DENVER -- The Houston Texans are hot, winners of five straight. The Broncos are hurt, missing five starters for Sunday's game.
You know what they say about problems in sports: 90 percent of people are glad you have them, and the other 10 percent don't care. No excuses, Broncos. They return home looking for their first victory in Denver since Sept. 16.
Lose Sunday and the perspective on the season shifts. They are no longer a contender, but rather a team in a transition at head coach, quarterback, cornerback, and offensive line. They Broncos squandered their margin for error weeks ago. They are 3-5, losers of five of their last six games. Fail to capitalize against the Texans, and change will arrive, the only question is when and how far reaching?
That said, this is a winnable game. My Denver7 keys to a Broncos victory:
Don't run from the truth
The Broncos are a running team, led by rookie Phillip Lindsay, who will receive the bulk of the carries with Royce Freeman out with an ankle injury. They rank seventh in yards per game (133.1). They lead the league in yards per attempt (5.30). Yet, they sit 18th in attempts per game (25.1). Some of this traces back to trailing late, leading to a flurry of passes. Too often, though, the Broncos bail on the ground game in the first and third quarters. Why not run more if you do it better than almost anyone else?
"I second that. I second that (freaking) motion," coordinator Bill Musgrave said.
Then don't talk about it, be about it.
Stop the run
For the Broncos to win, they must slow Lamar Miller. After reaching an historical abyss in back-to-back losses to the Jets and Rams, the Broncos rush defense has returned with vigor. Denver has yielded 118 yards in the past two games, including a season-low 2.72 yards per carry last week. Miller boasts back-to-back 100-yard games. Denver has to hold him to 75 or fewer to win.
On the Case
Case Keenum has not lived up to expectations. It's that simple. He's offered a slight upgrade over last season, leaving him the final eight games to show he's part of the longterm future or a placeholder for a drafted quarterback. Through eight games, the Broncos own the same record as a year ago -- 3-5. They are passing for more yards, 247.6 to 214.9. And he's more accurate, 64 percent to 59.9 percent. However, he has 10 picks vs 12 for the Broncos a year ago, and he's worse on third down (35.3 percent conversion to 37.6). He has to be better. And it starts against a team that once gave up on him.
No jump from hip hop
Demaryius Thomas plays for the Texans. He will be honored before the game with a "Thank You" on his banner hanging outside the stadium, and a video tribute. Thomas is a future Ring of Famer. However, the key to eclipsing the Texans is neutralizing DeAndre Hopkins, who has been targeted 78 times this season. Time to do something differently. Use Chris Harris Jr. to shadow Hopkins. All day. Make somebody else beat you.
Make Watson uncomfortable
That's the polite way of saying: hit him. DeShaun Watson will take some chances in the run game. He must be punished when he runs or holds onto the ball too long. Watson is a terrific athlete, and will look to pick on a Broncos secondary with shifted pieces -- Tramaine Brock in for Bradley Roby, Su'a Cravens making his season debut, and rarely-used Adam Jones and rookie Isaac Yiadom forced into nickel and dime packages.
The Broncos insist they are not an undisciplined team. The statistics say otherwise. The Broncos have been penalized 56 times -- and believe it or not that's an improvement over this time last season. Holding calls continue to sabotage drives. If Garett Bolles fails to show composure, he needs to sit for a series or two or more.
Use the crowd
This might be the last time the home crowd keeps hope alive. With a win, the Broncos enter the bye week 4-5 with a chance. Start fast. Rile those in orange and use the noise to fuel the pass rush.
Renck Prediction: Broncos 27, Texans 24