The Vikings enter Denver Sunday as a touchdown underdog against a Broncos team that hasn’t lost at home in 22 months. Denver is unbeaten this season and being viewed as a Super Bowl frontrunner from the AFC. They are hard to beat at home, but they are not infallible.
These are the 10 keys to winning or losing Sunday. Whichever team can get more of the checkmarks in their column will likely be the team that walks away with a win.
Take Advantage of the Shuffle: The Broncos have been shorthanded on the offensive line since losing Pro Bowler Ryan Clady, who is on season-ending injured reserve. He was replaced at left tackle by rookie Ty Sambrailo, but he hasn’t practiced all week with a shoulder injury and was declared out on Friday. As a result, on Sunday the Broncos will have right tackle Ryan Harris move to left tackle and Michael Schofield will make his first career start at right tackle. This should be a chance for both Everson Griffen and Brian Robison to take advantage of the out-of-position Broncos O-line.
Release the Hounds!: In the season opener, the Vikings were humbled by the San Francisco 49ers. One of the primary reasons was that offensive big dog Adrian Peterson had just 10 carries for 31 yards and the Vikings lost. In the last two games, he has rushed 49 times for 260 yards and two touchdowns. Coincidence? Not a chance.
Invade Peyton’s Place: One of the reasons Peyton Manning has been so successful throughout his career is that he is rarely sacked. Since 2003, Manning has never been sacked more than 21 times in 16 games. Through three games, he has been sacked eight times, which projects out to 43 sacks – more than double any of his last 12 seasons. If the Vikings can create the kind of pressure they have against immobile QBs like Matthew Stafford and Philip Rivers the last two games, Manning may be under siege and history has taught us that when Manning is rattled, he looks human and can be overwhelmed.
No Turnovers: The Broncos are second in turnovers created defensively with 10. If you turn the ball over three times a game, you rarely win, much less against a Denver offense that cashes in on turnovers with regularity.
Backups Step Up: With WR Charles Johnson and S Andrew Sendejo out and WR Jarius Wright questionable to play with a hand injury, it will be vital for former starters Robert Blanton and Cordarrelle Patterson to step up their games and make an impact. One man’s injury is another man’s opportunity, and both need to be ready to take advantage of this chance to make an impression.
Get Off To a Fast Start: Neither the Vikings nor the Broncos have allowed an opponent to score a point in the first quarter of their three games this year. Neither team has been behind early, creating time to settle into games before facing a deficit. If the Vikings can start off hot, it could put the Broncos on their heels, a spot they haven’t been in early this season.
Continue the Squeeze on Anderson: C.J. Anderson was supposed to be the real deal in Denver after having a strong second half to the 2014 season. Denver has run Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball out of town because of its faith in Anderson. But, in three games, he has just 74 yards on 32 carries and has looked awful doing it. If the Vikings can keep Denver at its current 2.6-yard rushing average, they have a chance to pull off the upset.
Flip the Field Position On Punts: The Vikings have allowed just 2 yards on punt returns through three games. On 11 Vikings punts, only four of them have been returned for a grand total of 2 yards. Denver is allowing almost 11 yards per returned punt and Marcus Sherels is the slippery kind of returner who can pop off a big return and give the offense good field position.
Win On Third Down: Nobody is better than Denver’s defense on third down, allowing just 18.8 percent to be converted. The Vikings are allowing a whopping 45.2 percent of opponent third downs to be converted. Both of those numbers need to change if the Vikings expect to win.
Stop Denver Late: The Broncos have outscored their opponents 27-7 in the fourth quarter and have been able to come from behind late to win two of their three games. If the Vikings have the lead heading into the fourth, they need to finish what they started.
The Broncos are viewed as an elite team for a reason. They can win high-scoring offensive shootouts. They can win 9-6 type of defensive struggles. It may take a nearly perfect game for the Vikings to come away with a road win in Denver that only one team in the last 22 regular season games at Sports Authority Stadium has been able to accomplish. They need to get every bounce going their way and take advantage of every perceived weakness the Broncos have. Can the Vikings put the “2” in 22-2 at Mile High?