DENVER (AP) — Right tackle Mike McGlinchey boiled down the Denver Broncos’ bounce back from a 1-5 start to an old-school recipe: “Play great defense. Run the ball well. Win the turnover battle.”
That’s how the Broncos (5-5) have gotten back to .500 heading into Sunday’s showdown against the Cleveland Browns (7-3), which used much of the same recipe to match last year’s win total by Thanksgiving.
This throwback game features teams that had to adjust their approach after costly quarterback acquisitions failed to pay immediate dividends the way Tom Brady’s did in Tampa Bay or Matthew Stafford’s did in Los Angeles.
Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson had surgery on Tuesday in Los Angeles to repair a fracture in his right shoulder, an injury that ended his second season in Cleveland after nine games.
He has played in just 12 of 34 possible games since the Browns acquired him last season, and signed him to a $230 million fully-guaranteed contract.
Rookie QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson will make his third career start on Sunday.
The Broncos sent a massive package of players and picks to Seattle for Russell Wilson last year, then signed him to a mammoth $245 million extension that doesn’t kick in until 2024.
Wilson struggled throughout his first season in Denver, going 4-11 with 16 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.
Adding in this year’s stumble at the start, Wilson was 5-16 with Denver — before the Broncos pivoted with four straight wins, tied with the Eagles for the longest active winning streak in the NFL.
Wilson is playing much better under Sean Payton than he did under Nathaniel Hackett, and has 19 TD throws and just four interceptions.
In addition to taking care of the football, Wilson isn’t taking many risks.
He had one game this year in which he threw just five passes beyond the line of scrimmage.
And his 206-yard passing average is his lowest since his rookie year in 2012.
The key driver in Denver’s resurgence, though, is Vance Joseph’s attacking defense that has collected a dozen takeaways over the last three weeks, including four by new nickel back Ja’Quan McMillian, and 13 overall during the winning streak.
With most teams unwilling to test star cornerback Patrick Surtain II, the Broncos are funneling throws where they’d like, and that predictive feel has fueled a rash of takeaways and a stunning turnaround by a team that allowed 70 points at Miami in Week 3.
The Browns boast what might be the best defense in the NFL since Denver’s in 2015, which carried Peyton Manning to a Super Bowl title in his farewell game.
Led by Myles Garrett, Cleveland is No. 1 in the league against the pass and in total yards surrendered.
“This defense of Cleveland, I mean they fly around,” Wilson said. “Obviously, Myles is a tremendous football player. He’s playing some of the best football in the National Football League.”
Cleveland’s top-ranked defense will be missing a key piece as two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward is out with a shoulder injury.
Ward is having his best season and has been instrumental in the team’s success against the pass (Cleveland is No. 1 at 143.7 yards per game).
Ward, who typically covers the other team’s top receiver, got hurt in last week’s win over Pittsburgh.
With Ward sidelined, Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr. will start, with Mike Ford Jr. and Kahlef Hailassie coming off the bench.
“He’s the guy that has made big plays for us,” coach Kevin Stefanski said of Ward. “We won’t have him for this one, but he and I both have a lot of faith in the guys that’ll be out there.”
The Browns’ secondary did get a boost this week with starting safety Juan Thornhill returning to practice — after missing two games with a calf injury.
He’s listed as questionable.
Kareem Jackson has begun his second suspension this season for illegal hits, and the Broncos’ options to replace him in the starting lineup include P.J. Locke, who missed last week’s game with a sprained ankle, rookie J.L. Skinner and Delarrin Turner-Yell.
Locke filled in during Jackson’s first suspension last month.
Locke described his recovery as a “work in progress” this week, and said he won’t push it if he’s not confident he can play the entire game.
“I just need to make sure I’m comfortable moving around. I don’t wanna go in for four plays and be hurting or anything like that,” Locke said. “I need to be confident.”
THE NEW (OLD) GUY
After juggling quarterbacks all season, the Browns settled on a major insurance policy at the position earlier this week by signing Joe Flacco, a former Super Bowl MVP who spent much of his career tormenting Cleveland.
Flacco will be another resource and sounding board for Thompson-Robinson — or maybe his eventual replacement.
“Obviously, Joe Flacco is a guy who growing up we all watched,” wide receiver Amari Cooper said. “Especially with DTR back there, being such a young player, a rookie, just having guidance, more guidance, I think it’s a phenomenal idea.”
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AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report