Numbers matter. Yes, the game is played out on the field — not on paper — but a quick look at the statistical profile of a team can show tendencies, strengths and weaknesses that shine some light on what can be expected when the teams take the field. This series is an examination of how the Broncos can gain an advantage against their opponent from a statistical perspective.
Here are the numbers that matter in this Week 14 matchup against the 49ers.
7.9 and 4.2
Heading into the bye week, Phillip Lindsay's rise from undrafted rookie to one of the league's top rushers had already garnered plenty of attention.
Since the bye, he's somehow taken his game to an even higher level. During the Broncos' three-game winning streak, he has averaged 7.9 yards per carry, by far the best mark in the league.
Before Lindsay's three-game masterpiece, no player had averaged over 7 yards per carry for three straight games on at least 10 rushing attempts per game since Fred Taylor in 2007. Lindsay is the first rookie to do it since Jerome Bettis in 1993.
"He's a tough guy," Head Coach Vance Joseph said Sunday. "He's fast through the hole, so he successfully avoids contact through the first line of defense, which is important. Also, our [offensive] line is blocking well. His ability to get to the second level with speed is impressive. It's hard to tackle a back like that when he's not touched on the first level. His maturity and mentality each week [have] been very impressive."
The 49ers have been pretty solid against the run this season. They allow just 4.2 yards per carry this season, which is tied for 11th in the NFL. Whichever team can control the ground game on Sunday will have a crucial advantage.
12.7 and negative-20
Offensively, the common factor during the Broncos' three-game winning streak has been Lindsay's excellence running the ball. But defensively, it's been forcing turnovers. The Broncos have forced nine turnovers (eight forced by the defense) over the last three weeks, and the offense has cashed that into 38 points, or 12.7 per game.
"I think we've been really good at [scoring off turnovers] when we've been playing winning ball," said Case Keenum after the Broncos scored 17 points off turnovers against the Bengals. "We play with some confidence [when we get] some takeaways and scores. That can shift the tide in games when you're behind [and] trying to come back or when you're ahead [and] you try to bury some opponents."
The Broncos should have a good opportunity to continue to create turnovers on Sunday. The 49ers have a negative-20 turnover margin, the worst in the league. San Francisco has committed 25 turnovers this year and seven in the past three games.
"[Scoring off turnovers is] always talked about in game plan meetings, and so far so good the last few weeks," Joseph said Monday. "It worked out for us."
It's no secret that creating turnovers — and taking advantage of them — is a key to success in the NFL. Of the 17 teams with a positive turnover differential, 11 are above .500. If the Broncos can win the turnover battle on Sunday, they may increase their chance of joining that group.
57.1 and 44.7
The Broncos' defense has been solid throughout the season in the red zone, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on just 57.1 percent of their trips. That ranks 13th in the league. And that aspect has been a strong suit for the defense recently.
Last week, the Broncos held the Bengals to a field goal in their only red-zone trip. The week before, Denver got a goal-line interception to preserve a 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos may have a chance to improve in that area on Sunday. The 49ers are finding the end zone on just 44.7 percent of their trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line. That ranks 31st in the league. Last week, the 49ers scored just one touchdown in four red-zone trips against the Seahawks. Holding San Francisco to a similar rate could swing momentum in Denver's favor.
Though the Broncos have won three straight contests, there are several areas for improvement. The most important one, Joseph thinks, is a better start.
"We've got to start faster," Joseph said Monday. "I think we've scored three points in the first quarter in the last two or three games, so we've got to get more points early. That just comes from execution. We had plays out there. We missed throws early in the last two games and we had some run reads that we missed early in the game, so we have to simply start faster — executing better and putting together drives and scoring points early. We can't wait until the second quarter and second half to score points. That's going to be a focus this week, to get off to a better start offensively, especially."
The only points the Broncos have scored in the first quarter during the winning streak was a Brandon McManus field goal against the Steelers.
An early lead could be particularly helpful against the 49ers, because quarterback Nick Mullens has struggled when his team falls behind. He has a quarterback rating of 117.5 when leading, but that falls to 92.3 when trailing. Three of his five interceptions have come when San Francisco has trailed, as have five of his seven sacks.
When the 49ers were able to take an early lead on the Raiders in Mullins' NFL debut in Week 9, he played very well with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Since, though, the 49ers are 0-3, and Mullins has thrown five interceptions and just four touchdowns. Getting ahead early isn't something the Broncos have been able to do consistently this season, but if they can do so on Sunday, their path to a fourth consecutive victory could become much clearer.