DENVER -- The Broncos should pay close attention to the Ravens, the team that handed Denver its first loss on Sunday. They can learn a few things from Baltimore, including insightful tips that go well beyond strategy and execution. The Broncos are struggling with the same type of adversity that was supposed to capsize the Ravens when this season began. The question now is how Denver handles its own problems after such a strong start.
There will be numerous skeptics who will say the Broncos got what they deserved in the 23-7 loss. Denver ripped off three early wins against weak opponents -- the Giants, Jaguars and Jets -- and then wilted against a Ravens team that just improved to 3-1. The reality is that the Broncos would have had a much better chance in this game if they hadn't been crippled by injuries. They were already down six starters coming into this contest and their starting quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, didn't play in the second half after suffering a concussion late in the second quarter.
So, yes -- the Broncos are at a point where they have to show they can handle stiffer competition. They're also entering that phase of the schedule without several key players, which means their mental toughness better be on point, as well.
"We just have to respond," said Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller in a postgame press conference. "A week ago, it was a lot of hype. You can't really get caught up in the highs and lows in this game. We all know what problems the NFL presents. It's tough to go 17-0. … We just got to rack 'em up, look at this [game] for a couple hours, get back into the lab on Monday and let's respond."
How Denver responds will say plenty about its prospects for the rest of the season. We already knew the race for AFC playoff spots was going to be fierce when this season ensued. Now the AFC West has turned into one of the most competitive divisions in football, with the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders all enjoying better starts than the defending conference champion Kansas City Chiefs. Every misstep moving forward could have major ramifications when January arrives.
The Ravens already have proven they're ready for such a challenge. They lost their top three running backs and a Pro Bowl cornerback (Marcus Peters) before the regular season even began. They've responded by winning three straight games after losing the opener in Las Vegas. The statement they've made thus far: They don't give a damn about what they have to go through to reach their goals.
The Broncos must show a similar resilience. They have one of the best rosters in football, but it's been tested over the past month. Coming into Sunday's game, they were down three starters on defense (cornerback Ronald Darby, outside linebacker Bradley Chubb and inside linebacker Josey Jewell, who's out for the season with a torn pec) and three more on offense (wide receiver Jerry Jeudy and starting guards Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow). They've also lost wide receiver K.J. Hamler to an ACL tear.
Sunday's defeat added two more important players to that list of walking wounded: Bridgewater and rookie first-round pick Patrick Surtain II, who left the game in the fourth quarter with a chest injury. Bridgewater was ruled out during halftime after being evaluated for a concussion, leaving Drew Lock to run the offense for the final two quarters. The backup quarterback wasn't able to fare much better than Bridgewater did before being sidelined. Overall, the Broncos gained just 254 total yards, surrendered five sacks and converted on just three of 14 third downs.
That vaunted defense had its own challenges. The Broncos dared Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson to beat them with his arm -- instead of his nifty running ability -- and he did just that, throwing for 316 yards and one touchdown, a 49-yard bomb to Marquise Brown.
"We obviously wanted to limit his opportunities to carry it and scramble and we did that," said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. "But they were able to complete the long passes, which negated that."
The most discouraging aspect of the Broncos' performance was that momentum was hard to come by. Aside from their lone scoring drive -- which ended with a three-yard touchdown pass from Bridgewater to tight end Noah Fant -- and a 31-yard gallop by rookie Javonte Williams, who literally carried Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey on his back for about 15 yards, there was nothing exciting about this offense. That doesn't bode well for Denver.
The Broncos will travel to Pittsburgh to face the struggling Steelers next. After that, three of their next four opponents are the Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys. All three of those teams have played at a high level on both sides of the football. The effort Denver just put on the field, if it continues, will lead to similar problems in those contests.
The team should be getting some of its injured players back for those games. There's also a chance that Lock could be starting in Pittsburgh -- where he suffered a shoulder injury in a 26-21 loss last season -- since Bridgewater is now in the concussion protocol. Those two battled to win the quarterback job in training camp. Bridgewater eventually earned the job because of his consistency, experience and the way players gravitated to his leadership.
"I'm not sure how the concussion protocols are but I'm going to go about it like I'm going to start this weekend," said Lock after throwing for 113 yards against Baltimore. "It will be a good chance to go back to Pittsburgh and put some of that to bed from last year. It will be exciting for me to take reps and get into the swing of things and see what we can do against a good Pittsburgh Steelers team."
The Broncos will need every bit of that optimism. The Steelers might be 1-3, but they still have a defense that can create problems. Denver will need to run the football more consistently, protect the quarterback more effectively and find those dynamic passing plays that were lacking against Baltimore. As much as the Broncos want to ride their defense to wins, Sunday's game showed that such an approach can only go so far with an anemic offense.
The good news for the Broncos is that they're still 3-1. They have a chance to regain their momentum if their depth is as good as advertised.
"We always emphasize it, ... how important it is for everyone on this team -- whether you're on the practice squad or not -- we're going to need you," said Broncos safety Justin Simmons. "It's an unfortunate thing in this league. Injuries happen. If you play the game, you have a 100 percent chance of possibly getting injured. … Guys are dinged up. It's part of how the process goes, but we're going to need the guys who are backing them up to step up."
So we'll see where the Broncos go from here. They probably received an unfair amount of criticism amid their early success -- after all, they didn't pick their opponents. The Broncos beat the teams they were supposed to beat. They're quickly moving into the part of the season where the tests become more daunting.
It's unfortunate that Denver will go through this upcoming gauntlet with some key injuries. However, that doesn't mean they're doomed from this point on. All they have to do is look at how the Ravens handled their own problems. That's what good teams do: They find a way to get the job done.