ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Division games are the most important. Any coach will tell you that. As the cliche' goes, they count double.
But right behind that in determining the course of a season -- starting with the division race -- are games against common opponents. Every game the Broncos play against the NFC East, starting with Sunday's duel with the Dallas Cowboys, qualifies when it comes to the AFC West.
Per the scheduling rotation, the AFC West is paired with the NFC East this year, which presents a stern challenge. Its teams went a combined 39-24-1 last year. The AFC West and NFC East were the only divisions in the NFL last season that saw three of their four teams finish with winning records.
The AFC West faces a stern challenge going up against the Cowboys, Giants, Redskins and Eagles. Of course, the same can be said of the NFC East taking on the Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers, who went a collective 38-26 last season.
The 16 games played among the teams will go a long way toward determining the playoff participants in both conferences, beginning with Sunday's game in Denver and an early-afternoon duel between the Eagles and Chiefs in Kansas City.
Of course, our focus is on Broncos-Cowboys -- and the Broncos' keys to success as they try to break out to a 2-0 start for the third consecutive season.
1. STOP THE RUN FIRST
The challenge the Broncos faced last week from the Chargers is doubled this week against Dallas' star-studded offensive line and running back Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the league in rushing yardage and ranks second in yards from scrimmage since the start of the 2016 season. Dallas is 8-0 when Elliott averages at least 5.4 yards per touch.
Denver's run defense came up big in Week 1; it heads into this week in the league's top third in yardage allowed per carry (2.9) and first-down rate (one allowed every 7.3 attempts). But Elliott and the Cowboys' three All-Pro offensive linemen will test the Broncos' front seven.
The key to defending Elliott?
"It's about discipline," Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods said. "He'll take it to the right, cut it the whole way back. He'll hit it anywhere in terms of what their zone-scheme run game is. That's what we've been preaching to the guys all week. Just be accountable in your gap, fit your gaps and just know that he is going to bounce the ball and get back."
- TEST DALLAS' YOUNG SECONDARY**
With cornerback Orlando Scandrick ruled out because of a fractured hand, the Cowboys will again lean heavily on rookie Chidobe Awuzie and second-year veteran Anthony Brown, who started nine games last season.
The Cowboys absorbed heavy losses in free agency during the offseason. Four players who started a combined 39 games last year left in the offseason -- cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne and safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. Despite those departures, Dallas' rebuilt defensive backfield held the New York Giants to just 4.83 yards per pass play in Week 1.
"They don't have the big-name guys, but they have guys that are playing hard," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "That's what you want as a coach. Sometimes big-time players are the ones that are lackadaisical, knowing they're good and you can catch them.
"Those guys that are trying to make a name for themselves, those are the dogs. That's what they have. They have a lot of hungry dogs. They have a lot of guys who want to make plays, that are playing physical and trying to be that Pro Bowl or All-Pro player. They're working that way to make name for themselves. I think that's what I'm seeing the most on film and that's what makes them so dangerous."
3. GET THE COWBOYS INTO LONG-YARDAGE PASSING SITUATIONS
It's not that Dallas isn't capable of succeeding through the air. Second-year quarterback Dak Prescott has thrown just five interceptions in 18 career starts (including postseason) and is one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks.
But in those 18 starts, the Cowboys are 0-4 when at least 60 percent of their offensive snaps are passing plays, and they are 14-0 in all other games.
Every team wants to force the Cowboys to run; Joseph knows this. Accomplishing this has been difficult.
"That's everyone's plan going into the game, I'm assuming. But they run the ball so well. If you're in second-and-3 or third-and-3, there is no pressure on Dak to complete balls down the field," Head Coach Vance Joseph said.
"Dak does a great job. He's a young, poised quarterback. He's smart. He runs their system. You can't discredit Dak for what they do. He is in control of what they do and he's good at it. They're good at it. It's their system. They're really good at it. We have to find a way to make them uncomfortable."
Dez Bryant vs. Aqib Talib is just one matchup to watch when the Broncos host the Cowboys on Sunday.