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'9-8 means something': As Denver's playoff hopes end, Broncos remain motivated to end season strong

DENVER — At nearly the same moment that Jarrett Stidham took a final knee and capped off a 16-9 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, the Broncos' playoff hopes came to an end.

As the Chiefs earned a win over the Bengals to clinch the AFC West, the Broncos were knocked from postseason contention.

"It's tough knowing that we're not going to be going to the postseason," safety Justin Simmons said after the game. "It's why you play, and we were our own enemies in that regard. We had our shots in home games. We had Washington, the Jets and, just recently, the Patriots. We lost a tough road game against Houston. We controlled our own destiny for the longest time, and it's tough."

And yet, irrespective of playoff odds, the Broncos accomplished their goal on Sunday. Head Coach Sean Payton and the Broncos spoke all week about the importance of earning an eighth win and taking another step toward a winning record. With the victory, the Broncos finished with a winning record at home and swept a division rival for the first time since 2019.

"The objective was to come in here and get our eighth win," quarterback Jarrett Stidham said. "We did that. Obviously, it's disappointing that we can't continue after next week, but the goal this week is to go get another win. We're promised seven days. That's all we have, and we're going to come in tomorrow and this week and get after it and be ready to go."

For much of the season, the Broncos looked to the 2022 Detroit Lions as inspiration, including in the days ahead of Week 17. Those Lions, who started 1-6 before winning eight of their final 10 games, were eliminated before they kicked off their Week 18 matchup against the Packers. Still, they found a way to earn a season-ending win — while knocking their rival out of postseason contention — and improve to 9-8. A year later, the Lions have carried that momentum forward to earn a division title.

Denver, with a win, would finish its season with an 8-3 record after its difficult 1-5 start — and the team would be able to boast its first winning record since 2016.

"We want to finish off on a good note at 9-8," center Lloyd Cushenberry III said. "We've been talking about the Detroit Lions the whole year, whole season. They finished 9-8 last season, and look at the position they're in this year. It would be good momentum moving forward if we can get to 9-8."

The Broncos' goal is more than just lip service toward a better record, as Payton said the Broncos would treat the game as if it were any regular-season contest. If a player is healthy, he's going to play — and the Broncos will try to earn a win over their division rival.

"I think it's important to win, period," Payton said. "The whole time, we're [also] learning how to prevent beating ourselves. I think it's extremely important, because it's our last opportunity with this team, and getting to that ninth win means something."

Added tight end Adam Trautman: "9-8 means something. It does. It means something to us from where we started to where we're at now. We're going to go out there guns blazing and give our all next week."

The Broncos certainly weren't satisfied in the aftermath of their win, as Payton and several players acknowledged the difficulty of missing the postseason.

But for as clear as their disappointment was, their resolve was also quite obvious.

"It sucks that we got eliminated from the playoffs obviously, but we're focused on winning this next game," outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper said. "Finishing off the season the right way, 9-8, is super important to us. It is how this season should go, and we have to make sure we get that done."

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