DENVER — After the Broncos' season-opening win over the Giants, Head Coach Vic Fangio had a message for his team.
"If we can get this thing to 2-0, you're going to see a stadium on fire when we get back," Fangio told his team in the locker room.
The Broncos did just that, as they followed up the victory over New York with a win in Jacksonville. They now head home to Empower Field at Mile High to play in front of a capacity crowd for the first time since December of 2019 — and there's plenty at stake.
With a win, the Broncos can improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2016 and maintain their status as one of the only undefeated teams remaining in the AFC.
Of course, they won't be able to look past an 0-2 Jets team despite being heavy favorites. The last time the Broncos were such big favorites, they lost by nearly two touchdowns to an 0-5 Giants team in 2017; Denver is committed to not allowing history to repeat itself.
"You've just got to always respect the game," quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said Wednesday. "Respect the game and respect your opponent. There's no such thing as overlooking an opponent because that team, they work extremely hard the same way we do and they've been playing some good football — a few breaks away from winning certain games. … But for us, we just have to focus on us, control us. My mentor, he texted me Sunday after the game, and he was like, 'Man, don't take the cheese. It's poison. It's rat poison.' Those constant reminders to stay grounded, respect the game and continue to work hard because there's always room for improvement. If you watch us, there's definitely room for improvement. As long as we focus on us, make it about us and just control the things that we can control, we should be able to go out on Sunday and play our best."
At the end of the Broncos' week of practice, Fangio believed the team's mindset was in the right place.
"I think our focus is right where it needs to be," Fangio said. "We all know that this is a 17-round fight, and each round is critical."
As the Broncos try to win the next round and improve to 3-0, these are the questions they must answer.
CAN THE BRONCOS CONTINUE TO MAKE LIFE DIFFICULT FOR ZACH WILSON?
Against the Patriots, rookie Zach Wilson tossed four interceptions and posted a 37.0 quarterback rating in a 25-6 loss. Through two weeks, his five interceptions and 10 sacks are both the highest totals in the league, and the Jets rank 31st in points per game and 30th in turnovers. Wilson's adjustment to the NFL has been anything but smooth.
As Wilson prepares to come to Denver, the Broncos' attitude is quite simple.
"The mentality for us is we don't want to be the team that gets him out of his slump," safety Justin Simmons said Wednesday. "We kind of want to make sure that whatever team they're playing the next week, they [reference] the game he had the week before the game against Denver, and it's our turn to take advantage of that. Defensively for us, it's the same mentality every week, though. We're just excited to go out there and compete. Like I said, the biggest thing for us is we want to make sure we're asserting dominance. We're back on our home field. The crowd is going to be there. It's going to be electric, and we want to definitely give our fans a show on Sunday."
The team's home-field advantage should be yet another advantage as the Broncos welcome Wilson to Denver.
"For a visiting team, this is a tough place to play," Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said Thursday. "We all know that the challenge for a team on a road is crowd noise. We have a very educated fan base. They know how to let us hear a pin drop when we're on offense, but then crank it up when we're on defense."
A beat-up Jets offense will be without running back Tevin Coleman and could also be missing wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who is listed as doubtful. That puts a lot of pressure on the shoulders of a rookie quarterback, and Denver must take advantage.
Fangio improved last week to 19-9 against rookie quarterbacks as a defensive coordinator or head coach, as Trevor Lawrence completed just 14-of-33 passes for 118 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. With a mix of coverage and pressure, Fangio and the defense kept Lawrence on his heels. If they can do the same against Wilson, they'll be in strong position to earn a home win.
WILL THE BRONCOS' OFFENSE KEEP ROLLING?
It would be hard for Teddy Bridgewater to have played much better during the season's opening stretch. With his performance against the Jaguars, Bridgewater became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to complete 75 percent of his passes for at least two touchdowns and zero interceptions in each of his first two games to start a season. If he can turn that type of performance in against the Jets, he'll join Drew Brees as the only player to start a season with three such performances.
Bridgewater has excelled throwing the deep ball, working against the blitz, avoiding big hits and creating positive gains on broken-down plays. He also has yet to turn the ball over and has worked the ball to his host of weapons; Bridgewater completed passes to nine different players against the Jaguars.
Denver's offense has been particularly strong right before and right after halftime. Against the Giants, Denver scored a touchdown on their final possession of the first half and then again after the break. New York went from a four-point lead to a 10-point deficit without touching the ball on a non-kneeldown possession. Then, last week, the Broncos scored late in the first half before again scoring a touchdown on their first drive of the second half.
"Those have been critical," Fangio said Friday. "We were behind until the scores late in the half, and then to come out and top it off with another one is big."
Perhaps the only area the Broncos haven't thrived is on third down, where they went 2-of-11 against the Jaguars. New York's third-ranked third-down defense could pose problems again, but the key to Denver's improvement will come on first and second down. Seven of Denver's 11 third-down attempts against Jacksonville were at least six yards. Of course, context is necessary, as well.
"I think the third-down thing is — every week you can cherry-pick something, and certainly, we need to do better of not having third-and-longs," Shurmur said. "I do know this: Whether it's third or fourth down, the goal is to stay on the field. We had two fourth downs we converted and then we had another third down that the people with the pencil don't count where they had a penalty that kept us on the field. Fortunately, we had I think 22 or 23 first downs in total, so let's get first downs on second down and not worry about it."
Should Denver find the big plays and yardage it did against the Jaguars, the team's third-down percentage may not matter. With moderate improvement, though, Denver's offense may be able to put together its most complete game yet.
CAN THE BRONCOS' SPECIAL TEAMS IMPROVE?
The Broncos' Achilles heel through two weeks of the season has been their special teams coverage. Against the Giants, Denver allowed a 38-yard kick return and was also penalized 15 yards for unnecessary roughness on the play. A week later, Denver gave up a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which was the only score of the second half for the Jaguars. Through two weeks, the Broncos rank last in the league in opponent kickoff return average.
"What it comes down to is I've got do a better job of making sure they see every single thing during the week," Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon said Friday. "It breaks down in execution, and when execution breaks down — whether it's leverage, whether it's a missed tackle, whether it's any part of that play — that's 100 percent on me."
Denver has made a commitment to improving its special teams in several ways — by playing starters on the coverage units and making roster moves with special teams in mind — and they should get another boost from the addition of linebacker Micah Kiser. Fangio said the newly added linebacker will be active this weekend, and McMahon said he should "1000 percent" make an impact in Week 3.
"Mentally, everything you tell him — even though the language is different [where it's] Spanish for us versus English for the Rams — he picks it up right away," McMahon said of Kiser. "He was great in the meeting room. He was ready — to be completely upfront with you, I thought he was ready to play a game Thursday morning and he just got here on Wednesday. It's a big compliment to him. He can shed blocks, he's seen everything. All the situations that come up, it's not new to him. The verbiage is different, but when it happens — there's a task within every situation and he understands the task, which is the easy part for a coach."
The Broncos' special teams unit is not without its bright spots, as it ranks second in punt return average and firstin punt return average allowed. Kicker Brandon McManus has been solid, as well, as he's made all 10 of his kicks. For Denver to be a complete team, though, it must find a way to work through its kickoff coverage issues.
Against the Giants and Jaguars, the lapses in kickoff coverage haven't ruined the Broncos' hopes of winning. As the season continues and games get tighter, though, Denver can't afford to give up free yardage or points.