SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The tenor of the noise and chatter that orbit the Broncos could scarcely be more different than it was during their run of six losses in seven games prior to their Week 10 bye.
But just because the tone has changed doesn't mean the Broncos are paying it any mind. Before their Nov. 18 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, some wondered whether the season was a lost cause, given that they had just five wins in their previous 21 games dating back to last season. Now the questions center around whether injuries to cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders dealt their playoff hopes a knockout blow.
The Broncos didn’t listen last month. They’re not listening now.
"I just think we don't care. We don't care what anybody else has to say," safety Su'a Cravens said. "We don't care how good your team is. We don't care if you're on a winning streak, or your quarterback is doing this, or your coach is doing this. We do not care.
"If you asked a month ago, they were talking about getting rid of everybody in here, we're tired of everybody, this team is washed and the season's over. And now, three weeks later, we're back in the hunt and they love us again.”
An oft-cited cliché in NFL circles is that a team is never as good as it seems when things are going well, nor as bad as it may appear during the worst losses. Thus, the prudent way to handle success and failure is by maintaining the same perspective, work ethic and belief in oneself, both individually and as a team.
To do that, Cravens cut out the extraneous noise.
“When we went down -- we lost [four] games in a row -- I deleted my Twitter app,” Cravens said, “because I just didn't care what people were saying, because they're not in this locker room, they don't know the hustle and the work we're putting in on a day-to-day basis, so I couldn't care less what they had to say.”
He doesn’t care now, either. He, like many of his teammates, is living the aforementioned cliché.
"So from when [observers] thought we were down to when they think we're up, we stay right here," Cravens said, gesturing with his hand to demonstrate being even-keeled. "We do not care what anybody says. We just play our game."
And since the bye, the Broncos' game has involved becoming one of the league's most opportunistic teams, which is where the keys to a win over the San Francisco 49ers begin.
Win the turnover battle
As ever, this is a key to success, but against a team whose minus-20 turnover margin ranks last, the ability to win the giveaway-takeaway statistic offers a clear path to the Broncos' fourth consecutive win.
San Francisco has lost eight consecutive games in which it had a negative turnover margin, including its last three in a row. In the last three weeks, the 49ers turned over the football eight times – at least twice in each contest – with no takeaways.
Meanwhile, the Broncos have forced nine turnovers in the last three weeks, with a plus-8 turnover margin in that span after being even before the bye. The key?
“Just hustling and playing hard, no matter what happens on the play. You can lose the play at the snap, but you play ‘til the whistle blows,” cornerback Bradley Roby said, citing Will Parks’ forced fumble against Pittsburgh as an example.
“Everything about that play looks like a touchdown. Wide-open, guy running to the end zone,” Roby said. “Will’s hustle allowed a turnover. That’s all turnovers are – just hustle.”
Establish ground control, but mix it up
Season-ending injuries suffered by Sanders and tight end Jeff Heuerman in the last two weeks, coupled with the trade of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered by tight end Jake Butt, might give the impression that the Broncos have to turn to a ground-intensive attack in order to survive on offense.
There is little doubt that the running game will be emphasized, given the Broncos’ success with it. The Broncos lead the AFC and rank second in the NFL in yards per carry (5.4). They hold the same spots in the conference and league in percentage of runs that move the chains (28.6). San Francisco is also 1-12 since Kyle Shanahan became their head coach when an opponent runs at least 45 percent of the time.
But Denver’s strong rates could all take a dip if opponents stack the box with eight or even nine defenders and the Broncos fail to make them pay with an effective passing game.
If the Broncos can establish the play-action game while using effective underneath, outside-the-numbers targets such as Phillip Lindsay, Devontae Booker and Matt LaCosse to stretch the 49ers defense horizontally, they can prevent them from selling out to stop the run, which in turn will help create the lanes that Lindsay, Booker and Royce Freeman need to turn short gains into long gallops.
Force the 49ers to pass
San Francisco is 7-3 under Shanahan when it runs at least 45 percent of the time – and 1-17 when it doesn’t. That lone win came during their five-game winning streak with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback late last season, making them 0-16 with other passers when they fail to hit the 45-percent mark.
Even with running back Matt Brieda ruled out because of an ankle injury, expect the 49ers to try and feed the football to rookie Jeff Wilson Jr., who averaged 4.1 yards per carry on 15 attempts last week and added another eight receptions for 73 yards, finishing the game with 134 yards from scrimmage on 23 total touches.
If the Broncos can start quickly and sustain its momentum through the mid-game stretches that gave them trouble until last week, they can force the 49ers to lean heavily on quarterback Nick Mullens, pulling them out of their comfort zone.