ENGLEWOOD -- Five years ago, the Broncos found themselves grappling with a challenge summed up by a single words: Repeat.
Denver became an unlikely Super Bowl 50 champion, riding an historically great defense and a just-enough-offense to a victory over the Carolina Panthers. The run included a battery of close wins, the Matrix-type athleticism of Von Miller and coach Gary Kubiak navigating a quarterback controversy with aplomb, keeping the door open for Peyton Manning's return. Manning was a shadow of himself, but the Broncos would have not ended their season with rings without his cerebral adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
Why bring this up? The last time the Broncos started 4-0 was 2016. That season spiraled into the abyss with Kubiak's health problems, quarterback injuries and late-game collapses against the Chiefs and Titans that kept Denver out of the playoffs. That's where the Broncos have remained ever since. But no team that has started 4-0 the past two seasons has missed the postseason.
It's why Sunday provides a fascinating measuring stick, a playoff-type game in October. My #Denver7 keys to the Broncos beating the Ravens:
Teddy Bridgewater has played like a top 10 quarterback by any measure. He has shown the calm of an air traffic controller, finding solutions in the chaos. With a 76.7 percent completion rate and no turnovers, he can be trusted. He's hot so let him eat. The question then becomes who to feed?
Runners in passing game
The Ravens keep their defense straightforward. They play a lot of man coverage. Typically, it works. Not so much this season as they are allowing 314 yards passing per game. It sets up for Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick to run deeper, clear-out routes, leaving the running backs open in the flat and on screens. The Lions exploited this matchup with their backs netting nine receptions for 85 yards. Both Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams have good hands -- Williams needs to improve his focus on short passes -- and can make defenders miss. I would look for them to catch between 7-to-10 passes and the tight ends to produce multiple first downs as the Broncos continue their trend of winning time of possession.
On guard vs the blitz
Bridgewater has riddled blitzes this season. The Ravens blitzed nearly a third of the time vs. the Lions last week. Dalton Risner (foot) practiced Friday and is expected to make his 36th consecutive start, but that is not certain. Graham Glasgow (knee) did not work out and was ruled out, meaning Netane Muti makes his third start and second this season. The Broncos interior linemen have been inconsistent this season. They will be challenged vs. the aggressive Ravens. Bridgewater can be counted on to make the right read -- and he has shown a willingness to go deep that spoils the narrative that he is a checkdown king -- but the Broncos cannot let him absorb too many hits.
Lamar Jackson is a life hack. The Cheat Code. With apologies to Michael Vick, there's never been a quarterback like Jackson. He leads the league in yards per carry. He has posted back-to 1,000-yard rushing seasons. And he will use his legs to set up deep strikes through the air. The Broncos must exercise discipline. Hold the edge, don't cut in too soon and use the sideline as a defender. This will force Jackson to stay in the middle of the field, and ideally in the pocket more. Von Miller, Alexander Johnson, Justin Strnad, Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons must all tackle well in space, especially if they are designated to shadow or spy Jackson on specific plays.
On your Mark
The Broncos have not had much success covering tight ends over the last six years. They haven't faced an elite one this season. Enter Mark Andrews of the Ravens. He is a mismatch. How Broncos coach Vic Fangio defends him could decide this game. Will he use Strnad or safeties Caden Sterns, Simmons and Jackson? I expect Fangio to exercise his creativity by dropping seven and eight in coverage, while moving different players to follow Andrews.
No more red faces
The Broncos offense is dramatically improved. But it must take another step forward against the Ravens, specifically in the red zone. The Broncos have scored on 6 of 14 drives into the red zone, undermined by penalties and two fumbles. They cannot afford to leave points on the field in what will likely be their first game decided in the fourth quarter.
Big game, big play
Sometimes, it is simple. The best players have to make the biggest plays. In a tight contest, a Von Miller strip sack or Patrick Surtain II interception could be the difference. Jackson has turned the ball over five times. He extends plays, and is like herding a cat in the run game. But it also leaves him vulnerable to big hits as he holds onto the ball too long.
Troy's Prediction: Broncos 27, Ravens 24