DENVER — Can the Broncos stop the streak?
There's plenty to achieve during Sunday's game against the Chiefs, as the Broncos can improve to 3-3 on the season after beginning the year as an 0-3 team.
Denver can signify to the NFL that it is a playoff contender rather than just a competitive team capable of an upset or two. Drew Lock can continue to cement his place as the Broncos' long-term starter. The Broncos' skill players can demonstrate they have the talent to match up with Kansas City in the track meet that is the AFC West. And Bradley Chubb, Justin Simmons and the rest of the Denver defense can show they've finally found a way to match up against a quarterback that has most of the league figured out.
All those benchmarks, though, are only possible to achieve if Denver can beat Kansas City for the first time in 10 tries. The Chiefs have rattled off nine consecutive victories against the Broncos, and their wins in 2019 came by a combined 53-9 margin.
The Broncos have shown in recent weeks that they can compete with — and beat — some of the NFL's top teams. To take the next step in their push toward the playoffs, they'll have to knock off a franchise that has won four consecutive AFC West titles.
Head Coach Vic Fangio said Friday that he views every game as a "measuring stick" for his team, but he acknowledges the Chiefs are the standard in the Broncos' division.
"We obviously respect the fact that these guys are as good as they are — they're the defending champs," Fangio said. "I've said it before that they were an offsides penalty in the 2019 AFC Championship Game from probably winning that Super Bowl and going for a three-peat here instead of a repeat. They've won the division [four] years in a row. They're obviously the team that you have to beat in this division, but I personally take every game the same way."
These are the questions that will determine if Denver can earn a victory on Sunday and start its own winning streak:
CAN DREW LOCK MATCH PATRICK MAHOMES?
It may seem like it's asking too much of Lock, who has played in just seven full games, to keep pace with the 2018 NFL MVP and reigning Super Bowl MVP. It also may be exactly what Denver needs to earn a win. Since taking over as the Chiefs' full-time starter in 2018, Mahomes has lost just nine times. In a majority of those games, the opposing quarterback posted a passer rating that was nearly identical — or better — to Mahomes' rating. In the Chiefs' Week 5 loss to the Raiders, Mahomes was 22-of-43 for 340 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 83.5 quarterback rating. Derek Carr, meanwhile, was 22-of-31 for 347 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a 126.7 quarterback rating.
Against the Patriots, we saw an aggressive offensive approach that was predicated on the downfield passing attack. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, Lock attempted six passes of at least 30 yards against the Patriots — and he hit on two of those attempts. The Broncos will need to continue to follow that aggressive model against Kansas City, because no matter how well the defense plays — more on that in a moment — the Broncos will almost undoubtedly need to score more than 18 points to win.
"As a quarterback, you pretty much feel that pressure every single game to put up points," Lock said Wednesday. "Pat has been known to put up a lot of points in that offense. If you want to go off of stats and how many points they score a game, technically speaking, you want to be prepared to put up a lot of points up."
Lock must operate efficiently, connect with his receivers for big plays and guide an offense that is more successful in the red zone. In his most productive game as a pro, Lock outdueled former Heisman Trophy winner Deshaun Watson as he threw for three touchdowns and more than 300 yards in his first career road start. He may need a similar performance against Mahomes on Sunday for Denver to win.
WILL THE BRONCOS' DEFENSE CONTINUE TO STAND STRONG?
After being held to just 16 points in Week 1 against the Broncos' defense, the Titans have averaged an explosive 37 points per game in their four games since.
Denver held Pittsburgh to 26 points, and the Steelers have averaged nearly 35 points over the last three weeks.
Then, in New England, Denver limited an offense that was averaging nearly 30 points per game with Cam Newton to a paltry 12-point output. The Patriots mustered just three points through three quarters.
Denver will face another tough challenge against a Mahomes-led offense that ranks third in yards per game and ninth in points per game. And while they'll regain Dre'Mont Jones and A.J. Bouye — which we'll revisit in the next section — they'll have to cope with an offense that was borderline dominant last season in snowy conditions that may be similar to this weekend's environment.
Among the Broncos' choices will be whether to blitz Mahomes. Denver has posted 10 sacks over the last two weeks after recording just four in the season's first three games, but Mahomes is lethal when teams send extra rushers. Mahomes has posted a 142.2 passer rating against the blitz in 2020, compared to just a 101.6 passer rating when teams drop back in coverage. The Broncos would ideally be able to get pressure with just four rushers, which would allow them to drop seven players into coverage. In that scenario, they may be able to avoid giving up the big plays that fuel Kansas City's offense. With Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and now Le'Veon Bell, the Chiefs have nearly unlimited weapons.
"They're really tough to stop," Fangio said. "They've got a lot of weapons. They can run it, they can throw it, they throw it deep, they run the reverses, they run the fly sweeps, they're a good screen team. You name it, they've got it. And [Chiefs head coach] Andy [Reid] does a good job of orchestrating it when he's calling the game."
If the Broncos can slow the Chiefs — as they slowed the Titans, Steelers and Patriots — that may be enough to keep Denver in the game in the fourth quarter. Then, they'll just need to close out a lead against one of the most dangerous players in football.
"That's what has been holding us back these past two years, is finishing out those close games on defense and having that identity that we're a team that will close out a game," Chubb said Wednesday. "This year, guys are starting to buy into that and starting to realize that if we want to be everything that we talk about,we have to go out there on Sunday and actually do it. In the Jets game and the Patriots game, it came down to us in the last minute and we stuck it out. We're slowly starting to build that identity on defense and we've just got to keep gaining the confidence and seeing it happen. I feel like it's going to take us through the roof for sure."
WHAT IMPACT WILL THE BRONCOS' RETURNING PLAYERS MAKE?
The Broncos have been shorthanded for much of 2020, but they'll regain some of their top playmakers on Sunday. How much of an impact those players have on the game could decide the outcome.
Noah Fant, who missed the team's Week 6 win over the Patriots, should help bolster the team's red-zone offense that was ineffective in New England. Wide receiver KJ Hamler, who also suffered his injury in Week 4, should be able to challenge Kansas City's secondary with his speed and help the Broncos' offense challenge the Chiefs with big plays. Running back Melvin Gordon III is poised to return from an illness, and his bruising running style could also help Denver in the red zone. WIth Gordon and Phillip Lindsay both on the field, the Broncos could create mismatch problems for Kansas City.
Then, on the defensive side of the ball, Jones and Bouye should return to action. The Broncos' secondary has held up well in Bouye's absence, but the former Jaguar entered the season as Denver's top cornerback. He's a ball-productive player — and he's picked off Mahomes in the past. Jones, meanwhile, could help Denver achieve a pass rush with just four players. That would allow the Broncos to put pressure on Mahomes without sacrificing coverage responsibilities. In short, it's the defensive plan the Raiders used to upset Kansas City earlier this year.
The Broncos used the 2020 offseason to stock up on speed and talent to try to challenge the Chiefs. Though Denver will still be without Von Miller, Courtland Sutton and Jurrell Casey, the Broncos are as close to full strength as they have been since the season began. If the returning stars can make an impact, Denver may be able to pull the upset.