ENGLEWOOD -- When Drew Lock baited a defender and darted a touchdown pass to rookie K.J. Hamler on the last play of regulation, it sparked delirium and raised an important question.
Are the Broncos poised for a run or a slump over the final nine games?
This hangs over the Broncos, shapes every lens from which this team is viewed. Anyone watching on Sunday knows the Broncos boast a playoff-caliber defense. But can they play complementary football, leading to meaningful games in December? Offensively, the fourth quarter provided hope in the 21-point comeback victory. Everything about the final weeks comes down to this: determining if Drew Lock is capable of competing in a division with Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr.
Lock looked the part over the final 15 minutes, completing 14 of 18 passes for 155 yards and three touchdowns (the Chargers did him a favor by blitzing once during this time following the injury to Joey Bosa). He threw a dime to tight end Albert Okwuegbunam for his first touchdown, threaded the needle to DaeSean Hamilton for a score and made a point guard type drive and dish to Hamler. This is what a franchise quarterbacks look like. They elevate the play of those around them.
In a league that has becoming increasingly offensive, teams cannot win without scoring at least 23 points a game. That is what made the Broncos' first half so mind-numbing. They finished with 60 yards and two first downs, booed off the field by their limited home fans.
After what played out in Indianapolis last season -- the turtle in shell fourth-quarter plays that led to Joe Flacco calling out the coaching staff -- I am not naive enough to think that the Chargers' conservative game plan was all the work of Pat Shurmur. Coach Vic Fangio leans toward winning 17-14, and it was clear a decision to devise an attack that prevented Lock from making mistakes. It also prevented him from making plays. Lock completed 9 of 15 passes for 58 yards, looking timid and indecisive.
For Lock to develop, he must let down his hair and go to the air.
"We have plays we use strategically to go uptempo,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "There’s times where it makes sense.”
They can protect him through scheme -- using two tight ends and a running back to chip block at times -- and he needs to recognize the blitz. You can't miss inside on outside routes. You can't throw into traffic in the middle of the field. Lock must fire low on crossers and slants so only his receiver has a chance at the ball. And dial up some screens to Melvin Gordon.
These are things we want to see from Lock over the next two months.
Also, don't be afraid to go uptempo. Lock flourished under former Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel in two seasons of a go-go attack, including one year with 3,964 yards and 44 touchdowns.
"I have a great relationship with coach Shurmur. I am excited to see where this week goes," Lock said, them smiled and added later, "I am biased toward uptempo (after playing in college for three years)."
Getting the ball out quickly to playmakers makes a lot of sense, especially on a short week. I believe rookie receiver Jerry Jeudy (pictured) is poised for his first 100-yard game as he returns to a place where played huge college games.
The Falcons, too, are vulnerable. They will blitz up the middle, as they did repeatedly against the Panthers last week, but don't generate much outside rush. No one on their team has more than 2.5 sacks or two interceptions. Atlanta ranks last in yards allowed per play (6.56) and 31st in passing yards allowed (311.4).
This is a winnable game, if not a necessary victory for Denver. But the Broncos are going to have to unLock Drew, even if reluctantly, to pull off the upset. It's time to take off the training wheels, and deal with the scabbed knees and elbows in exchange for some "Look mom, No hands" glory.
The Broncos will be without starting right guard Graham Glasgow for the second straight week after he tested positive for COVID-19. Austin Schlottmann will start in his place. Broncos cornerback A.J. Bouye remains in the concussion protocol. More on his status will not be known until Friday at the earliest. ...
The Broncos placed standout defensive end Shelby Harris on the COVID-19 restricted list, leaving his status for Sunday uncertain. I texted with Harris on Thursday. He said he continues to test negative. "I feel completely normal," said Harris, who is in self-quarantine and admitted he has "no clue" if will be cleared to play. Broncos coach Vic Fangio they are not sure if Harris will be available. "We are still sifting through that with the league," he said. If Harris is ruled out, the Broncos will call up rookie McTelvin Agim to pair with Sylvester Williams, DeMarcus Walker and Dre'Mont Jones. ...
One thing we won't see is Lock tempering his exuberance. He danced after last Sunday's winning drive, and received scorn from national talk show host Colin Cowherd. "Truthfully, I feel like the person, and there might be more than one, just might not be able to dance as well. We are part of the younger generation. I do believe it can bring the offense together. I promise you, the (dancing) is not going to stop." Lock said he doesn't practice the celebrations, but has been doing them since college, and he added the Buzz Lightyear moves last year before adding a volleyball spike and dances this season. ...
Broncos Fangio on several of his players being upset that the fans booed them, leading them to admonish the fans after the game. "That's just part of pro sports. In some towns, it's harsher than others. Me with my Philadelphia roots, I know all about it. Fans pay their money they can boo if they want." ...
According to NFLonCBS, Broncos stalwart Phillip Lindsay is the first player since the merger to have 450 career carries and no fumbles. ...
Fangio expects Lindsay (jammed toes) and Bryce Callahan (ankle) to practice on a limited basis Thursday and for them to be good to go on Sunday. ...
The Broncos have 16.5 sacks over the past four games, and their 20 overall sacks ranks seventh in the league. ...
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said you find him on social media, but promised that "We have the same warm feelings for Phil” as fans do on Twitter and Facebook.