DENVER -- The goal of mediocrity mocks the proud tradition of the Broncos franchise. Denver once planned the winter around deep playoff runs, often its biggest concern centering on whether to rest players down the stretch.
That was a long time ago. The Broncos have posted three straight losing seasons for the first time since 1970-72. They have yet to return to the postseason since winning Super Bowl 50. I know the Broncos would like to tell those numbers to shut up. They can turn down the volume on their recent past with a victory Sunday.
That challenge increased in difficulty when the inactive list posted 90 minutes before the game. The Broncos will be without their top two cornerbacks, Bryce Callahan, ruled out this morning with an ankle issue, and A.J. Bouye, who remains in the concussion protocol. The Broncos healthy cornerbacks are rookies Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey, Duke Dawson, Kevin Toliver and Davonte Harris. Bassey has struggled and was benched vs. Jets. Toliver could see signifcant snaps and how he and Bassey play could determine if the Broncos made the right decision to let De'Vante Bausby go a few weeks ago (The Cardinals signed him to their 53-man roster).
Don't be surprised if the Broncos use matchup zone coverage with safety Justin Simmons tilting toward Julio Jones. Simmons has corner skills and unique size. As for Callahan, he tested his ankle in pregame, and it didn't feel good, according to a source. He needs more time to heal.
Anyway, upset the Falcons and the Broncos would reach .500 for the first time since they were 6-6 in 2018. Nobody sets out out to be average. However, if the Broncos boast a 4-4 record at the halfway point they will be firmly in the postseason conversation in a season framed around learning if Drew Lock is a franchise quarterback.
One thing is certain. Lock can dance, and his teammates have his back. And if he wins, nobody cares if he cuts a rug, not Vic Fangio, not John Lithgow.
"I am not stopping," Lock said with a smile.
I am not going to tell Lock to get off my lawn. I love the wag in a puppy's tale. His young teammates like it. And God knows this offense can use personality after providing the entertainment value of a city council meeting the past four years. It all works if Lock plays well. He is 6-4 as a starter, and the Broncos have won seven straight games against teams with losing records.
For this team to return to relevancy, it's time to build off last Sunday's breathtaking comeback.
My Denver7 keys to an upset:
Pass in the left lane
It is time to use more uptempo. It cannot define the attack because repeated short drives will gas the Denver defense. But there's no reason not to throttle up and down in the same possession. Lock is comfortable going fast after starring in Josh Heupel's attack at Missouri. Lock went 14-for-18 for 155 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter last week, benefiting from the Chargers' misguided decision to blitz once. Repeating those numbers is not realistic, but it represents a way to get Lock in rhythm against one of the league's worst pass defenses.
Lock targeted rookie Jerry Jeudy a season-high 10 times last week. He produced four catches for 73 yards. He played more outside than slot last week. I would keep him there frequently even with Tim Patrick back in the lineup because it creates vertical options and yards after the catch. I believe Jeudy, going back to a stadium where he has played well, will produce his first 100-yard game.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur told me he isn't on social media, but he knows it is part of my job. And the hashtag #PheedPhil is real. Broncos Country wants to see Lindsay get the ball more. He has never fumbled in his career, and leads all NFL running backs with 6.4 yards per carry this season (45 for 287). The Broncos must make sure he's getting a minimum of 15 touches to balance the offense, allowing Melvin Gordon to function as a third down back and a receiver out of the backfield.
Win the middle
The Falcons struggle to generate a pass rush. However, coach Raheem Morris is blitzing with frequency since taking over. He likes to send heat up the middle. Lloyd Cushenberry and Austin Schlottmann have to play much better or Lock will be in for a long, painful afternoon.
Get in the Zone
The Falcons are a passing team. Yes, they have Todd Gurley at running back, but they rank second in passing yards per game at 292.4. Part of that is because the Falcons trail frequently. The other part is they trust veteran Matt Ryan, who is making his 208th start compared to Lock's 11th. Ryan will look to target Julio Jones, who has posted frightening numbers over the past three weeks. He has 23 catches on 29 targets for 371 yards and two touchdowns. So that means, it's time for Fangio to mix in his magic with some matchup zone coverages, while dialing up pressure to create rushed throws.
Slow the run
The Falcons view the Broncos as ripe for giving up chunk yards on the ground. Denver offered little resistance against the Chargers, showing leaks following the season-ending injuries to Mike Purcell and Jurrell Casey. The onus falls on Dre'Mont Jones, Slyvester Williams, DeShawn Williams and DeMarcus Walker to step up and stay stout, especially with standout defensive end Shelby Harris sidelined while on the COVID-19 restricted list for a final day.
Keep it close
The Falcons have a history of paging Dr. Heimlich. Their chokes have become the stuff of legend, and led to Dan Quinn's firing earlier this season. Give Atlanta a reason to fade. The Falcons are winless at home in four games this season and 3-9 in their last 12 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. If the Broncos can keep this cagematch close, Brandon McManus will provide the winning kick to the shins.
RENCK'S PREDICTION: Broncos 26, Falcons 23