DENVER — These games make sense of 6 a.m. lifts. These games reward strict diets, personal trainers and endless film sessions that make retinas bleed.
Sunday is the Why.
For the first time since 2016, the Broncos are playing meaningful games in December. This one is the biggest to date this season. The Broncos host the Bengals. Both are 7-6 with their noses pressed up against the postseason window pane. They face the two hardest remaining schedules. Still, a victory Sunday creates a pathway to the playoffs.
For the Broncos, they are not shying away from the magnitude of the contest.
"If feels like," Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons said, "win or go home."
Which leads me into the Broncos' Denver7 keys to victory:
Establish the run
There are times watching the Broncos, it feels like a marathon. All they do is run. They remind me of Rex Ryan's Jets with Mark Sanchez. The plan is to stay grounded and let the defense suffocate the opponent in a low-scoring affair. Is this sustainable? No. Could it work this week at home? Yes. The Broncos boast two running backs in the top 15 with Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams, who have combined for 1,459 yards on 314 carries for 4.6 yards a clip. The offense line is physical and functions better in the ground game than it does in pass protection. Both running backs could eclipse 1,000 yards. However, the Bengals rank fourth against the run, yielding 93.1 yards. Strength on strength. Broncos have to rush 30 times for at least 110 yards to win.
Win on third down
The numbers are staggering. When the Broncos lose, they convert third downs at 26 percent. When they win, they convert at 60 percent. "Bingo," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur told me. Denver needs manageable downs — third and four or less — and must convert 40-to-45 percent Sunday.
One big shot
There is no way Denver is winning by just running. This is the week the receivers must emerge from the witness protection program. The Broncos' receivers boast one touchdown in the past seven games. Jerry Jeudy has zero this season. Time for him to get on the board this week.
Trust in Teddy
In a game like this, a quarterback needs to make two plays with his feet. So can Teddy Bridgewater steal a first down on a scramble and another on a sneak? Bridgewater has shown he will protect the ball. In his last six games, he has six touchdowns and two turnovers. He needs two scores Sunday — one to a receiver and another to a running back.
Cut to the Chase
Joe Burrow destroys man coverage. He extends plays, and finds former LSU Tigers star Ja'Marr Chase (10 touchdowns, third best). If Chase beats the Broncos over the top for a score, that will be the difference. Denver has to make Chase work hard for his yards. Look for the Broncos to run mix man coverage with matchup zone concepts — similar to the Cowboys game — and attempt to confuse Burrow. Having Bryce Callahan back will provide help against Chase and the rest of Cincinnati's explosive wide receivers.
Cup of Joe Mixon
The Broncos' blueprint defensively starts with slowing Joe Mixon. Look for Denver to stack the box, especially if Dre'Mont Jones (foot) can't go or is limited. Mixon has been held to an average of 56 yards on the ground the past two games and 3.02 yards per carry. He can be contained. When the Bengals become one dimensional, they fall behind early. Their rallies have fallen short the past two weeks as the Bengals are 2-4 in their last six games. And remember, the Broncos are 17-4 when leading at half under Fangio and 1-21 when they trail.
Not Home Alone
Even with the no-shows, the Broncos crowd has impressed with its volume and intensity in the last two home wins. If the Broncos can carry a lead into the fourth quarter, playing at Mile High becomes a thing. Bradley Chubb sealing the victory with a sack because the tackles can't hear themselves think would be a fitting tribute to the past.
TROY'S PREDICTION: BRONCOS 23, BENGALS 20.