DENVER — Following the Broncos' Week 8 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Head Coach Sean Payton stood at his postgame press conference and looked toward the future.
"We're going to play in bigger games than that," Payton said in late October.
The Broncos' Week 12 game against the Cleveland Browns certainly qualifies.
Denver (5-5) finds itself in the thick of the AFC wild-card race after four consecutive wins, and a matchup with the Browns could have major ramifications at the end of the season.
It will not be easy, though, to earn a fifth consecutive win and mark the team's longest winning streak since 2015. The Browns (7-3) boast the NFL's best defense and one of the top rushing attacks, and they've rode that formula to three consecutive wins of their own.
"That formula of being able to run the ball well and play good defense, even though it's 2023, still works," Payton said Wednesdsay. "They're doing it better than anyone."
As the Broncos look to keep their momentum rolling, here's a look at a question for the Broncos to answer, a matchup to watch and a stat to know.
ONE BIG QUESTION:
Can the Broncos limit Myles Garrett's impact?
As Payton has evaluated defenders this season, no one has stood out to the same degree as Myles Garrett.
"I don't pay attention to awards, but I've not seen a defensive player as impactful this season on tape," Payton said Friday. "He's changing games. You have to have a protection plan; you have to understand where he is. He'll come over to the other side periodically, and sometimes he'll line up inside and rush the center or guard. He's a dominant player. Not only on defense, but he's gone on field goal block and blocked a kick. This guy is something else."
Garrett's 13 sacks are the most in the NFL, and his four strip-sacks are tied for the most in the league. The four-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro has the ability to wreck games, and quarterback Russell Wilson and the Broncos must ensure they protect the football. If the Broncos can stay in manageable third-down situations, that should become easier.
MATCHUP TO WATCH:
Dorian Thompson-Robinson vs. Denver's secondary
Following Deshaun Watson's season-ending injury, Cleveland turned to rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson in Week 11. In the second start of his career, Thompson-Robinson completed 24-of-43 passes for 165 yards and an interception, but he led a 48-yard game-winning field-goal drive in the final moments. Thompson-Robinson threw three interceptions in his previous start, a 28-3 loss to the Ravens in Week 4.
The Broncos have emphasized stopping Cleveland's third-ranked rushing attack, and they'll aim to put the rookie quarterback in difficult situations. If Denver can create third-and-long situations and get pressure on Thompson-Robinson, the Broncos may be able to continue their impressive takeaway streak. The Broncos have forced 12 turnovers during their last three wins, and they'll aim to force Thompson-Robinson into mistakes.
STAT TO KNOW:
The Browns' defense will be as formidable a challenge as the Broncos face all season, as the unit ranks first in a number of categories. On a per-possession basis, Cleveland's defense ranks first in points (1.2), yards (18.6) and score percentage (21.7 percent), among a number of other metrics. In the context of the game's history, Cleveland's performance has been even more impressive. The Browns have allowed the fewest yards per drive since 2003, the fewest yards per game (243.3) since 2008, the fewest passing yards per game (143.7) since 1982 and fewest first downs per game (12.5) since 1973. The Browns have also forced three-and-outs on the highest percentage of opponent drives since the NFL started tracking the stat in 2000.
Simply put, the Broncos will face a stiff challenge in Sunday's game — and one of the keys to success will be to avoid third-and-longs.
"You can take any statistic," Payton said Friday. "Third-down numbers, they're at the top of the league. Passing efficiency, they're at the top of the league. You have this unique imbalance right now of snaps that they're getting on offense [and] snaps they're defending on defense. We did the red-zone report today. In order to have a red-zone opportunity, you have to cross the 20[-yard line]. They're fewest in the league in defending red-zone opportunities. One of the keys we felt like at the start of the week was our first- and second-down efficiency vs. this defense and trying to minimize the minus plays."
Cleveland's propensity for forcing three-and-outs has allowed the group to average 18.2 more plays per game and nearly eight more minutes of possession than its opponents. For the Broncos to find success, they'll need to remain on the field and capitalize on red-zone chances. The Browns are allowing just over two red-zone opportunities per game, so Denver may not have many chances. The Broncos will need to take advantage of their opportunities and maximize points in a game in which points could be at a premium.