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Broncos vs Browns: Fate of season and playoffs hinges on Denver win

It all comes down to Saturday’s game at Mile High. Here’s what the Broncos must do to keep their season alive.

This is a must-win game.

That cliche gets thrown out so much, it’s lost its significance. This is not one of of those times. The time to save the season is here.

In other words: This is a must-win game.

That’s what faces the Denver Broncos (6-7) on Saturday at home versus the Cleveland Browns (5-7-1). Win and the Broncos keep their miniscule playoff hopes alive. Lose and their season ends. It’s that simple.

As Adam Malnati and I said on the MHR Radio Podcast, we’ll either see a Denver team do whatever it takes to keep its playoff dream alive or the one that we saw in the crushing loss to the San Francisco 49ers that embarrassed itself.

To bring in another cliche: It all comes down to this.

Offensive Rankings

Cleveland: Fifteenth in overall offense (359.4 yards), 14th in rushing (120.2), 17th in passing (239.2) and 18th in points (22.5).

Denver: Sixteenth in overall offense (358.6 yards), seventh in rushing (130.2), 21st in passing (228.4) and 19th in points (22.3).

Defense Rankings

Cleveland: Thirty-first in overall defense (411.2 yards), 28th in rushing (133.3), 31st in passing (277.9) and tied for 24th in points (25.5).

Denver: Twenty-fourth in overall defense (383.4 yards), 19th in rushing (119.2), 26th in passing (264.2) and ninth in points (21.7).

Here are our keys to the game.

Case Keenum, let ‘er rip

The Broncos quarterback needs to stop playing like he’s trying not to lose. Similar to the prevent defense, it prevents your team from winning. It’s obvious Keenum doesn’t want to turn the ball over but that doesn’t mean you stop taking shots down the field. Let it rip when the opportunity presents itself. Test the Cleveland defense. Allow Courtland Sutton to make plays given he’s shown in similar situations he’ll come down with the ball or get a pass interference call. Don’t limit what the offense can do because you’re scurred you might turn the ball over. Open it up and let ‘er rip. — Ian St. Clair

Better secondary play

Denver’s secondary needs to play out of its minds. Baker Mayfield has thrown for 281 yards a game, 11 TDs, and just four interceptions in the five games since Hue Jackson was fired, with a 73.2 percent completion rate. Over that span, he’s basically been a top five QB in the NFL. This Browns team is a different animal than it was in September or October, and Mayfield’s behind the renaissance. That means if you want to beat Cleveland, you have to beat its plucky, highly accurate young quarterback. The only way that can happen is if the Broncos secondary steps up to do its part by playing well above its recent level. But if they let David Njoku do what George Kittle did, Denver will have no chance. And it won’t be made any easier by the news that rookie corner Isaac Yiadom probably won’t play vs the Browns this weekend. That means your top three Broncos corners for this contest are Bradley Roby, Tramaine Brock, and either Brendan Langley or Jamar Taylor. Taylor Kothe

Orange Rush

This game is being billed by the NFL as a battle between rookie studs. Well, Bradley Chubb needs to show why the Broncos were so excited to grab him, and why the Browns made a mistake by not grabbing Chubb. If the defense can force Mayfield into some quick decisions, and make him uncomfortable, it should generate turnovers that will turn into scoring opportunities for the offense. — Adam Malnati

Rookie time

The key to this game will be very similar for the next three weeks: Let’s see what Denver has in the young and unproven guys. Look, if the Broncos lose to the 49ers, they can and will lose to the Browns, Oakland Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers. And as these are “keys to the game” and not “keys to victory,” my key to the game is to start playing the young guys and see how they handle the pressure of real NFL football. It’s time to shift our eyes to the future, and there’s no better time than now. — Pete Baron

Dominate the trenches

The Broncos offensive line was absolutely dominated in the trenches by the San Francisco defensive front. After three weeks of solid play, they finally had a down week. In order for Denver’s offense to have any luck against the Browns defense that has a handful of impact players, the offensive line has to do a better job of protecting Keenum. The Broncos cannot afford to let Myles Garrett (who has 12.5 sacks on the season) rattle Keenum or the Broncos passing attack will suffer just like it did last Sunday. They also need to do a better job at blocking for Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. If Denver’s running attack fails to get going early, it could be in for a long day against an ascending Browns team. — Christopher Hart

How about the defense watch film

The 49ers came in with the exact same plays and scheme they’ve been using all year and the Broncos linebackers and safeties seemed utterly surprised by it. Safeties and linebackers need to study so they don’t embarrass themselves this week. Linebackers were biting on every run action last Sunday, and the safeties played with zero discipline or basic understanding of what the offense was trying to do. Get together and play disciplined football, and hopefully they get some help from their defensive coordinator. I’m not holding my breath, though. I’m starting David Njoku in both my fantasy playoffs, if that tells you how confident I am that Denver will correct last week’s errors. — Jeff Essary

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What are your keys to victory for the Broncos?