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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The first half of the Denver Broncos’ season has been an absolute rollercoaster, hitting everything from a 2-0 start, to a four-game losing streak and even a 35-point victory.
At 3-5, the Broncos are on pace for a 6-10 season — a one-game improvement from the dreadful 5-11 season last year. If the coaster continues down the tracks it’s currently on, Denver will have back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972.
However, as Von Miller stated after Sunday’s loss, there’s still a long season ahead, and the team “can still make whatever we want out of this season.”
Sitting two games back of the final wild-card spot, there’s still plenty of time to right the ship. But for that to happen, here’s what needs to change to give the Broncos a fighting shot.
BETTER QUARTERBACK PLAY
First and foremost, the Broncos must get better production from the most important position in all of sports.
Through the first half of the season, Case Keenum’s 83 passer rating only tops the first-round rookies that have started games, C.J. Beathard, Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.
Additionally, Keenum leads the league with 10 interceptions, his 10 touchdowns are in the bottom third for current starting quarterbacks and he’s in the bottom third of the league in sacks.
Over the past four weeks, Keenum has improved statistically — tossing seven touchdowns to only four interceptions — but in that same time, he’s also had five fumbles, with many of his turnovers coming at critical times of the game.
“Our team and Case are very similar. We play good enough football to win, and then you got these five critical plays a game when we don’t play well, and we end up losing to good teams,” Broncos’ head coach Vance Joseph said, evaluating Keenum’s first eight games. “In critical moments, he’s got to play better.”
For the Broncos to have any chance to have a significant rebound in the second half of the season, the veteran quarterback needs to play like he did last year — tossing 22 touchdowns to only seven interceptions in his 14 starts.
CLEAN UP THE LAUNDRY
You may want to cover your eyes for this one.
In nearly half of Denver’s games, there’s a strong argument to be made the Broncos were their own toughest opponent, beating themselves more than the team lined up across from them.
“In every big game that we’ve played, the penalties have killed us, especially offensive holdings,” Joseph frankly stated.
“We lost 10 points against the Rams just strictly on penalties. Sunday we lost three 20-plus-yard plays because of penalties. That’s us. We have to fix that. We can’t complain about the officials and the half-and-half calls. Everyone had half-and-half calls, but we have to play cleaner, and we haven’t done it in the five losses.”
Along with costing the team 10 points against the Rams, Denver had double-digit penalties against the Baltimore Ravens (13) and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 8 (10).
Denver has had an NFL-high 249 offensive yards negated due to penalties. That’s over 30 yards per game gone due to their own mistakes.
“We’ve got to eliminate the mistakes, we’ve got to eliminate the penalties and be a lot more disciplined. If we don’t do that, it’s going to be very tough,” John Elway blatantly said midway through the season. “I think we’ve shown enough will and want-to that if we can eliminate beating ourselves, then we can have a chance to turn it around.”
A major contributor to this issue has been the offensive line, specifically Garett Bolles. The former first-round pick has the second-most offensive holding penalties this year (6) with all of his struggles due to poor technique, according to Joseph.
Joseph also said that when the rest of the offensive line gets healthy, Bolles could receive rest from “time to time.”
But the offensive penalties aren’t strictly on Bolles as Denver is on pace to be called for a whopping 36 offensive holding penalties this year. That’s currently double the league average.
For Denver to start winning consistently, they’ve got to first stop beating themselves.
At times, Denver’s looked like a real contender — i.e. their first game against the Chiefs and their game against the Rams.
Other times, however, they’ve looked like the same 5-11 team they were last year — i.e. when they were blown out by the New York Jets.
One of the few aspects Denver’s been consistent with is their inconsistency.
From week to week and within games the Broncos have been all over the board.
In Sunday’s game against the Chiefs, the Broncos’ defense allowed three points, had one interception and forced five punts, in the first and fourth quarters, a stellar effort against Kansas City’s high-flying offense.
In the second and third quarter, however, Denver’s defense allowed four-straight touchdowns.
“The bottom line is the games look like they’re close, but we’ve got to play better in the middle,” Elway said matter-of-factly. “We have to start being in games going into the fourth quarter, not playing catch up the whole time. Obviously, we’ve played some good football teams, but we still have to go out and play 60 minutes and play with a lot more consistency.”
One area where Denver can certainly be more consistent is their defense.
Denver’s defense currently is the fourth-highest paid defense in the league, yet they are bottom ten in yards allowed and yards per play.
A major reason for this is their inconsistent run defense. Through the first three weeks of the season, the Broncos’ defense was one of the best against the run.
The following to weeks, however, Denver allowed 142, 323 and 270 rushing yards. The last two weeks, on the other hand, Denver’s only given up a combined 118 rushing yards.
Nearly every aspect of Joseph’s team has shown flashes to be good enough to compete, but every single unit has been consistent in being inconsistent.
“We’ve been very inconsistent, obviously, and I think that that’s been the toughest thing,” Elway said.
WHAT IT BOILS DOWN TO
According to the standings, the Broncos are just as close to the worst team in the entire AFC as they are to making the playoffs, sitting two games out of each.
To say the season is in the balance would be an understatement.
“It’s tough right now with our record being 3-5,” Chris Harris Jr. honestly said. “We got to win every game to almost make it to the playoffs.”
Derek Wolfe doubled-down on Harris Jr.’s statement, saying the Broncos simply had to win all eight remaining games.
Sweeping the second half of the season would certainly put Denver in the playoffs. But with two five-win teams sitting in the two wild-card spots, and Denver boasting a dreadful 1-4 conference record, there’s no guarantee that a 7-1 finish would do the job.
The Broncos aren’t out, but they certainly have put themselves in a tough position entering the backstretch.