this game, and they're all opportunities for us to go out and win a game, which I think is first and foremost — and two, for our players to keep improving," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Friday. "We've had a lot of players keep improving this year, especially the young ones, and we'd like for that to continue. It will be valuable experience for them heading into next year. I think of a guy like [C Lloyd] Cushenberry [III] at center who played well last week. He's slowly but surely every week been getting a little bit better. Those are the things we'd like to see with all of our players and the entire team, and if we do that enough, we'll get some wins here."
In Week 14, the Broncos will travel to Carolina to take on the 4-8 Panthers and try to stage a late-season rally to avoid another losing season.
These are the questions that will determine if Denver can build off a close loss to Kansas City and snap a two-game skid:
CAN THE BRONCOS CONTINUE TO FIND RED-ZONE SUCCESS?
On Wednesday, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule suggested the game would be decided when the Panthers' offense is in the red zone against the Broncos' defense. If that's the case, the numbers suggest the Broncos would hold an edge.
Denver's defense ranks second in red-zone defense this season and held the Chiefs without a touchdown in four red-zone trips last week. They also held them to three field goals in their goal-to-go situations, including a pair of plays from the 1-yard line.
Carolina's red-zone offense, meanwhile, is tied for 24th in the league as they've scored touchdowns on just 55 percent of their trips.
Of course, the Broncos must do more than be proficient defensively. They must also find a way to continue their offensive red-zone success from Week 13. While Denver remains 28th in the league in red-zone percentage with touchdowns on just 51.6 percent of their trips, they did go 2-for-2 against Kansas City.
"Any time you can get more reps and players work together — coaches and players work together — you should improve, and we have improved in that area," Fangio said Thursday. "We started off the year poorly in that area, and we had a stretch where we were pretty damn good down there and then we had a low little bit and then a good night the other night. So, hopefully we can find our footing down there and continue to score in the red zone. It's critical that when you're down there to get the seven and not settle for three."
The Panthers' red-zone defense also ranks in the top half of the league, as they've featured the 12th-best unit in that category. If Denver can maintain its success inside either 20-yard line, the Broncos should be able to earn their third road win of the season.
HOW DOES A NEW-LOOK SECONDARY HOLD UP?
Three weeks ago against the Dolphins, the Broncos' secondary of A.J. Bouye, Bryce Callahan, Essang Bassey, Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson shut down Tua Tagavailoa en route to a 20-13 win. This week in Carolina, only Simmons and Jackson will remain on the field. The Broncos lost Callahan and Bassey to IR, and Bouye will begin serving a six-game suspension in Week 14.
In their place, the Broncos will likely turn to some combination of Michael Ojemudia, De'Vante Bausby, Kevin Toliver II, Duke Dawson Jr., Will Parks and Alijah Holder. Ojemudia, a 2020 third-round pick, played all 64 snaps against the Chiefs in Callahan's absence after not taking a defensive snap in Week 10 or 11, and his play will be critical.
"I thought he played pretty damn well the other night, and I hope he can continue that," Fangio said Friday. "I see a little bit more confidence in him right now. I do think the couple of weeks where he didn't play or played sparingly kind of helped him a little bit potentially. Again, he's another one of the young players I'd like to see really come alive and play good and keep improving in this last month of the season."
Parks, whom the Broncos claimed off waivers ahead of Week 13, could be an option to replace Bassey in the slot after returning to practice this week. He'll also be featured heavily on special teams.
"He's done well," Fangio said. "Obviously, the first day on Wednesday it was a little rushed there. Yeah, he knew what we were doing, he kind of remembered it, but what hadn't been ingrained — he hadn't been here since last year. So, I think he went out yesterday and did better, and hopefully we'll see some more improvement today. He'll be suited up and we're confident to play him if we need to."
The Panthers' receiving options may be a little thinner than normal with Christian McCaffrey doubtful to play and D.J. Moore remaining on the Reserve/COVID-19 list as of Friday, but Curtis Samuel may return for Carolina. No matter who lines up at receiver, Denver's secondary must avoid giving up big plays like it did in a Week 9 loss to Atlanta that both Bouye and Callahan missed.
WILL DREW LOCK PLAY A CLEAN GAME?
For much of Denver's Week 13 loss, the Broncos' second-year quarterback played clean football that complemented the team's successful running game. Lock started 5-of-5 on third down and the Broncos converted four of their first seven third downs on which Lock either threw or carried the ball. He led the Broncos on five drives of at least seven plays during the game, including a 72-yard, 11-play touchdown drive to take the lead late in the third quarter.
Lock, though, couldn't bring the Broncos back from a fourth-quarter deficit as he was 0-of-3 on third down in the quarter and threw an interception on Denver's last offensive snap of the game. Lock also threw an interception on the team's first offensive series, and his season total had grown to 13 interceptions by the end of the game. Lock has thrown all 13 over his last seven games and has not gone without a turnover since the season opener against Tennessee.
If Denver is going to beat Carolina on the road, Lock must finally realize his goal of protecting the football — and there's reason to believe that could happen. Carolina has intercepted just five passes this season, which ranks only ahead of Philadelphia's and Houston's three interceptions.