DENVER — The final stretch of the 2022 season has arrived.
The Broncos certainly aren't where they hoped they would be, as Denver was eliminated from the playoffs with a Week 14 loss to the Chiefs. The team's losing streak grew to five games, and they've dropped nine of their last 10 contests dating back to Week 4. In such a season, it'd be easy to play out the string and coast to the end of the year.
The Broncos have refused to do that.
After battling the Ravens to a one-point loss and then roaring back against the Chiefs after facing a 27-0 deficit, the Broncos have continued to battle even without the hope of a playoff berth.
"We're all professionals," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said Wednesday. "We love this game. Every opportunity, you have to relish [it], and you have to be excited for it — for the development of the future and just to have the opportunity to go out there with your team and learn and grow. I think [that] is so important. Those guys see that, and there was some great stuff that happened last week and the week before while playing against some high-caliber football teams. We just have to get over that hump, and we have to play football games to do that. We have a bunch more to be able to see that."
They'll aim to turn in that same level of effort on Sunday against the Cardinals while finding a different result.
In a matchup between Brett Rypien and Colt McCoy — both Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray will miss the game with injuries — the Broncos will attempt to maintain the offensive momentum it started in a 28-point output against Kansas City and force McCoy into mistakes.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can get back in the win column.
WHAT DOES RANDY GREGORY HAVE IN STORE FOR HIS RETURN TO THE FIELD?
The Broncos will regain one of their top defensive players on Sunday, as Denver activated outside linebacker Randy Gregory from injured reserve.
One of the Broncos' top free-agent signings, Gregory was a force earlier in the season before suffering an injury in Week 4 against the Raiders. In his first four games, Gregory tallied a pair of sacks, seven quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and a pair of tackles for loss.
A force as both a pass rusher and edge setter, Gregory's return should help the Broncos get after McCoy, who was sacked six times in Week 14 after replacing the injured Kyler Murray.
Gregory said this week that he didn't expect to play a full slate of snaps, but any sort of production would surely help a Broncos pass rush that will be without Dre'Mont Jones for the rest of the season.
"I like to call those types of guys game-wreckers," safety Justin Simmons said Wednesday. "Run game, pass game, he just goes in there and messes everything up. On paper, you have this run gap. But R.G. and those guys are in there and they blow the gaps up. You just are playing football at that point, and that's a lot of what he does and obviously is super talented at getting to the quarterback and helping us out in the back end with coverages and things like that. He's a game-wrecker."
And while the Broncos' remaining games don't matter in the standings, Gregory still felt it was important to return to play alongside his teammates.
"I've shut it down enough," Gregory said Wednesday. "I've missed a lot of time. I'm to the point now where I want to help where I can. I understand the landscape, the situation we're in as a unit, but I think it's important to go out there and end the season on a good note. I've been hurt most of the year, [so] to be able to go out there and play and end the year healthy and in the right mindset … is important for me and everyone."
CAN BRETT RYPIEN IMPROVE UPON WEEK 14 OUTING IN HIS SECOND START OF THE SEASON?
As Rypien gets his second start of the season, he'll aim to build off performances against the Jets and Chiefs.
In his lone start of the season, which came against New York in Week 7 as Wilson battled a hamstring injury, Rypien completed 24-of-46 passes for 225 yards, an interception and a 56.9 quarterback rating. Then, last week against the Chiefs, Rypien completed 4-of-8 throws for 16 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
Against a Cardinals defense that ranked 25th in passing defense and last in scoring defense entering Week 15, Rypien and the Broncos could find a bit more success.
The fourth-year player will need to bump his completion percentage up and avoid costly turnovers, but he may be able to manufacture some of the success he found in the preseason and on a few throws against the Jets and Chiefs.
In that last start against the Jets, Rypien was not afraid to push the ball down the field. As the Broncos looked for a tying touchdown late, Rypien looked to Courtland Sutton in the end zone on a game-deciding play. While the pass fell incomplete, Rypien showed he was able to push the ball down the field. Against the Cardinals, it's possible Denver could try to find success in the same fashion.
"I thought he did a fine job," Hackett said of Rypien's Week 7 performance. "He put us in position to be able to have a chance to tie the game at the end. We want to see what he can do, and all the experience he can get is fantastic for him."
In just his second start since early in the 2020 season, Rypien will aim to lead the Broncos to a win.
"For me, it's just trying to take it one play at a time, keeping a small focus and doing what I do best," Rypien said Friday.
CAN JERRY JEUDY KEEP HIS MOMENTUM GOING?
Jerry Jeudy posted the best game of his career against the Chiefs and looked like the first-round talent the Broncos drafted in the spring of 2020.
Now, he'll aim to do it again.
If the Broncos are to earn a win against the Cardinals, they may need a big game from their top receiver, who has posted at last 60 yards in his last four games in which he's played multiple snaps.
Some of Jeudy's success may have stemmed from the Broncos' decision to shift him to the X wide receiver position as Courtland Sutton battles a hamstring injury. As Offensive Coordinator Justin Outten explained Thursday, the role takes advantage of Jeudy's unique skill set.
"Jerry is a unique player, because he can play all three positions," Outten said. "In that spot, it's usually your work horse — a guy that can blow it off the top but also can do intermediate routes and choice routes and put them inside. With Jerry at that position, you can do a lot more in those situations."
Jeudy should get his opportunities again against Arizona. In Rypien's previous start this season, Jeudy saw his highest number of targets of the season and posted his second-highest yardage total of the year. Jeudy hauled in seven passes that day for 96 yards, including a 45-yarder that set up a field goal.
For Denver to win, the Broncos will need the most out of their top available receiver — and they'd surely appreciate a couple more trips to the end zone. If Jeudy can make it back to the end zone, it would be a first for his young career. In his first three seasons, Jeudy has yet to score a touchdown in back-to-back games.
Should Jeudy "touch that paint," as he put it earlier this year, the Broncos' chances of beating Arizona will climb.
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