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Eagles-Broncos thoughts: Don't overlook this struggling Denver team

Eagles-Broncos
1 p.m. on CBS
Eagles favored by 7.5

An underrated foe stands between the 7-1 Eagles and their bye week, as the 3-4 Broncos bring the NFL’s No.1 ranked defense to Lincoln Financial Field Sunday.

The Broncos are in the midst of a three-game losing streak and have made a change under center, naming Brock Osweiler starting quarterback this week. Yet this a team that’s only a season-and-a-half removed from a Super Bowl championship, with much of the core talent still in place.

They’re also desperate. The Broncos are quickly losing ground in AFC playoff races, and need this game to remain in the conversation.

The Eagles are riding a six-game winning streak and would love to carry that momentum into the bye, but it may not come as easy as some of their recent victories. Denver has the horses to make this competitive — potentially even pull off the upset.

Putting the ‘O’ back in Offense
If the Broncos are to have any shot at turning their season around, they need to fix their offense. Denver ranks second in the NFL with 17 turnovers in 2017 and has managed to average 12.2 points over the last five contests. Abysmal.

With Pro Bowl talents like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders at wide receiver, as well as C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles at running back, there’s no reason for it. That’s why the Broncos finally benched Trevor Siemian and handed the offense over to Osweiler.

Whether that helps anything remains to be seen. Osweiler is a career 59.8.-percent passer averaging 6.2 yards per attempt with 26 touchdowns to 22 interceptions in six pro seasons. He was traded by the Texans in March and cut by the Browns in September before finding his way back to Denver.

It’s worth reiterating the Broncos are desperate. This move is proof, but they have to try something to jump start this offense. Denver hasn’t scored more than 19 points since Week 2, while the Eagles haven’t scored fewer than 20 this season.

Force Osweiler to stay in his lane, and the rest should take care of itself.

Keeping the ‘D’ in Defense     
Then again, the Eagles haven’t been up against many defenses as strong this. Denver enters Week 9 ranked first in total yards allowed, second against the run, and fourth against the pass. The Broncos are No. 1 on third downs as well — an area the Eagles' offense has really excelled this season.

This unit has few if any weakness, yet the Broncos are surrendering 21 points per game, which is only 13th in the NFL. Some of that is a result of the offense’s inability to mount scoring drives or take care of the football, but opponents are avoiding the big mistakes as well.

Denver’s six takeaways are tied for 28th and just two more than the last place team. Ball security is always paramount, and against this defense is no different. Given the state of the Broncos' offense, stay patient, and they’re likely to give possession back sooner rather than later.

Not exactly a secret formula for success in the NFL. Easier said than done, too.

The Eagles must have a game plan for outside linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Aqib Talib in particular, either of whom can alter the course of a game in an instant. Miller has 21 forced fumbles in seven seasons, including playoffs, while Talib is fourth in NFL history with 10 interception returns for touchdowns.

How much work for Jay Ajayi?
One way to keep Denver’s D at bay is by running the football, even in the likely event it’s not working. It keeps the clock ticking, shortening the game while reducing the chances for turnovers in the process.

Naturally, that begs the question how much Ajayi will play — if he suits up at all — after the Eagles swung a trade for the Pro Bowl running back Tuesday. Early indications were Ajayi would be active against the Broncos, although as of Friday, coach Doug Pederson claimed to had not made a final decision.

Assuming Ajayi is in uniform, Pederson sounds intend on working his new weapon into the offense slowly.

“It's very limited — 10 to 15 plays,” Pederson said of Ajayi’s knowledge of the playbook. “I just want him to feel comfortable there, but it's a taste of a little bit of every aspect of the offense.”

It’s difficult to believe the Eagles wouldn’t have Ajayi active despite the reality his role could be relatively small. Against this defense, in particular, it makes sense to have another big body in the backfield to wear down a stout Broncos front.

A handful of carries — maybe in the four-to-eight range — should be enough to let Ajayi get his feet wet, not to mention help the Eagles execute their offensive game plan.

Wentz’s go-to receiver
If there is one vulnerability in this Broncos' defense, it’s been their ability to defend against tight ends. Last week, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce had seven receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown. Cowboys tight ends had 10 catches for 97 yards and a touchdown in their meeting, while Giants rookie Evan Engram racked up five catches for 82 yards and a score.

That bodes well quarterback Carson Wentz, who doesn’t mind throwing to his tight end at all.

With 43 receptions, 528 yards receiving and six touchdowns this season, Zach Ertz is among the NFL’s top three players — not just tight ends — in all three categories. He’s been the biggest weapon in the Eagles passing attack all season, and Sunday could've been his biggest game yet against this defense. Update: But Ertz is a surprise inactive with a hamstring injury. So much for that.

There won’t be a lot of room to run. The receivers will struggle to get open. Wentz won’t have a ton of time to stand in the pocket and survey the field. But Ertz was the offense’s one constant all season, and he would've been able to get open against this defense.

Now the Eagles are suddenly without Ertz, and what was a tough matchup to begin with now looks a little scarier.

Prediction
Eagles 25, Broncos 16