DENVER -- I appeared on a Cleveland radio show this week and was asked an interesting question: Do Broncos fans consider the Browns a rival?
It struck me as me odd until I shook my head back into the 1980s. Growing up in Colorado, few sports moments resonate like the Broncos' AFC Championship wins over the Cleveland Browns. It produced The Drive, the watershed moment of John Elway's Hall of Fame career. And then came The Fumble, Earnest Byner's breathtaking game spoiled by a gaffe that prevented Cleveland from advancing to its first Super Bowl. The Browns are still waiting.
The Broncos have won 11 straight games against Cleveland, including an improbable 26-23 overtime road victory in 2015 that was easier to appreciate than explain. But back to the question: Is it a rivalry? The answer is no. The Broncos don't play the Browns enough, they don't lose to them enough, and Denver has real beef with the Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers, and of course, the Patriots.
For years, the Broncos-Patriots match-up held AFC homefield advantage in the balance. Saturday, the stakes are different. The Broncos seek to keep their postseason hopes flickering, seek to provide more solid footing for coach Vance Joseph's future and seek to move closer to avoiding back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972.
My Denver7 keys to victory:
Hurry, Hurry, Hurry
There is irony in the Broncos' awful first-quarter stretch. They ranked in the top five in first period scoring. Then Joseph began emphasizing the importance of fast starts. The Broncos have scored three first quarter points over the last four games. Denver reached the nadir last Sunday, punting on its first six possessions. Getting a lead is critical in bringing the crowd into play.
On the Case
Case Keenum is no longer making mistakes. He has zero interceptions over this last five games. He is not making enough plays. In playing not to lose, it's preventing the Broncos from winning. Joseph gave Keenum license to make mistakes this week. When receivers are open in the seam, he has to let it go. It is critical to loosening up the front, which will be designed to stop the run.
Trust the kids
Working off the same point, Keenum has to trust Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton. Sutton was compromised last week with a quad issue and struggled to create separation. However, he can still jump. Don't be afraid to throw him a 50-for-50 ball multiple times along the sideline or in the end zone. Hamilton is a strong route runner, especially in the slot. At the risk of turnovers, Keenum must place faith in the rookies.
Make him sweat
Baker Mayfield has posted a 3-2 record over his last five games with a 114.3 quarterback rating. He is accurate, fearless and spreads the ball around. The Broncos must make him uncomfortable. They have to hit him, and work from the inside out. Get pressure up the middle from Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe to flush him into the lanes of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Miller needs a single sack to become the Broncos' franchise leader, eclipsing Simon Fletcher's record of 97.5
Chubb v. Chubb
Bradley Chubb needs three sacks over the final three games to set the all-time rookie single-season record. He is a star. Nick Chubb, his second cousin, is enjoying a big first season as well. He averages 5.3 yards per pop, and has 10 combined rushing and passing touchdowns. Making the Browns one dimensional remains imperative to enhancing the pass rush.
Lean on Lindsay
The Broncos will focus on stopping rookie Phillip Lindsay. The 49ers held him to 30 yards, rattling Denver. Getting Lindsay going is critical against one of the league's worst run defenses. The Broncos are 0-5 when their runningbacks fail to eclipse 100 yards on the ground.
Take a bow, and the ball
Cleveland is much improved. But their road issues are well-known. They are 1-4 when losing the turnover battle. The Broncos formula is simple: run, rush and and rob. This is an elimination game for the Broncos. Lose here, and forget about the playoffs and start bracing for another coaching search.
RENCK'S PREDICTION: Broncos 23, Browns 20