Rick Jussel Column November 02, 2008

Which path will the Broncos choose to take?

Welcome, Denver Broncos, to your crossroads.

Look to your left and it’s a quarter-mile drag strip, a smoking, rubber-burning start, followed by parachutes opening and neck-jarring deceleration.

Look behind you and it’s a long and winding road — smooth for miles, then switchback after switchback. Think U.S. 550 from Montrose to Ouray, followed by Red Mountain Pass.

Look to your right and it’s both sides of Vail Pass, hills that demand plenty of horsepower to climb, brakes to keep you from crashing head on into something solid.

Check out straight ahead: It’s the autobahn, Interstate 80 from Beaver to St. George, Utah, at 100 mph with no truckers, no RVs, no nasty state patrolmen to slow your ride.

Today, the Broncos are idling at the crossroads of their season at New Mile High. Miami is the foe. Which way to turn?

Which route to take?

Despite disappointments of late, the team is 4-3 and could have a two-game lead in the suddenly mediocre AFC West by the end of the day. But a loss today to the Dolphins would seem to indicate recent rough efforts were the rule, not the exception.

What you will see today is a team that once again shows confidence, actually holds onto the ball and gets after the opposition — or a team that allows the foe to move the ball at will and struggles offensively because of penalties, fumbles and other mental miscues.

Miami is a perfect test, a team that, at 3-4, is much improved over last season, a team that has beaten several good teams, including a 38-13 thumping of the Patriots in New England, but a team that has lost to the Jets, Arizona and Houston.

Denver should win this game.

To do that, however, some things are going to have to change.

For one thing, the Broncos have to contain the Dolphins’ “Wildcat” formation, where they put running back Ronnie Brown in shotgun formation and allow him to pick and choose his routes.

So far this season, Brown has gained 406 yards on 98 carries and scored seven touchdowns.

He’s also been backed by Ricky Williams, the 235-pound sledgehammer, who has carried in the more traditional I-formation up-the-gut fashion 71 times for 267 yards.

The Dolphins have averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, but they are persistent. They won’t stop running at you until you prove you can stop them.

The big improvement in the Dolphins’ offense this season, however, hasn’t been in the running game.

It’s quarterback Chad Pennington.

The former Jet is in the same stratosphere as Denver’s Jay Cutler, having thrown for 1,710 yards (Cutler is at 1,862) for a rating of 100.5 (Cutler is at 91.7).

Pennington is among league leaders in yards per attempt at 8.47 yards (Cutler is at 7.33).

Unlike recent Dolphin seasons, Pennington is throwing on first down, almost unheard of over the past four Miami squads.

In last week’s impressive 25-16 win over the Bills, he threw 16 times on first down, compared to only 10 rushes.

The Broncos, obviously hurting defensively and now facing playing without the Bailey Bros., are going to have to find a way to slow the Dolphins’ methodical marches.

They are also going to have to hold onto the football when they gain possession.

I mentioned last week that the Broncos should go whole hog offensively and throw caution to the wind. Nothing happened during the bye week to change my mind.

Denver has to jump out in front.

That may happen because the team should have slot receiver Brandon Stokley back, as well as tight end Tony Scheffler, who is averaging a team-high 16.2 yards on 16 catches.

Also returning should be tailback Selvin Young. All three of those players missed the past two games and are certainly part of the reason the team has struggled of late.

They are the hope for today.

If we do not see the Broncos looking more like they did the first three games of the season — and the return of those key players should allow that to happen — then we’ve got a long, bumpy, winding hill to climb the rest of the way.

Let’s be optimistic as long as possible. I’ll take my 4-3 record picking with or against Denver (3-3-1 vs. the spread), and say the Broncos, a 31/2-point pick, get it done.

Cutler and his offensive mates jump out in front and force Pennington, definitely a finesse passer, not a deep threat, to throw too often and too long.

Make it Denver 33, Miami 28.


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