A week after the Broncos' game against the Patriots was postponed twice — first until Monday and then until Week 6 — the Broncos are on the East Coast and appear poised to take on New England on Sunday.
When they do, they're likely to have Drew Lock back under center for the first time since he suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder in Week 6. Vic Fangio didn't officially declare Lock the starter, but he said the second-year player was "trending the right way" and the Broncos released Blake Bortles on Saturday, which may indicate they believe Lock is ready to return.
Lock's likely return will change how the matchup looks from a week ago, but that's not the only significant difference between playing the Patriots in Weeks 5 and 6.
These are the questions that will determine — after a lengthy wait — if the Broncos can earn a win in New England.
WHAT VERSION OF DREW LOCK WILL THE BRONCOS GET?
Presuming that Lock starts on Sunday — and it seems to be a safe assumption barring a setback — he'll take his first snaps since Sept. 20. We didn't see much of Lock in that game against the Steelers, as Lock manned the offense for just two series before suffering an injury.
The Broncos' chances of winning in New England may depend on which version of Lock they get. Against the Titans in Week 1, he struggled to connect on deep shots but generally made good decisions and nearly led the offense to a win against a talented Titans defense. Lock's stat line in that contest was marred by several drops, but he finished the game with a 95.0 quarterback rating. At his best, Lock has avoided pressure, delivered impressive deep strikes down the field, made smart decisions and scrambled for first downs when necessary. It's important to remember, though, that Lock is just seven starts into his professional career and has played only 72 game snaps in Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur's new offense. It may be unrealistic to expect Lock to be perfect in his first start back from injury, but the Broncos would clearly be well-served if he could offer the type of performance he showed against the Texans in Week 14 of the 2019 season.
Lock, at the very least, is a dynamic piece that should help the Broncos' offense if he's inserted back into the lineup. If he can turn in one of the better outings of his young career, Denver should be poised to be competitive against a talented New England defense that seems likely to welcome back Stephon Gilmore to the lineup.
HOW DO THE BRONCOS HANDLE CAM NEWTON?
A week ago, the Broncos seemed poised to face either Brian Hoyer or Jarrett Stidham. This week, it's a near certainty that Cam Newton will be back under center. With Newton, the Patriots' game plan almost certainly changes to rely on a more run-heavy attack. In each of his three starts, Newton has carried the ball at least nine times in each of his starts and he ranks second on the team in rushing yards through four games. Newton has been particularly dangerous near the end zone, as he's tallied four rushing touchdowns in three starts. As a team, the Patriots rank second in rushing offense through the first five weeks of the year.
"I think it starts with their offensive line," Fangio said of the Patriots' rushing attack. "Their offensive line has done a really good job of run blocking. They're physical, they execute their combination blocks very well and they're kind of an old-school team at times when they get into regular personnel with a fullback and a running back and they pound it straight ahead. They're very good at it. They have good diversity in the runs that they have from that formation and they try to be physical, establish a strong point and then run the ball towards that strong point. They're very good at it. Then you add into the dimension of when they go into the shotgun, and the quarterback-generated runs that Cam Newton can run adds another level to it. They've been running the ball very well, and I don't think it's an accident. I think they will continue to be a very good running team."
To combat the Patriots' rushing attack, the Broncos may have to dedicate more defenders to the box to slow Newton and Co. That will put pressure on a secondary that appears likely to remain without A.J. Bouye, but it may be the Broncos' best chance at defendingan offense that has averaged 29 points per game with Newton under center. The Broncos have the league's seventh-best rushing defense, per Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, so they should have a good chance to slow New England's rushing attack. If they're not able, though, the Patriots may have a chance to wear out the Broncos in the second half.
HOW WILL DENVER ADJUST WITHOUT TWO OF ITS BEST OFFENSIVE WEAPONS?
Denver has been without Courtland Sutton for most of the season, as he missed the team's Week 1 game against Tennessee and then suffered a torn ACL in the first half of the Broncos' Week 2 game. The team, though, will also be without its leading rusher and second-leading receiver as it heads to New England. Both Melvin Gordon III (illness) and Noah Fant (ankle) were downgraded to out on Saturday after being listed as questionable on Friday, and it's not a stretch to say the two players have been the Broncos' most consistent offensive weapons. Gordon posted his best game of the season with a 107-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Jets, and Fant made game-changing plays against the Titans and Steelers early in the season. The tight end has taken a predictable jump in his second season, but without him or Gordon in the lineup, the Broncos will have to turn to other players on offense.
At running back, Phillip Lindsay will return after missing the majority of the season's first four games. He suffered a toe injury in the first half against the Titans and has just seven carries on the season. Fangio admitted earlier this week the Broncos would have to monitor Lindsay's workload, but they'll need him to show the type of explosiveness that he demonstrated as the lead back in his first two seasons.
Without Fant in the lineup, perhaps the Broncos will turn to fourth-round pick Albert Okwuegbunam, who has yet to be active this season but displayed his athleticism often in training camp. Nick Vannett and Jake Butt could also see increased roles.
Most likely, though, is that players like Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy will see even bigger target shares than they did in Week 4. They'll have to win one-on-one matchups against one of the best secondaries in the league, which means they don't have an easy task ahead of them.
Regardless of who contributes, it's clear Denver will need to try to replicate its 37-point output against the Jets. In their three losses, the Broncos have averaged just 15 points per game. It's hard to imagine the Broncos can earn a win with that output.