The "Thursday Night Football" world tour heads to the desert this week as the Denver Broncos (2-4) battle the Arizona Cardinals (1-5). These are two teams that desperately need a win to jump-start their seasons as both are on the brink of playoff elimination and securing a high pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Denver fell behind 20-3 against the Los Angeles Rams but kept battling in the second half to give itself a shot to win, ultimately falling short 23-20. It was a combination of factors that led to the loss: First, the Broncos failed to slow down Todd Gurley, as he rushed for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Second, there was a costly lack of discipline by wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, whose taunting penalty in the first quarter ended up costing the Broncos four points. Third, the offense was way too one-dimensional, as running back Royce Freeman was limited to just 22 yards on nine carries.
Arizona struggled at the line of scrimmage in a 27-17 loss at Minnesota. The Cardinals couldn’t run the ball on offense (just 61 yards on the ground). Meanwhile, the Vikings dominated the Arizona defense on the ground, as Latavius Murray rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Josh Rosen learned a harsh lesson about life on the road, as the Cardinals went 0-for-12 on third and fourth down. That inability to stay on the field won’t cut it, as it wears down your defense over four quarters. Head coach Steve Wilks and his offensive staff need to find answers quickly to jump-start the offense, possibly by using more of the no-huddle that Rosen ran at UCLA.
Denver at Arizona
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 18 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Broncos -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Denver defense
Von Miller and Bradley Chubb should have a field day against the Arizona offensive line after the duo teamed for 4.5 sacks and four tackles for a loss on Sunday. The Cardinals are not going to be able to get away with double teaming both guys. So, if Chubb can build off his three-sack performance, it should free up Miller to go wild. In the secondary, it is going to be key for the Broncos to play effective press coverage and not let Larry Fitzgerald and the rest of the Cardinals receivers to get loose behind them for big plays. Controlling David Johnson in the running game is another point of emphasis for the Denver defense, as Johnson is more than capable of going off for a big game if the chance presents itself. The ability to limit the explosive running plays and put Rosen in long-yardage passing situations will be a big key to success for the Broncos defense.
2. Denver offensive line vs. Arizona defensive line
This is where the short week can become even more of a challenge, as the Broncos are paper thin right now along the offensive line. Guard Ron Leary left Sunday’s game with what looked like an Achilles injury. Jared Veldheer could have an uphill battle to make it back from a knee injury suffered in Week 4 against Kansas City. The injury situation along the offensive line will provide some interesting challenges for Denver offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. One of the biggest challenges will be dealing with Cardinals end Chandler Jones, who is a handful for even the most seasoned offensive lines. Jones has had at least one sack in each of the last four games and is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Look for Musgrave to try and get the running game going early to set up Case Keenum in the quick passing game to slow the pass rush.
3. Desperation of both teams
For the Broncos, this game initiates a gauntlet of four out of their next six games on the road, including games against the Chiefs, Chargers and Bengals, who have a combined record of 13-5. That is why this game against the Cardinals is an absolute must win for Denver, which has failed to win a road game this season and needs to build momentum. Arizona needs this game more for confidence than anything else. The Cardinals are in a rebuilding situation with Rosen at quarterback, and any win they can get will help the psyche of the locker room. The head coaching battle of Vance Joseph and Steve Wilks will be an underrated key to this game, as Joseph is already on the hot seat and needs this win. Joseph must get his team ready to play and not let the Cardinals have any hope in this game. Wilks could use a win to help to build credibility within the locker room in his quest to get the players to buy in fully.
If the Broncos were at full strength along the offensive line, it would be easier to expect Denver to have a high-scoring offensive performance. However, with the health issues along the offensive front and the short week, this game has the feel of a low-scoring, ugly type of game. Case Keenum is the better quarterback and should be capable of doing just enough to minimize turnovers and not allow Arizona’s offense to get any short field opportunities. The growing pains for Rosen should continue against a quality Denver defense. The first team to 16-17 points should win this one. Look for Denver to ride a conservative offensive game plan to its third win of the 2018 season.
Prediction: Broncos 16, Cardinals 13
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.