Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season has brought its fair share of surprises, from the Washington Football Team upsetting the Philadelphia Eagles to the Jacksonville Jaguars stunning the Indianapolis Colts. But the final game of the opening-week slate has long appeared to be a pretty even matchup, with both the Denver Broncos and Tennessee Titans vying for AFC relevancy on Monday night.

Denver flashed potential under coach Vic Fangio with a 7-9 finish in 2019, but even in a tough division featuring the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, there’s optimism surrounding second-year quarterback Drew Lock — who finished strong as a rookie and now has additional weapons in his supporting cast. The Titans, meanwhile, were the NFL’s unofficial upset darling of 2019, coming within one win of the Super Bowl after a hot stretch from Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and a feisty defense.

Who’s got the upper hand on Monday night? Let’s break things down.

How to watch

Date: Monday, Sept. 14 | Time: 10:20 p.m. ET
Location: Empower Field at Mile High (Denver, Colorado)
TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free) 
Follow: CBS Sports App

When the Broncos have the ball

The unquestioned top priority lies up front, where Denver needs to keep Lock upright. Because for all the fancy new toys No. 5 has out wide — namely rookie wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler — there are serious concerns in the trenches, starting with left tackle Garett Bolles. The veteran hasn’t been a consistent liability, but there’s a reason Denver spent the offseason exploring upgrades, and now Bolles will be charged with blocking a rested-up Jadeveon Clowney, who could single-handedly wreck Pat Shurmur’s game plan.

If the Broncos can avoid an Eagles-level meltdown up front, the next issue revolves around the availability of No. 1 wideout Courtland Sutton, who’s been ruled a game-time decision with an AC joint sprain. Assuming Sutton isn’t out there, or at least at 100 percent, Denver will likely be best suited relying on the ground game, plus short- and mid-range passing, out of the gate.

It’s a tough spot. Because Lock may thrive on extending/creating big plays, and Hamler might give him deep speed, but if Denver is worried about slow-to-develop plays behind that O-line, the safest bet (especially for a conservative play-caller like Shurmur) will probably be feeding Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay and hoping they can create in open space. Tight end Noah Fant, an over-the-middle target, would also have a sizable role in that kind of run-to-set-up-the-pass approach.

All in all, the Broncos have the playmaking upside to score points, but Monday night just doesn’t feel like the perfect stage for a gunslinging debut. From the questions up front (exacerbated by the Titans’ front seven) to the injuries at WR, they almost have to take it slow and methodical. If they do that and execute, they’ll be in position to win.

When the Titans have the ball

The recipe is simple: Keep doing what’s worked since Tannehill took over at QB. That may sound oversimplified, but when you look at the personnel for both Tennessee and Denver, it makes all the sense in the world. Feed Derrick Henry. Fire quick strikes to A.J. Brown. Wear the other side down. This game will almost certainly be a slow slugging contest rather than a high-flying back-and-forth, and that’s exactly the kind of game Tennessee is built for, complete with a hard-nosed coach in Mike Vrabel.

Denver’s run defense had varying levels of success in 2019 and now touts ex-Titans starter Jurrell Casey up front, but the real key for Tennessee will be silencing Bradley Chubb, who’ll be tasked not only with proving he’s up to speed after ACL recovery but making up for the absence of fellow pass rusher Von Miller. Without former All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin for the first time in a half-decade, the Titans could be forced to put extra attention on Chubb’s side, but a heavy dose of power Henry runs could also help.

It’s also important that Tannehill pick his spots when asked to throw. The QB was surprisingly poised for Tennessee upon replacing Marcus Mariota last year, throwing 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions with a completion percentage above 70, but Denver has underrated secondary pieces in new corner A.J. Bouye and roaming safety Justin Simmons. Again, that’s why the Titans would be best served sticking to their script: Bruising runs from Henry, followed by quick-strike targets to guys like Brown, Adam Humphries and emerging TE Jonnu Smith.

The Titans have the advantage in the trenches and in the injury department, so it’s really just up to them not to give Denver any extra opportunities, whether by turnovers or mental errors.

Prediction: Titans 24, Broncos 21


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