DENVER — Are the Broncos addicted to winning?
Asked this week how his team would handle a matchup against the 3-6 Philadelphia Eagles, Head Coach Vic Fangio said that's what would be necessary to avoid a let-down game.
After a four-game losing streak dropped the Broncos to 3-4 on the season, the team has responded well in recent weeks. They earned a 17-10 win over the Washington Football Team before turning in a dominant 30-16 victory over the previously 6-1 Cowboys.
Those victories have given Denver the chance to extend their winning streak to three games and remain in the thick of the AFC playoff race. The Broncos' recent success, though, will be marginalized if they can't find a way to earn another win.
As Denver approaches the bye week and the margin for error grows smaller, the Broncos must stay on the right side of the ledger.
"This is a time in sports where it can be dangerous," quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said this week. "Just a couple weeks ago you were hearing, 'Ah, you guys suck. Get rid of this person and trade this guy.' Then you win a game or two and it's like, 'Oh, you're the best.' You've got to ignore it all because in this game, there's going to be highs and there's going to be lows. I think when you go through those moments where you're losing, it tests your character. With us, it was a test of our character during those four weeks that we didn't come away with a win. To come away with two wins in a row, that tests your character also. How are you going to respond? Are you going to feel like you've arrived, or are you going to approach it like, Hey man, our job is not done.' We've still got this game to focus on and then several more games after this. You've just got to respect the game and respect your opponent."
Against an Eagles team that pushed the AFC West-leading Chargers a week ago, that won't be easy.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can earn their third consecutive win and head into the bye week at 6-4.
HOW MUCH SUCCESS CAN TEDDY BRIDGEWATER FIND?
The Broncos' offense posted its best performance of the season in Week 9, and it was due in no small part to Bridgewater making big-time throws. As the Broncos went ahead by two possessions, he dropped a perfect third-down pass in to Tim Patrick for a first down. A play later, he launched a deep throw to Patrick for a 44-yard score than pushed the Broncos' lead to double digits.
Against the Eagles, he could be in for another big day. Through nine games, Philadelphia has allowed five different quarterbacks to complete more than 80 percent of their passes — and Bridgewater could be the next to join that group. He ranked third in the NFL in completion percentage entering Week 9, and with a nearly complete group of weapons, Bridgewater should be able to spread the ball around vs. the Eagles.
The tight ends could find particular success. A week ago, the Eagles gave up 11 catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns to the Chargers' tight ends. With Noah Fant back in the lineup, Bridgewater has a pair of options in the former first-round pick and Albert Okwuegbunam that could exploit a weakness in the defense.
Through the first half of the season, Bridgewater has played at a high standard. If he can do so again vs. Philadelphia, Denver should be in good position to get a win.
WILL THE BRONCOS' OFFENSIVE LINE HOLD UP?
If there's one cause for concern, it may be the Broncos' offensive line. Both starting tackles in Garett Bolles and Bobby Massie have been ruled out, and starting right guard Graham Glasgow was placed on injured reserve earlier this week.
Calvin Anderson performed admirably at left tackle against the Cowboys, but Denver will need a repeat performance from him and a solid start from Cam Fleming at right tackle. In the interior of the offensive line, rookie Quinn Meinerz will make his second career start.
"He's had two games now where he's had to play a significant amount of snaps — one was a start, obviously, and then last week," Fangio said of Meinerz. "He's done well. He's a good player, and he's going to continue to develop."
Denver's offensive line will be tasked with facing an impressive Eagles front seven that's led by six-time Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and former first-round pick Derek Barnett. The Eagles' defense doesn't necessarily have overwhelming stats — they're 20th in scoring defense and in the bottom six in the league in red-zone and third-down defense — but they may have the talent to challenge a beat-up offensive line.
Despite the talent on the other side of the ball, the Broncos will try to continue their success in the run game; A week ago, Denver posted a season-high 190 rushing yards in the win over the Cowboys.
The bigger test may be in the passing game, as the Broncos have allowed the second-most sacks in the league. To find success, they'll need to keep Bridgewater upright.
WILL DENVER'S DEFENSE SLOW AN IMPROVING PHILADELPHIA OFFENSE?
The Eagles' record doesn't do the team's offense justice, as the unit has been highly effective in recent weeks.
The Eagles ranked 11th in scoring offense entering Week 10, and their sixth-ranked rushing attack is keyed by quarterback and leading rusher Jalen Hurts. The volume of passing yards isn't overwhelming — the Eagles rank 28th — but Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith is a deep-play threat. The Broncos must be careful not to allow the game-changing plays that plagued the unit earlier in the season.
Philadelphia has also been effective in situational football. They have the third-fewest giveaways, the ninth-best third-down offense and the third-best red-zone unit. Quite simply, they're good at the things that help teams win football games.
Denver may be able to tweak its Week 4 blueprint for Lamar Jackson to try to slow Hurts and Co., but the second-year quarterback remains a dangerous threat.
"[He's a] good quarterback," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Wednesday. "It's the first time I've watched him and prepared to play against him. I've been very impressed. He has a really good arm. He can be accurate. He obviously runs their zone-read stuff where he's in the [shot]gun and can pull it and run it — the RPO game. He's very adept at both of those. He did it in college, and they're doing it now. Great scrambler. Big arm. I think they have their quarterback. I've been impressed by him."
HOW WILL THE BRONCOS ADJUST WITHOUT PAT SHURMUR?
This question may be the biggest unknown. The Broncos hit their stride against the Cowboys, but they likely won't have Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur available to call plays on Sunday after he tested positive for COVID-19.
The team announced that Quarterbacks Coach Mike Shula would call plays with input from the rest of the offensive staff in Shurmur's stead. Shula has 11 years of experience as an offensive coordinator, and he most recently called plays in Carolina. During that stint, he directed the league's most dynamic offense in 2015 en route to an appearance against the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
There's no reason to suggest the team's game plan or opening script will change, but there will likely be some variation in how Shula and the rest of the staff calls the play. How quickly Shula, Bridgewater and the offense can fall into a rhythm bears watching.
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