LOS ANGELES — It’s beginning to feel a lot like Week 16.
The Broncos are set to play on Christmas Day for the fourth time in franchise history, and they’ll look to earn just their second two-game winning streak of the 2022 campaign.
Denver won’t be home for the holidays in this matchup, as the Broncos will return to SoFi Stadium to battle the Los Angeles Rams.
“Someone has to do it, and it will be us,” Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said this week. “I’m very excited and honored for this team to be able to play on this day. It will be a great opportunity for them to get on TV again and go against a great team in the Los Angeles Rams. My kids aren’t happy about it because it’s on Christmas, but we’ll make sure that we get the morning on the day before so the guys can spend some time with their families.”
There’s not nearly as much on the line as one would’ve expected in a game between the defending Super Bowl champions and a trendy preseason pick led by Russell Wilson. The Broncos, though, still have something to gain in a win over the Baker Mayfield-led Rams.
With a victory, the Broncos would improve to 5-10 and continue a stretch of momentum that began in a furious comeback against the Chiefs in Week 14.
Here are the questions that will determine if the Broncos will emerge victorious and be singing carols all the way back to Denver on Sunday night:
CAN THE BRONCOS’ OFFENSE PUT TOGETHER A COMPLETE GAME?
The Broncos have looked quite good in stretches over the last couple of weeks.
Against the Chiefs, Denver scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions to cut into a 27-0 lead. Then, against Arizona, the Broncos posted a 21-0 run to erase a 9-3 deficit and give Brett Rypien his first win as a starter since 2020.
While the Broncos still rank near the bottom of the league in points per game, the last two weeks have been promising. Denver has scored touchdowns on its last six red-zone trips, and the Broncos have posted their two highest point totals of the year in their last two efforts.
As Hackett described this week, the Broncos have also found this success in a variety of ways. In Week 14, Wilson and Rypien threw for a combined four touchdown passes, and Wilson challenged the Kansas City defense with his legs. Against the Cardinals, the Broncos committed to the ground game in the second half and overpowered the Arizona defense with its best rushing effort of the year.
“You always want to have a perfect 50-50 balance as much as you can,” Hackett said Friday of meshing the run and the pass. “For us, we want to continually run the football. That’s always important. That’s the offense’s best friend: to be able to run the football. It helps you with play-[action] pass and it helps you with so many different things that you do. Then we can mix up some of the passes that we use there. As we continually build this thing, we want to be sure that we’re getting a nice 50-50 mix for the defense to prepare for.”
With Wilson back in the lineup, the Broncos will look to keep the offensive momentum rolling and post its third-consecutive effort of at least 24 points. The last time the Broncos achieved that feat was Weeks 2-4 in 2016. They’ll get more than a little bit of a break, as the Rams will be without three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. The Rams still pose a challenge up front, but the Broncos’ offensive line — which gave up seven sacks in Week 15 — won’t have to battle with one of the best defenders in NFL history.
The Broncos, too, could receive reinforcements of their own. Denver activated Chase Edmonds off injured reserve, and Courtland Sutton could return after being limited in practice. Denver will also regain Wilson’s knack for both scrambling and taking the deep shot.
Yet while Denver has impressed with its second-half performances — the Broncos posted five second-half touchdowns in the last two weeks after scoring just six in the first 13 weeks — the team will look to start faster.
Denver has yet to post a four-quarter offensive performance, and it could come at no better time for the Broncos.
Who knows? With one more strong offensive performance, it may be time to call the improvement a trend.
CAN EJIRO EVERO’S UNIT FIND SUCCESS IN HIS RETURN TO LA?
The Broncos’ impressive first-year defensive coordinator, Ejiro Evero, is set to make his return to SoFi Stadium, where he helped guide the Rams to a world championship a year ago.
And he’s bringing an impressive defense back with him.
In Evero’s first year as a defensive play-caller and defensive coordinator, the Broncos have recorded the third-best scoring defense and fifth-best total defense in the NFL. The Broncos rank second in interceptions, with eight of them coming in the last three weeks; second in third-down percentage; and first in red-zone defense.
The Broncos have lost key contributors like Dre’Mont Jones and could be without Randy Gregory this week in LA, but Denver still has the talent to create difficulties for an opposing offense.
On the shoulders of new Pro Bowler Pat Surtain II and former Pro Bowler Justin Simmons, the Broncos boast the league’s fifth-best passing defense and should challenge Baker Mayfield as he makes his third start as a Ram. The former first-overall pick found immediate heroics, as he led the Rams to a come-from-behind win over the Raiders in Week 14. Against the Packers last week, he didn’t fare as well. The Oklahoma product completed 12-of-21 passes for 111 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 67.8 quarterback rating in the loss to Green Bay. The 111 passing yards represented Mayfield’s lowest total of the season, and the Rams remain stuck in a stretch that has seen them score 24 points just once since the start of Week 3.
Despite missing Cooper Kupp and a slew of other weapons, the Rams are still led by head coach Sean McVay, who is considered one of the top offensive minds in the NFL. He’ll know how to test Evero’s defense, just as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator will know how to attack McVay’s offense.
After a strong second-half performance against the Chiefs and another stingy effort vs. Arizona, the Broncos cannot afford to have a letdown in Los Angeles. If Evero, Surtain and Simmons can help hold Mayfield and the Rams’ offense in check, Denver should be able to limit its opponent’s scoring potential.
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“I recognize the importance of the West, but more importantly for me at this point in time, I recognize the importance of this win for our team and our fans,” Interim HC Jerry Rosburg said Monday.
The Broncos will look to get back in the win column against Arizona in Week 15.
“With a guy like that, he just knows how to make a bad play turn into a great play,” Pat Surtain II said. “He knows how to create second plays, utilizing his feet or his arms. He is a special type of quarterback.”
As the Broncos close in on final stretch of their 2022 season, they’ll get several more chances to test themselves against playoff contenders.
“We can’t lose any more games,” Russell Wilson said after Week 11. “This is the truth. That has to be our mentality.”
The Broncos will look to snap a five-game losing streak to the Raiders during a Week 11 matchup.
“In the end, that’s what it comes down to,” HC Nathaniel Hackett said. “Guys have to make plays. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time situations.”
In the midst of a four-game losing streak, the Broncos will aim to earn a win against the Jaguars (2-5) to gain a bit of momentum before the bye week.
With the Super Bowl XXXII champions looking on, the Broncos will have an opportunity to earn a win against the 4-2 New York Jets.
The Broncos will look to better their record and improve their division mark to 1-1 on the season as they travel to SoFi Stadium to battle Justin Herbert and the Chargers.
“You can worry about all of the things ahead, but what I do know is there are a lot of teams that are 2-2 and a lot of teams — a handful of teams that are 3-1 — and we’re right in striking distance,” Wilson said. “We got them right where we want them, so we have to go get it.”
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