BUFFALO, N.Y. – As you absorb the above retro musical accompaniment that is Buffalo’s civic feel-good jingle circa 1980, here’s five things to watch in the Broncos’ Week 16 duel with the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. on Saturday:
1. STOP THE FUMBLES.
The most disconcerting statistic for the Broncos this month is their six fumbles lost in the last three games — five by the offense (including three by quarterback Tim Tebow) and one by the special teams, on Quan Cosby’s lost fumble at the end of the second quarter last week.
“We’ve got to stop that in a hurry,” offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said.
The fumbles haven’t happened for the same reason. Some were preventable, such as Tebow’s fumble in Minnesota when the football came out as he hit the ground; others, such as Lance Ball’s fumble last week, are more the result of good defense than a ball-carrying shortcoming.
“They’ve got to secure the football, but that’s all part of the game. Every play you’re going to look at, guys are carrying the ball the exact same way, and now all of a sudden he gets hit from behind, so it’s a different scenario for any fumble, I would say. Hopefully we don’t have any more.”
The Broncos haven’t won a game since 2009 in which they had at least three turnovers, and John Fox-coached teams are 10-35 when giving away the football three times in a game. Further, the only three games in which the Broncos have allowed more than 40 points this season came when the offense had three turnovers.
Against a 5-9 team that has a seven-game losing streak, the No. 29 rushing defense and a rushing offense that has seen its per-game output drop by 32 percent since its 5-2 start, the Broncos don’t need to give them a helping hand. If Tebow can respond to checkmate situations by placing two hands on the football and taking the sack without losing his grasp, the Broncos will have an excellent shot at moving to 7-1 since Nov. 1.
2. FORCE FITZPATRICK MISTAKES.
Like the injury-riddled Bills as a whole, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has struggled since their 5-2 start. During those first seven games, he never had a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio and ended November with 14 touchdowns against seven interceptions. In the seven games since, he’s thrown eight touchdown passes against 12 interceptions and has thrown multiple interceptions in five of the last seven games.
In that span, Fitzpatrick admits that he’s forced passes into traffic.
“I think that’s fair to say, especially when you fall behind in games, you start to press a little bit or try to make plays that aren’t there,” he said. “That’s something I’ve tried to improve at as the season’s gone on and tried to get better at, but I understand you can’t score two touchdowns with one throw; you’ve got to be able to take what the defense gives you.”
What Fitzpatrick also knows is that he might lose a potential target or two on each play, given the help that must be provided to his offensive tackles in blocking Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. But they can’t base their entire strategy around devoting as many men as possible to the bookend pass-rushers.
“When you’ve got two, it’s hard to scheme for that because they’re so talented and difficult to defend with one guy. You can’t sit there and double both of them,” Fitzpatrick said.
3. CLEARER COMMUNICATION.
If Brian Dawkins returns after missing last week’s game with a neck strain, this problem will likely take care of itself.
In addition to often creeping into the box to provide an extra jolt to the run defense and pass rush, Dawkins is often responsible for getting his fellow defensive backs properly lined up; without his presence last week — and with New England’s Tom Brady guiding the Patriots into their typical array of pre-snap looks — Denver’s communication broke down to the point where it occasionally looked “discombobulated,” as cornerback Andre’ Goodman described after the 41-23 loss.
If Dawkins can’t play, rookies Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter would be responsible for making sure the back end of the defense is aligned properly.
“The thing is not to make the same mistake over and over again, and those guys are not doing that. They’re correcting the things they need to correct,” Dawkins said.
“Just being more vocal is, I think, the biggest thing for a young safety. When you know what you’re doing, you’re going to speak loud and communicate to everybody. Those are the things that they’re getting better at.”
4. KEEP IT SIMPLE.
Denver leads the league in rushing and had 167 yards on the ground by the end of the first quarter last Sunday. Buffalo ranks 28th in rushing defense and has allowed 159 rushing yards per game since Week 9, a figure only surpassed by the Cleveland Browns.
Unless the Bills break out to an early and bulbous lead, there’s little reason for the Broncos to deviate from their typical game plan: bruising power and option runs with the occasional pass to keep the defense honest.
5. DON’T LOOK AT THE SCOREBOARD.
It’s all well and good that the Broncos could have the division title sealed by the final gun Saturday if they win and the Raiders lose in their early-afternoon game at Kansas City. So too is the fact that no matter what happens on Christmas Eve, the Broncos need only to win against the Chiefs in Week 17 to render every other result involving AFC West teams irrelevant.
But if the Broncos lose in Buffalo, their back door to the playoffs in case of defeat in Week 17 — a wild-card slot — effectively closes. Their hopes would rely upon the Bengals and Jets each losing twice and the Titans losing once.
Further, a loss Sunday would eliminate any chance of the Broncos earning the prized No. 3 playoff seed that would allow them to avoid a wild-card duel with the defending AFC champion Steelers. Two Broncos wins and a Texans loss to Tennessee next Sunday would put the teams into a strength-of-victory tiebreaker that the Broncos would likely win.
Yes, there’s a tomorrow for the Broncos if they don’t defeat the Bills, but given what happened the last times they had multi-game losing streaks in December — when they lost playoff spots in 2006, 2008 and 2009 — only the Broncos fans who began supporting the team after Tebow’s arrival wouldn’t be wound tight heading into the Chiefs game, fearing they were about to witness another monumental late-season fade.
The 2008 collapse included a Week 16 loss to the fading Bills, who went into that game having lost seven of eight. If history repeats itself, collars will be tight at Dove Valley, even for the many players, coaches and executives who weren’t with the team for its ’06, ’08 and ’09 free-falls.