NASHVILLE, Tenn. --The importance of Sunday's game to the Broncos' playoff hopes can't be understated.
Tennessee is the last team the Broncos will see in the 2016 regular season that does not have a winning record. The Titans are the front range of a series of jagged, soaring, peaking teams that the Broncos will see in a final quarter of the season that is the league's toughest.
And while the Titans only stand at 6-6, their improvement -- and the progress of quarterback Marcus Mariota -- has put them in a three-way tie atop the AFC South. The tiebreakers don't favor them right now, largely because the Colts have already swept them. But Mariota's progress and an array of dangerous threats around him -- chiefly running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry and tight end Delanie Walker -- have the Titans poised for a breakthrough back to the ranks of contending teams.
It could happen down the stretch. Refreshed by a bye, blessed with a disruptive defensive interior and riding the precise, mistake-free play of Mariota -- particularly in the red zone, as he's never thrown an interception on a play snapped from inside the opponent's 20-yard line as a pro -- the Titans have enough pieces to contend into January if they can sizzle down the stretch.
What must the Broncos do to prevent that?
1. UNCLOG THE OFFENSE
The Broncos lead the league in three-and-outs, and had a season-high nine non-kneeldown possessions that failed to net a first down in last week's win at Jacksonville.
Eventually, a long run of short possessions will catch up to the Broncos. As it stands, their defense has been on the field for 814 plays, a 67.8-snaps-per-game average that is third-highest in the league, behind only San Francisco and the New York Giants. And no defense saw more work in Weeks 12 and 13 than the Broncos, who were on the field for 157 snaps -- nine more than anyone else.
- TAKE AWAY THE RUN FIRST**
"They feed off their run to be able to open up their pass," Harris said. "If we can make them one-dimensional, make them throw the ball, it will be tough for Mariota to beat us."
To wit: The Titans are 5-1 when they run for at least 4.5 yards per carry this season -- and 1-5 when they don't. In the overall tally, they are 6-1 when they rush for at least 130 yards, and 0-5 when they don't hit that milepost.
Tennessee's per-carry average of 4.77 yards is third-best in the league, but it wasn't built on big plays; the Titans' rate of runs that gain 20 or more yards -- one every 44.5 attempts -- is 14th. Where the Titans do their damage is via the death-by-paper-cuts runs of six to nine yards; they rank third in the league, with one of every 5.4 runs gaining at least six yards.
3. BRING DOWN MARIOTA
The Broncos must attack Mariota judiciously, remaining in position to minimize the risk of his backbreaking, explosive runs.
But if they can bring him down, they're likely to find team success at the end of the day. The Titans are 2-8 when Mariota is sacked three or more times; when he's sacked two times or fewer, they're 7-7.
Take a closer look at the Broncos' travel-day fashion, from UCHealth Training Center to the team hotel in Nashville. (photos by Eric Bakke unless noted)