ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Broncos exit the bye and approach a seven-game slate that features five division matchups, their goals remain ahead of them.
There's less margin for error than there was when the Broncos started the season 3-0 or after an upset win over the Cowboys, but it remains possible for the Broncos to go on a late-run to secure a playoff bid.
"It's one game at a time, and we've got to take it one day at a time in our preparation," Head Coach Vic Fangio said ahead of the bye. "We have to try and fix all of our correctable errors and we have to do a better job of coaching these guys. We've got to do a better job of calling the game — me defensively [and] [Offensive Coordinator] Pat [Shurmur] and [Quarterbacks Coach] Mike [Shula] offensively. We all have to be better."
If Denver is going to make a playoff push, it must answer several crucial questions.
These are those questions:
CAN THE OFFENSE FIND MORE CONSISTENCY ON THIRD DOWN?
The Broncos broke out in Week 9 against the Cowboys, as Denver reached the 30-point mark for the first time in 2021. In that win, the Broncos put together more than 400 yards of offense, ran for 190 yards, dominated time of possession and converted more than 50 percent of their third downs.
At its best, the Denver offense has run the ball effectively, controlled the clock and stayed in third-and-short scenarios to keep the chains moving. The return of Jerry Jeudy has helped the third-down offense, but the team struggled again in that area in a Week 10 loss to the Eagles.
"One-for-11 on third down is not the way you go about winning a game in the NFL, and it's critical that we stay out there," Fangio said before the bye. "We had done that in the previous few weeks. [Against the Eagles] we obviously didn't get that done, but that is an area of emphasis for us every week."
CAN TEDDY BRIDGEWATER AND THE BRONCOS PUSH THE BALL DOWN THE FIELD?
The Broncos' offense has seemingly been at its best when the team has been able to push the ball down the field to its weapons. Whether it's Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Noah Fant or Albert Okwuegbunam, the Broncos have the pieces to pick up big gains through the air. In the second half of the season, it will be imperative that Teddy Bridgewater can connect with those players for chunk plays.
In the win over the Cowboys, the Broncos had seven passes of at least 16 yards, including three gains of at least 25 yards. In their loss to the Eagles, Denver had just two such plays — and just one of those gains came on a pass of more than 20 yards down the field.
Bridgewater has certainly pushed the ball down the field at times this year, as he's connected on big shots in games against the Jaguars and Steelers, among others. For the Broncos to avoid stacked boxes in the run game and to have the ability to score quickly, Denver must make those big plays on a more consistent basis.
CAN THE BRONCOS BE BETTER ON OPENING DRIVES?
On both sides of the ball, the Broncos must do a better job setting the tone early to start stacking wins.
On offense, the Broncos have scored just twice on opening drives all season. They posted a field goal against Jacksonville and broke a 24-game streak without an opening-drive touchdown against the Raiders in Week 6. In all, Denver has scored just 26 points (2.6 per game) in first quarters this season.
"Well, every week it's something different, but basically, we haven't run it or thrown it well enough in those first drives to get them going," Fangio said. "We've had a few too many three-and-outs in those situations, and we need to start better. There's no doubt about that."
Defensively, the Broncos must also improve. Denver has allowed opening-drive touchdowns on four occasions and allowed an opening-drive field goal to the Eagles in Week 10. When Denver's defense can play with a lead, it tends to bring out the strength of the unit. An early deficit, though, has brought issues at times for Denver.
On their road toward a playoff berth, Denver would benefit from some fast starts.
CAN BRADLEY CHUBB BE A DIFFERENCE MAKER?
The Broncos' rushers have performed admirably since the team traded Von Miller to the Rams — Denver ranks tied for 11th in sacks per game — but the Broncos will certainly be glad to regain the 2018 fifth-overall pick when he's able to take the field.
In 2020, Chubb posted 7.5 sacks and was among the NFL league leaders in quarterback pressures as he earned a Pro Bowl nod. In his only other healthy season, Chubb posted a franchise rookie record 12 sacks in 2018. If Chubb can provide a game-changing pass-rush threat opposite Malik Reed, the Broncos' defense could near its potential.
As the Broncos prepare for a stretch of games against quarterbacks like Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Derek Carr, finding a pass rush — particularly with four players — will be necessary. Perhaps Chubb can be the spark for an already competent pass rush.
CAN DENVER IMPROVE AGAINST THE RUN?
The Broncos have been decimated at inside linebacker this season, losing Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson for the season and at times playing without reserves Baron Browning, Justin Strnad and Micah Kiser. Denver also missed nose tackle Mike Purcell for a brief period of time. Those injuries have certainly not helped the team's run defense, which was a major issue in losses to the Browns and Eagles. Both teams are known for their strong ground games, but Denver must improve to help make teams one-dimensional.
"Well, we need to be more consistent obviously in stopping the run," Fangio said this week. "We've played some good running teams of late [and] we've struggled with that at different points in the season. Some points it's been good, some not so [good]. I mean obviously, [in] our last game against Philly it wasn't good enough. Then Philly went out against the No. 1-ranked run defense in the league, both in yards and per carry average, and they basically did the same thing to them [on Sunday]."
Browning is expected to return against the Chargers, and Kenny Young has been a strong midseason addition from the Rams. At times, Denver has stepped up against opposing run games. Down the stretch, the performance must be a bit more consistent.
WILL JUSTIN SIMMONS CONTINUE HIS HOT STRETCH?
For all the strategy involved in this game, there's a simple truth: a team's best players have to be at their best.
Safety Justin Simmons has noted on several occasions this season that the Broncos' key players must be at their best, and he's certainly held up his end of the bargain in recent weeks. After recording just one interception through the first seven games, Simmons has posted three in the last three games and is on pace for a career high in takeaways.
Against Washington, both of Simmons' interceptions prevented touchdowns. Then, against Philadelphia, Simmons set the Broncos up for a chance at a game-tying score in the second half. At his best, Simmons can have as big of an impact as any defensive back in the league. He has a knack for taking the ball away — and he's shown it in recent weeks.
If Simmons can continue to make game-changing plays, the Broncos will have a major advantage on the back end of their defense.
CAN DENVER STRING WINS TOGETHER?
This is the overarching question, and it will be necessary to earn a playoff bid.
Ten wins would likely earn the Broncos a wild-card berth, and it may also put them in contention for their first AFC West title since 2015. Nine wins, especially with the Broncos existing losses to wild-card contenders, may not be enough to sneak into the dance.
Here's one path to 10 wins: Earn one win over the next two matchups at home against the Chargers and on the road against the Chiefs. Win a pair of home wins against the Lions and Bengals. Split a pair of road games against the Raiders and Chargers. Earn a Week 18 home win against the Chiefs.
"I know you see [standings], right?" Tim Patrick said Monday. "Everybody's got five wins except for the Chiefs. Everything's right in front of us. We have five conference games left. We win those game and we're in the playoffs. Why would you look into the offseason, when all we've got to do is win our conference and we're in the playoffs? It's very possible — easily possible."
The Broncos will need to find a way to string together wins, though, and it starts this weekend against the Chargers.