By WOODY PAIGE
Here’s the good news:
Despite being demolished by the Raiders last week, the Broncos are the fourth best team in the AFC, and considered among the top six-seven NFL teams in the rankings of major websites. New England is No. 1, followed by the rather shocking news team of the year — the Dallas Cowboys. Then, depending on who you’re paying attention to, the Seahawks, the Raiders or the Chiefs (who have won 18 of their past regular-season and postseason games). Also in the top six-seven are the Falcons.
Here’s the bad news for the Broncos:
They must play four of their seven remaining regular-season games against the three AFC teams ahead of them — Kansas City (twice), New England and Oakland again.
Here’s some good news:
The Broncos will play three of those games at home in late November (Chiefs), in mid-December (Patriots) and on Jan. 1, 2017 (Raiders).
Here’s the bad news:
The Saints, the Broncos’ next opponent, have won four of their last five games and are averaging 30 points a game this season. The Broncos have scored as many as 30 only once.
Here’s the worst news: The Broncos are regressing, not progressing, on offense, and the defense is getting unhealthier every week.
Denver at New Orleans is not a trap game; it’s a setup. The Broncos are being set up to lose their fourth game in the past six.
As Broncos coach Gary Kubiak accurately pointed out on Monday, the day after, if you can’t run and can’t stop the run in this league, you don’t do very well.
Only five NFL teams are lower than the Broncos’ 3.8 yards per carry, and the Broncos are 30th in rushing yards allowed. The Saints are much as a running team, but they rank second in passing behind Atlanta and just ahead of Oakland. And those two other teams beat the Broncos
DREW BREES WILL BREEZE TO VICTORY OVER BRONCOS
Drew Brees still can throw. And Trevor Siemian’s passing accuracy gets uglier every week. Brees is so close to The Manning Family he could be the fourth brother. Cooper Manning, who wasn’t a quarterback in the NFL (but was the best athlete of the Archie’s three sons), is a Brees neighbor. And Brees, second in the league in passing, is close to both Peyton and Eli. And Drew could break all of Peyton’s passing records if he does hang on until he’s 45.
Consider the Raiders’ offense against the Broncos’ offense: Oakland’s offensive line, especially with that six-linemen strategy, was vastly superior to the Broncos’ mediocre five-man line. The Raiders are better at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. The combination of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree has the stronger numbers combined than Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and the Broncos backups at the two outside and slot positions can’t compare to Oakland’s. The tight ends are about even. Neither figure much, although Virgil Green FINALLY is factoring on occasion.
The idea of the Broncos’ strength being the running game has evaporated. Since C.J. Anderson was hurt, the Broncos have rushed for a total of 90 yards in two games. The Chargers and the Raiders finished with a combined total of 341.
If you can’t run, and you can’t stop the run . . .
Siemian is not special enough to win a game by himself, and the offensive line is not solid enough to overpower an opponent. The defeat in Oakland was embarrassing and demoralizing.
What to do?
It’s not Dante’s Inferno yet, and the Broncos don’t have to abandon all hope of entering the Superdome on Sunday (even though they’ve lost two Super Bowls there and once were shut out in New Orleans 42-0). But they do have to flip the switch and flip the script. Coming out and throwing is not the solution, especially since Kubiak claims he wants to be a dominant running team. The Broncos, under these circumstances of three-and-out, must alternate Devontae Booker and Kapri Bibbs on every down. Bibbs did have that 69-yard pass play that really was just screen pass run for a touchdown. He showed the moves that made him ridiculous at Colorado State. Run like Spot in the second-grade reader.
Then, throw deep, even if it means four interceptions for Siemian. A deep pick is the same as a punt, and both Thomas and Sanders can go up.
Show some trickery – an Emmanuel end-around, a flea-flicker (which we haven’t seen all year), three tight ends and a fullback on the same play, more bubble screens to D.T., more quarterback rollouts and bootlegs, a quarterback draw and a moving pocket to avoid sacks.
If Aqib Talib, Brandon Marshall and Derek Wolfe are out against New Orleans, go to more zone, more safeties and T.J. Ward more as a linebacker in the box.
And never return a kickoff out of the end zone.
If all fails in New Orleans, the Broncos will have to use the bye week to get Paxton Lynch ready and put him in the shotgun full time as he was in the game in Tampa.
This is not panic, but it’s not picnic time. The Broncos certainly are not going to reach the 12- or 13-victory plateau of the past four seasons, but they are in danger of plunging below double-digit victories for the first time since the Kyle Orton-Tim Tebow Era.
And that’s no-good news.
I’m picking the Broncos to lose 27-16.
Against the spread last week, I was 8-4-1 (Carolina, at -3, was a wash in winning 13-10). That was 360 units to the good (giving up 10 percent on losses, as you would in Las Vegas). For the season, with hypothetical betting, I’m up 1,080, so you return on investment through nine weeks, if you’d followed my lead, would be very good, better than saving at a bank.
Here are my other picks vs. betting Vegas line, set by Jay Rood, vice president of the sports book for the 12 MGM Resorts International hotels.
Baltimore (-7.5) over Cleveland 26-17.
Jacksonville (-1) over Houston 24-14.
San Diego (-2) over Miami 31-27
Tampa Bay over Chicago (-1) 26-21.
Atlanta (-1) over Philadelphia 34-20.
New England (-7.5) over Seattle 28-16.
Arizona (-13.5) over San Francisco 35-10.
New York Jets (-1.5) over Los Angeles 27-14.
Carolina (-3) over Kansas City 24-20.
Washington (-3) over Minnesota 24-23.
Pittsburgh (-2) over Dallas 30-27.
New York Giants (-1) over Cincinnati 28-24.
Green Bay over Tennessee (-3) 34-24.
(This column originally appearing on thedenverchannel.com, but has been updated.)