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Prediction for Week 2: Why the Cowboys have a difficult test at Denver

Winning at Mile High stadium can be problematic, here’s how the Cowboys may be able to overcome the challenge.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Denver is a difficult place to play. The crowd, the thin air, and of course a quality opponent only makes things worse. Since 2012 the Broncos have lost only seven regular season home games, for an impressive record of 34-7. Of course 2012 is the year that Peyton Manning joined the team, and with him the Broncos were perennial Super Bowl contenders and generally regarded as one of the top teams in the league during his tenure. Ironically the team would not lift the Lombardi until his final, and by all accounts, worst season of his career, but that’s a story for another day.

Manning is obviously gone now, and the Broncos are not quite what they were with him either offensively or defensively, but Denver is still a difficult place to play and an opponent who cannot be taken lightly. On the surface you could look at the 2016 Broncos and say they missed the playoffs and lost three games at home, they’re a decent team but what’s the big deal?

But take a look at those home losses, one to the Atlanta Falcons, one to the New England Patriots, and one to the Kansas City Chiefs. So you have each team who made the Super Bowl and the 12-4 Chiefs. Then you must consider that the Broncos started rookie Paxton Lynch against Atlanta with Trevor Siemian injured at quarterback against Atlanta, and that it took a miracle comeback by Kansas City, including a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final 20 seconds to even force overtime.

Long story short, it takes a lot win in Denver.

But as I alluded to earlier, they aren’t quite what they have been over the last five years while they’ve amassed that impressive record. We’ve touched on Manning but more importantly the defense has taken several big hits since single-handedly willing their listless offense through the playoffs and to a Super Bowl 50 victory in 2015 with an all-time playoff performance.

Key front seven pieces Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan left via free agency last season, DeMarcus Ware has retired, safety T.J. Ward, who was still playing at a high level, was released in a cap-savings move, and to make matters worse replacements like outside linebacker Shane Ray and defensive end Jared Crick are injured and will miss Sunday’s game. All in all, five of the defensive starters from that 2015 team are gone, along with Ray and Crick.

What the Broncos do still have of course is Von Miller, perhaps the best edge rusher in the league, and cornerbacks in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby who arguably constitute the top cornerback trio in the league. Safety Darian Stewart, defensive end Derek Wolfe, and linebacker Brandon Marshall are the other holdouts from that 2015 team, Wolfe and Stewart are two excellent players in particular.

All in all, the Cowboys are the better team. If this game were played at a neutral site or in Dallas I’d probably favor them by about 10 points. In Denver though there is a recipe for the Broncos to have success, and much of it relies on containing the run, forcing Dallas into third and long, locking up the Cowboys receivers in single coverage, and letting Miller juice up the crowd and open up opportunities for his teammates to blitz with his pass rush. It’s a tall task considering the Broncos average run defense but not an impossible one, especially if the game starts to go a certain way.

The Broncos offense is mostly average but it can move the ball efficiently in spurts with a ball-control passing game and play-action. Siemian won’t beat you on his own but he will avoid mistakes and make the smart play. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are dangerous threats on the outside, and C.J. Anderson is a credible enough threat on the ground as long as he stays healthy. If the Cowboys defense comes out lackadaisical or tires out by allowing Denver to extend drives on third down they could easily jump out to an early lead, forcing the Cowboys into a more pass-oriented, spread-formation type of game, which plays right into the hands of the Broncos biggest strength.

It will be paramount for the Cowboys offense to stay balanced early and not let the Denver pass-rush, and crowd, dictate the flow of the game. The Broncos run defense is not good, if they make a few stops early, stick with it, then work play-action and the middle of the field off of it. The Denver cornerbacks are a prideful bunch who undoubtedly relish the opportunity of shutting down Dez Bryant, don’t lock in on him and potentially feed into that emotion. Pound their weak defensive line with Ezekiel Elliott and then hit them with high-percentage passes to Cole Beasley and Jason Witten, extend drives, and once you take the emotion out of them you take your shots to Bryant.

If the offense can control the tempo of the game, maintain balance, and play in neutral down and distances I like the Cowboys chances to win relatively comfortably. If they get too pass-happy or if the Broncos offense can build any type of early lead, it’ll be an all-day affair that can go either way.

Winning this one could set the Cowboys up for a very comfortable start to the season, pending Elliott’s availability. After this game the schedule softens up a bit with a seemingly discombobulated Arizona Cardinals on the road, home games against the Rams and Packers, road games against the hapless 49ers and average Redskins, and then another home game against the Chiefs. If the Cowboys can move to 2-0 here you’re probably looking at a 6-2 start over the first half of the year at least.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, right now the focus is on the Broncos, and to be honest something about this game just doesn’t sit right with me. Perhaps it’s simply a case of overrating their home field advantage, but I get the feeling that it’s going to be a frustrating afternoon where the Broncos offense does just enough to extend drives and keep the ball away from the Dallas offense, while the Denver defense makes a few timely stops despite the Cowboys being able to move the ball. Let’s hope I’m wrong. Broncos 20-17.