TAMPA -The Broncos are 3-0, looking to go 4-0 for the ninth time in their last 30 seasons. They wound up using six of those previous eight, 4-0 starts to reach the Super Bowl.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are trying to avoid going 1-3 or worse for a fifth consecutive season.
From 37,000 feet in the air at 570 miles per hour, here are 9 keys to the Broncos avoiding an upset (why are they only 3-point favorites?) for the game that kicks off at 2:05 p.m. Sunday:
1. Show up
And by ‘’show up’’ we mean don’t take the Bucs lightly. Tampa Bay beat the Falcons in Atlanta, 31-24, this year. And Atlanta is now 2-1 with road wins at Oakland and New Orleans.
The Bucs aren’t bad. Super Bowl-contenders Arizona and Pittsburgh have already got smoked on the road by Buffalo and Philadelphia, respectively.
The Broncos may be 3-0, but each game was in doubt during the fourth quarter.
2. No more than one turnover
The Broncos have won the turnover margin in their past two games. When you’re the superior team, turnovers are the equalizer. If the Broncos turn it over two or more times, Tampa Bay can hang with them.
3. Pick off Winston
Yes, Tampa Bay second-year quarterback Jameis Winston is tied for the NFL lead with 8 touchdown passes. But he also has six interceptions, an average of two per game. Since the start of last season, only Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles has committed more turnovers (30) than Winston’s 25.
4. Stop Mike Evans
No, not Mark Schlereth’s partner on the Fan. Although there are times when that Mike Evans needs to be stopped, too. But we’re talking about Johnny Manziel’s former top receiver at Texas A&M. A No. 7 overall pick in the 2014 draft, Evans in his second season of 2015 led the league with 11 drops. This year, Evans ranked among the top 5 in catches (21) and yards (301) through week 3. He has a touchdown reception in each of the Bucs’ first three games. And he’s been charged with just one drop. The Broncos’ No Fly Zone will be charged with stopping Evans’ scoring streak.
5. Get C.J. going
Ever since right tackle Donald Stephenson went down with a strained calf early in game two against Indianapolis, the Broncos have struggled to run the ball.
Running back C.J. Anderson rushed for 92 yards on 4.6 yards per carry in the opener against Carolina, but it’s been tough sleddin’ since, as he was held to 74 yards on 3.7 yards per attempt against Indy and just 37 yards on 2.6 per last week at Cincinnati.
Stephenson is still out as is tight end Virgil Green, who is also key in the run game. But with quarterback Trevor Siemian hitting receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas for long touchdown passes last week, the run game should be there at Tampa Bay.
6. Keep the Divas happy
Sanders and Thomas stated frustration last week and were rewarded with big games at Cincinnati, combining for 15 catches, 217 yards and 3 touchdowns.
This week they admitted to having a diva streak in their overall attitudes . They’re making a combined $26.25 million this year as the team’s highest-paid offensive players. Give ‘em the ball, Trevor!
7. Keeping up means scoring
The Broncos will have to score at least 24 points to win this game. Which is doable because Tampa Bay has surrendered a league-most 33.7 points per game, although that will happen when you’re minus-6 in turnover margin. Winston and the Bucs can move the ball, as their 383.0 yards per game rank 9th in the league. The Broncos are tied for 21st with 354.0 yards per.
8. Make Robert Aguayo try field goals
The most foolish pick in the 2016 draft was Tampa Bay taking Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round. And the Bucs traded up to get him. Unless he’s the second coming of Matt Prater circa 2013, kickers shouldn’t be drafted, much less in the second round. Prater wasn’t drafted. Neither was current Broncos kicker Brandon McManus. Aguayo is the last-ranked kicker in the NFL, making 1 of 3 field goals with all attempts in the 40s.
Aguayo’s shakiness adds a little more incentive for the Denver defense to stiffen as the Bucs cross the 50.
This will be the hottest of three consecutive warm-weather games for the Broncos. There is mid-80s hot, as it was in Denver in week 2 and last week at Cincinnati. And there is the forecasted 90-degree temperature at kickoff Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Cramping can crimp performance so Bronco players will have to make sure they drink 60 to 80 ounces of water on Saturday and another 60 to 80 ounces of water in the hours leading up to kickoff on Sunday (as recommended – ordered? -- by team dietician Bryan Snyder). Swigging Gatorade between series during the game is also a must.