DENVER — The Broncos enter Week 6 at a bit of a crossroads, as their 3-0 start has given way to a two-game slide to AFC North opponents.
Currently holding the seventh seed in the AFC, the Broncos remain in the thick of the playoff race, but they face a critical test against the rival Las Vegas Raiders. With a win, the Broncos can improve to 4-2 on the season and 2-1 at home.
As Von Miller put it earlier this week, the stakes could not be higher.
"We just have to win," Miller said. "… Maybe labeling the Ravens game a playoff game was too early for our team. Maybe some of the things that I said about the Pittsburgh Steelers and the type of game that we needed to play — maybe it was too early. It's definitely not too early for the Raiders. We've got to go out and play well from start to finish. This is a huge game for us. We've got to win this game."
But against an unpredictable Raiders team that has moved forward with interim head coach Rich Bisaccia since Jon Gruden's sudden resignation earlier this week, that may not be so easy.
The last three games in Denver have each been decided by just a single point, and there's no reason to expect this weekend's matchup won't be close, as well.
These are the questions that will determine whether the Broncos can get back in the win column against one of their most-hated foes.
CAN THE BRONCOS' DEFENSE LIMIT THE BIG PLAYS?
The Denver defense has largely been stout. The unit ranks in the top three in yards allowed and points allowed, and they're in the top 10 in rushing defense, passing defense, sacks and red-zone defense. Big plays, though, have hurt Denver's ability to completely slow opposing offenses.
Over the last two weeks, the Broncos have allowed nine passes of at least 20 yards, including five that went for more than 30 yards. Against the Ravens, a 49-yard touchdown pass to Hollywood Brown changed the tone of the game. And in Pittsburgh, a 50-yard toss to Diontae Johnson helped Pittsburgh jump out to a lead that the Steelers never relinquished.
"We just have to play with better technique all the time," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Monday. "You just can't assume that because you're such and such player, that you can fudge on your technique. When you're going against good receivers and a good quarterback, he's going to expose you. Our technique has to be better across the board. We have to do a better job of coaching them to play that technique."
It's possible the return of Ronald Darby could help the Broncos on the back end of the defense. Fangio said he would play this weekend, but he said the team has not decided if Darby would start the game.
Whichever lineup the Broncos choose will have to deal with a slew of Raiders weapons. Darren Waller ranks third in receiving yards among tight ends this season, while wide receiver Henry Ruggs III has blazing speed and is already nearing his season totals from a year ago. Slot receiver Hunter Renfrow has also made an impact, and the battle between the Clemson product and Bryce Callahan in the slot could be critical to deciding the game.
"Really quick, really elusive, great instincts for football [and] tough to tackle after he catches it," Fangio said of Renfrow. "He's really one of the top slots in the league."
CAN DENVER'S OFFENSE END A STREAK OF SLOW STARTS?
It's been quite a while since the Broncos put the pressure on their opponents early. Denver last scored a touchdown on its opening drive in Week 14 of the 2019 season, and the 24-game stretch without an opening drive touchdown is the longest in the league. Against Pittsburgh, those problems extended for a while longer. Denver did not pick up a first down until Javonte Williams ran for 49 yards midway through the second quarter.
As Denver tries to flip the script and give its defense a lead to defend, the Broncos must be better on third down and in the red zone. On third down, the Broncos have converted just 28.6 percent of their attempts, which ranks last in the league. And while Denver's struggles on early downs have exacerbated that problem, the Broncos still must be able to find success when they do face a difficult third-down attempt. It's possible adding veteran John Brown to the offense could help the team, as his speed could open up the offense. Denver elevated Brown to the active roster for Sunday's game, and he could be active for the contest.
"We've had too many third-and-longs, but you have to be able to convert some of those," Fangio said Wednesday. "Lately, we haven't been able to do that. We did it the first few weeks. I think we were 50 percent on third-and-seven-plus during the first few weeks, but [the] last two weeks, not so. I don't know if we've gotten any or gotten one. We have to get more manageable third downs, and no matter what third down we're in, we have to go convert."
The Broncos need to also execute better once they are inside the 20-yard line. Denver couldn't quite punch the ball in during an end-of-game scenario against the Steelers, but the team's performance the rest of the year has also left something to be desired. The Broncos have scored touchdowns on just 42.1 percent of their trips, which ranks 29th in the league.
The good news for Denver? The Raiders' red-zone defense ranks 31st in the league, as they've allowed touchdowns on 90.9 percent of their opponents' drives. Something will have to give, and the Broncos surely hope they can convert more opportunities on Sunday.
HOW DO THEY HANDLE THE EMOTION OF THE GAME?
The Raiders have faced an unprecedented week, as Gruden resigned Monday after a series of racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails were uncovered.
"I just think there's no place in the world, let alone our league, for the opinions that were expressed and especially the words used to express those opinions," Fangio said Wednesday. "Myself and the organization are definitely against that and that situation."
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, though, believes that opposing signal-caller Derek Carr will help to move his team forward.
"Just knowing Derek personally — I know he's a guy who's going to rally those guys together," Bridgewater said Wednesday. "He's a great leader. He's a great man, and a lot of people respect him. I know I respect him, and I know he's a guy who's capable of pulling his troops together and just keeping them focused. We've just got to go out there and play the game we know how to play and the way we know how to play it. [We have to] make it about us."
Still, the Broncos have spoken this week about how they must be ready for an emotional Raiders team to begin the game with a lot of intensity.
"The message has been that they're going to really come out," Malik Reed said. "They thought a lot of their head coach, and it's been a lot of things going on there, but they're going to come out ready and with their hair on fire. They're ready to play this game just because it's a division game and on top of that, all the things that's been going on in their organization. It's really on us to be ready and prepared to match their intensity that they're coming into this game with. We're prepared to do that."
If Denver can weather the storm early, they could have an advantage against a team that will be without its head coach and primary play-caller. But if the Raiders play with more intensity early, it could put Denver in a hole that is hard to overcome.
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