DENVER — The Broncos know what's at stake.
As they enter the final three-game stretch of the season, the Broncos (7-7) know they must finish 3-0 to have a realistic shot at their first postseason berth since winning Super Bowl 50.
That journey begins on Christmas Eve, as Denver welcomes the New England Patriots (3-11) to Empower Field at Mile High for a critical Week 16 showdown.
"You can only focus on the things you can control, and it's obviously getting ready to play New England and that's it," Head Coach Sean Payton said Monday. "Focus on getting this next win, because that's really all that matters. It's going to take three wins, but it starts with this week."
On Friday, Payton said he thought the Broncos "had a good week," and he acknowledged the Broncos are "playing for a lot" as the Patriots head to Denver for the first time since Tom Brady quarterbacked the team.
As Denver looks to grab a critical win against Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's group, 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 Denver's defense get back on track?
The Broncos allowed just 15.6 points per game during a 6-1 stretch from Weeks 7-14 before hitting a speed bump against the Lions. Detroit's offense posted 42 points and did not turn the ball over in a Week 15 win, and Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday the Broncos must get back to dictating the style of game that is played.
"Our defense plays very well when we can dictate, and on Saturday night [against the Lions] we could not," Joseph said. "We chased them. … We had no chance to dictate and get ahead of the sticks, and we don't play well when that happens — no one does."
In Week 16, the Broncos will face a Patriots offense that is without JuJu Smith-Schuster, receiving touchdown leader Hunter Henry and lead rusher Rhamondre Stevenson. New England has averaged 13.3 points per game, which ranks last in the NFL and is the team's lowest scoring average since 1992. Since quarterback Bailey Zappe took over as the starter in Week 13, though, the Patriots have fared a bit better. Zappe threw three touchdowns in a Week 14 win over Pittsburgh in which New England scored 21 points, and he helped the Patriots to 17 points in a Week 15 loss to Kansas City.
"[It's about] just getting back to dictating, winning first down, pressuring the quarterback, taking the ball away — that's our formula to win," Joseph said.
MATCHUP TO WATCH:
Courtland Sutton vs. New England's defense
Denver's most productive receiver has posted a team-high 770 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns this season, but the Broncos know New England may try to take away Courtland Sutton as an option on Sunday night.
"They're going to have a way to win the game," Payton said Wednesday. "That's evident when you watch them on tape. They're very well coached. [Belichick has] been consistent that way for so long. [Wednesday night], we do third down. Is Sutton going to be taken out of third down in some way?' [New Orleans] went there one year. This was when [Saints tight end] Jimmy Graham was really having a breakout-type season, and there goes [former Patriots and Broncos cornerback] Aqib Talib everywhere Jimmy was, jamming him at the line of scrimmage. We're at halftime and Jimmy doesn't have a catch yet, and now you are out of your rhythm.
"[Belichick is] just really good at taking away some things that you want to do or making you play left-handed, if you will. It's always something different, relative to what he sees on film and what he feels like he has to do vs. this offense. That's one of the challenges."
Sutton said he'll still prepare as if he will receive targets, and Payton acknowledged later in the week there are ways to get the primary receiver involved even if he faces a double-team. Still, Denver may need other options like Jerry Jeudy, Marvin Mims Jr., Adam Trautman and others to step up in the passing game.
No matter who the Broncos target, it won't be easy. New England has given up the third fewest explosive plays through Week 15, ranks second in rushing defense and sixth in red-zone defense.
STAT TO KNOW:
The Patriots may have earned just three wins this season, but they've been in a slew of close games. They've played 10 one-possession contests — including four against teams that would currently qualify for the playoffs — and five games decided by four points or fewer. While New England has won just three of those 10 games, the Patriots have had a knack for keeping things close. Belichick's team has been in games, in part, because of a strong defensive effort. Since Week 10, New England has allowed just 14.2 points per game, which is second fewest in the NFL. The Patriots are also just the ninth team in the Super Bowl era — and the first since the 2010 Jets — to suffer at least three losses in games in which they allowed 10 points or fewer.
"You just have to look at the tape," Payton said Wednesday. "They're near the top of the league in every category defensively. They're first in the league in rushing defense, red-zone defense, third down and all those stats. They make it difficult for big plays. They stay on top. ... They've been in a lot of close games. When you watch the film, you can see that. You can see all of those things. Obviously, they've had a quarterback change. We have to have our best week of preparation to get ready for these guys."
If the Broncos are in for a close game, they'll look to continue their run of success in one-score contests. Since Week 4, Denver is 4-1 in one-score games.