ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Following last week's division title-clinching road win over the Chargers, the Broncos maintained a level-headed focus on their season. There would be celebration, sure, but this was just the completion of the first goal of their checklist.
As the Broncos move on to their next goal, the first step is clear, and that's to go 1-0 on Monday night against Cincinnati.
"If we don't take care of December, we won't be able to get to February. And if we don't take care of January, we won't be able to get to February," C.J. Anderson said after practice on Thursday. "We know our goal in here in the locker room and we know what we want to do and at the end of the day we want to go 1-0 and 1-0 is beating the Cincinnati Bengals this week."
The stakes for every team in playoff chases grows this time of year as the number of remaining games dwindles and thus their impact rises.
For the Broncos, they may have wrapped up their division but other postseason seeding is still yet to be determined. They could earn a first-round bye in the playoffs if they win (or if they tie along with a Colts loss or tie against Dallas). And though hopes of getting the top seed in the AFC depend on the Patriots' performance in the final two weeks, the shot is still there and all the Broncos can do is control what's on their schedule.
Then for Cincinnati, the Bengals hold a half-game lead over both Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC North. A win for them would mean the division title if the Steelers and Ravens both lose, and a loss would push them out of the driver's seat for control of the division.
At the crest of a hill that could send closer to their desired destination or further from it with little room for another loss, the atmosphere at Paul Brown Stadium should be an electric one similar to what you might see in the playoffs.
"You're the only game on TV. [It's] a real rowdy atmosphere. It's a stage game," Aqib Talib said. "You always want to play well on that stage."
The stage will be a big one, of course, and not just for the end result. The Broncos will face questions about their defense following a game in which Danny Trevathan was lost to a season-ending knee injury and Brandon Marshall was sidelined by a foot injury.
Terrance Knighton sees the challenges it raises, and went a step further to acknowledge that the burden will have to be one shared by the entire defense from top to bottom as the linebacking corps adjusts to the bigger roles.
"You lost two starters with Danny and Nate [Irving], and now B. Marsh for a few weeks. It puts the onus on the front, especially in the run game to make sure we're doing our job plus a little bit more, having young guys in there," Knighton said. "Our coaches put together a good plan where Todd [Davis]'s not going to be out there on his own. He's not going to have to make every play. You have two veteran safeties back there behind him and you have two veteran guys in front of him with me and Wolfe, so our linebackers will be well-protected but they're not going to be in a position where they dictate the game. Our defense as a whole dictates the game."
Meanwhile, the Bengals will look to take a rushing attack that just ran all over the Browns for 244 yards (a Bengals season high) and try to find similar success against a defense that has not given up yards on the ground very easily. The Broncos' defense has allowed just three games in which opponents ran for 100 yards or more, and only one of those has come in the past 11 games. Denver is second in the NFL in rushing yards per play allowed, but the Bengals have prided themselves on being able to run the ball, with the NFL's sixth best mark in rushing yards per game and 11th best in rushing yards per play.
And then in the secondary, the Broncos have said they're seeing their passing defense come together even further as their chemistry has come together. Just this past week Talib was named the AFC's Defensive Player of the Week.
"It's everybody, man — just knowing where each other's going to be and we could be a little more discreet with our calls so quarterbacks don't pick up our calls and things like that because we kind of know where each other's going to be," he said. "So it helps out everybody, everybody on defense."
Despite changes in the linebackers, the defense is intent on coming together to offset those losses. With a game on a huge stage with big stakes, the sum of all parts could give Cincinnati plenty of difficulty.