The last time the Tennessee Titans traveled to the Mile High City to take on the Denver Broncos, it was more than an ugly 16-0 win for the home team — it was the start of a new era for the Titans. Week 6 of last season would be the last time Marcus Mariota would see the field for the team that drafted him with the second overall pick in 2015. After five seasons of inconsistent play, nagging injuries, and flashes of brilliance, Mariota's tenure as the Titans' franchise quarterback came to an end in the third quarter. The newly acquired Ryan Tannehill stepped in under center and never looked back. With Tannehill calling the shots, Tennessee turned an uninspired 2-4 start into a fourth straight 9-7 finish and a playoff run that's set the table for the most anticipated Titans' season in a very long time.
The Broncos are riding into the 2020 season on their own wave of positive momentum. After the failed Joe Flacco experiment and the inevitable benching of Brandon Allen, it was second-round pick Drew Lock's turn to take a crack at running the Denver offense — and Lock delivered. Denver went 4-1 with Lock at the helm, creating a renewed sense of excitement for the future despite missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season. The Broncos are looking to take the next step this year and snap their playoff skid in head coach Vic Fangio's second season.
Tennessee at Denver
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 14, 10:10 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Drew Lock
Broncos fans should know better than to get excited about a potential franchise quarterback that's only started a handful of games. (See: Tebow, Tim) But in what little we saw of Lock last season, he certainly looked like the right man for the job going forward, leading two game-winning drives, a comeback win, with seven touchdown passes, an 89.7 rating, and only three interceptions.
In the first quarter of his first start a season ago, Lock found outstanding young receiver Courtland Sutton (1,112 yards, 6 TDs in 2019) twice in the end zone. On Monday night, Lock will likely be without his No. 1 pass catcher after Sutton sustained a shoulder injury in practice earlier in the week. However, Lock will have three new targets to throw to in rookie wide receivers Jerry Jeudy (1st round, Alabama) and KJ Hamler (2nd round, Penn State) as well as veteran running back Melvin Gordon coming out of the backfield.
Lock will be facing a veteran Titans secondary, led by All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, that's dynamic when healthy, but more opportunistic than stout. It will be interesting to watch how Lock and his new targets jell after a limited offseason, no preseason, and against a recently re-tooled Tennessee pass rush.
2. Battle of the backfields
With the potential loss of Sutton and the Broncos' inexperienced receiving corps in the spotlight, it's reasonable to expect Denver to try and establish the running game early. With the return of Phillip Lindsay (1,011 rushing yards, 6 TDs, 4.5 ypc in 2019) and the addition of the aforementioned Gordon, expect Denver to try and match the Titans' defensive physicality by running the ball more times than not and avoid as many passing downs as possible.
For the Titans' offense, it's the same recipe they rode to the AFC Championship Game last season — feed the recently well-paid and reigning rushing king, Derrick Henry (1,540 yards, 16 TDs). Henry sets the tone for the entirety of Tennessee's offense. The run game sets up the play-action passing game where Tannehill did so much damage a season ago, completing 78 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and posting an absurd 143.5 rating. With new faces and uncertainty within the Denver defensive front seven, Monday night is a good opportunity for the Tennessee offense to pick up where it left off a season ago.
3. Who's in? Who's out? Who's where?
Friday, the Broncos were dealt even more terrible news. In addition to the potential loss of Sutton, star linebacker Von Miller, arguably the best defensive player of his generation, opted to have surgery on the ankle he injured earlier in the week during practice. The surgery will require at least three months of recovery and he could be out for the entirety of the season.
The loss of Miller is especially bitter since the Denver defense was welcoming back Miller's pass-rushing partner, Bradley Chubb, who missed most of last year with a partially torn ACL. But Chubb won't be taking on the Titans' offense by himself, not with the addition of former Titan and five-time Pro Bowl selection, Jurrell Casey, anchoring the Denver front line. The loss of Miller is immeasurable, but if Chubb can return to his 2018 self (60 tackles, 12 sacks) and Casey can help clog the middle, the Broncos should be able to attack a Titans offensive line that allowed the third-most sacks (56) a season ago.
Casey isn't the only new face in a new place. One week ago, after months of speculation, the Titans finally landed free agent Jadeveon Clowney with a one-year, $13 million contract. Clowney's sack numbers won't jump out and grab you (32 in six seasons), but he's a force nonetheless. He can line up anywhere in the front seven. He can rush off the edge from either the linebacker spot or from the end as well as across from the offensive guard. Adding Clowney adds even more physicality to a Titans defense that prides itself on being tougher than their opponents.
While the Broncos may be on the upswing coming into 2020, the Titans open the schedule already knowing who they are — especially on offense. With injuries to Sutton and Miller, the Broncos will be without two of their most important playmakers, putting a lot of pressure on the inexperienced and youthful offense. I like King Henry and the Titans in a low-scoring affair to wrap up Week 1.
Prediction: Titans 21, Broncos 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.