NEW ORLEANS -- The pessimism traces to the expectations. The Broncos own a 6-3 record, and it feels much worse. Such is the case for a franchise that measures itself by championship banners not moral victories.
The Broncos face the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. The season is not on the brink. But without squinting, the edge of the cliff becomes visible. The Broncos have not lost three straight road games since 2010. They exhibit mental toughness, possess resilience. However, they haven’t shown much in the way of an offense. And that is why so few people outside of the Broncos’ locker room believe they can beat New Orleans. The idea of the Saints eclipsing the Broncos a month ago seemed preposterous. The Broncos won their first four games, and the Saints defense looked like it couldn’t stop a run in a pair of panty hose.
The optics have changed. The Broncos have lost three of their last five games, including in visiting parks at San Diego and Oakland. The Saints have won four of their last five. New Orleans has quarterback Drew Brees, who can involve eight different targets, and a ramped up running game. Everything suggests Denver should lose, but there is a path to victory.
1. Start fast for once
The Broncos' 15-play script is not even off-Broadway worthy. The have scored 16 points in the first quarter, and one touchdown on an 11-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas after Aqib Talib’s interception. The Saints own 52 first quarter points. I don’t care how bad the Saints’ secondary is, the Broncos need to establish the run, gorge some clock and score at least once in the first quarter.
2. Stop the run like last year
The Broncos allow 128 yards per game on the ground, after permitting 83 a year ago. The Saints can run with Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower. As nose tackle Sly Williams, who has struggled this season, admitted to Denver7, “It’s time to shut up and make plays.” He’s right. It’s time for Adam Gotsis, Billy Winn and Williams to step up with Derek Wolfe out. I expect Wade Phillips to tweak the looks upfront as well, but blitzes are risky because of Brees’ excellence on hot routes.
3. Carry the load, O
OK, let’s get back to the offense. For the better part of two years, the defense has carried the load. The Broncos’ offense must “hold up its end of the bargain,” quarterback Trevor Siemian said. It’s more than that. The offense needs an identity. This attack is designed to work for Siemian if Denver can run the ball. If the Broncos can’t rush, and Siemian’s left shoulder appears compromised, it could be time to consider spreading out and trying Paxton Lynch after the bye week.
4. Play with nothing to lose
The Broncos are underdogs. They have been challenged. This could be cathartic. Why not play with freedom? With nothing to lose? Let it rip. This mindset should benefit the Broncos. And it would help if it manifests itself through deep shots to Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. Or how about a seam route to new tight end A.J. Derby?
5. See the light at the end of tunnel
The Broncos desperately need a bye week to get Aqib Talib, Derek Wolfe, Trevor Siemian, linebacker Brandon Marshall and center Matt Paradis healthy. Reach 7-3 at the break, and it provides fuel for a furious finish. Lose and it creates uncertainty and anxiety about the quarterback position, the health of the defense and the road to the postseason.