MINNEAPOLIS — Dalton Risner never wavers. He knows the challenge of facing the Broncos Sunday in downtown Minneapolis. The Vikings boast an undefeated home record. Denver owns a single road win. No one outside the locker room believes the Broncos can pull off the shocker.
“I don’t know how many people have given us a chance in games this season. We don’t need them to tell us this against the Vikings. We realize that. All we need to know is that we are 3-6 and they are 7-3,” Risner said. “That’s the only chip we need on our shoulder.”
The Broncos hold onto a Crisco-coated rope as they try to remain in the playoff hunt. Any return to relevance would require six victories in the final seven games. Two more losses and the argument to play rookie quarterback Drew Lock in December will gain significant steam.
For now, the focus is narrow. Upset Minnesota. My Denver7 keys to a victory:
Pass it along
At times this season, the Broncos made passing a kidney stone look easier than passing the football. However, Brandon Allen posted more touchdowns (two) in his debut than Joe Flacco did in the month of October (one). Allen has impressed teammates with his poise and professionalism. He remains ready for his first road test, but playing well in this loud environment is another story. Denver averages 16.6 points a game. Anything less than 20 on Sunday and they will get their ears boxed. Allen must exploit matchups with receiver Courtland Sutton. Sutton aims to reach the Pro Bowl, and is blossoming into a star in his second season. When the Vikings play him man or show a favorable matchup, Allen must target him. The Vikings rank 18th against the pass, yielding 242 yards per game. While they have nine interceptions they will take chances. Allen can’t miss when they do.
Rookie Noah Fant needs to be the second or third priority in the passing game for the remainder of the season. In absence of a playoff berth developing Fant – and possibly Lock -- is a nice consolation prize. Learn from the Browns game, and use him over the middle. Take the obvious mismatches, especially on crossing routes against linebackers.
Time for Tim
A theme exists. The Broncos must win this game through the air – something they have failed to accomplish this season. The challenge is keeping Allen upright. The Broncos line remains leaky – Denver has allowed 30 sacks, seventh worst -- but offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello can protect Allen through scheme with quick slants and short drops. And if no one is open, Allen needs to run for at least two first downs. Extending plays is critical and where the return of receiver Tim Patrick can matter. He is a big bodied receiver who can find space when Allen scrambles.
Diontae Spencer holds the key to a possible upset. He has speed to make him an ideal gadget player. Using him on a well-timed reserve or a flea flicker is something I would love to see. Denver has nothing to lose except another game. There’s no sense in holding back trick plays for stocking stuffers.
Swipe a page from the Vikings and employ the screen game to Phillip Lindsay. He needs more touches. If the running attack slows, get Lindsay in space with blockers. Screens are a staple of this offense. Let’s see it, maybe even on third down where Minnesota is vulnerable (teams convert 39 percent of the time).
Slow burn on Cook
Dalvin Cook represents the center of the Vikings’ universe. Everything about Minnesota’s offense spins off him. He leads the NFL in rushing. Former Florida State teammate DeMarcus Walker called him “magic.” The Broncos have to maintain integrity on the backside of plays. Cook excels at putting his foot in the ground and cutting behind his line that has helped Minnesota average 153 rushing yards per game, third best. The Broncos must tackle well at the point of attack on runs and screens or they are doomed.
Hand it to Kirk
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is sizzling. After a dreadful start, he has 15 touchdowns and one interception over his last six games. However, receiver Adam Thielen remains out, leaving Chris Harris Jr. to plaster Stefon Diggs, Minnesota's big-play threat. Translation: If the Broncos can keep it close, Cousins will give them a few chances for turnovers. The Broncos rank tied for 29th with seven takeaways this season. Winning Sunday requires at least two, and one pick.
Renck’s prediction: Vikings 26, Broncos 17.