DENVER — The Broncos will aim to avoid an inglorious distinction on Sunday against the Chargers.
With a win, Denver would forego being the first team in franchise history to post a winless AFC West slate, excluding a strike-shortened 1982 season. The Broncos would also avoid posting the most losses in a single season in team history.
The Broncos' struggles extend beyond this season — Denver has won just one of its last 15 AFC West games — but they've failed to earn a division win after emphasizing the importance of the AFC West ahead of the season.
While Interim Head Coach Jerry Rosburg recognizes the struggles the team has endured this season, he said he and the Broncos are not dwelling on the previous losses or the team's overall record.
"I recognize that past," Rosburg said Thursday. "I talked about that last week a bit — how we own that, and we recognize that. I think I said one other time that that's a mess that we made. Our focus is on how we need to clean that up. We need to do this. I try not to — perhaps I do at times — but I try not to send negative messages. I'm not going to tell our guys to go out there and not lose so that this streak is extended. That just doesn't resonate with me."
Earlier in the week, Rosburg also spoke about the importance of earning a win, whether it's in the division or not.
"I recognize the importance of the West, but more importantly for me at this point in time, I recognize the importance of this win for our team and our fans," Rosburg said Monday. "I don't care who we're playing this weekend. It's still going to be really important. I don't think you can ramp up the importance of this game just because it's the Chargers. That doesn't register with me. Perhaps I don't have a real good feel for the West. Divisional games are always really important in the National Football League, and that should be — and is — a goal of most teams in this league because that's how you get to the playoffs. That's the natural path. The past games that this team has suffered through in the AFC West I recognize, but that's not where I'm looking.
"I'm looking at this game as an opportunity for our players and our fans to enjoy a win. I want to see our guys in the locker room celebrate with one another. I want to allow them to have a good feeling when they leave the locker room and go see their families. That's my goal."
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can end the season with a victory:
CAN RUSSELL WILSON FOLLOW UP ON HIS PERFORMANCE VS. THE CHIEFS?
Russell Wilson turned in perhaps his best performance of the season in Week 17, as he looked like the same player he was for a decade in Seattle.
Wilson posted a series of impressive throws — including a floater-esque toss to Chase Edmonds — and also used his legs effectively. The Broncos' quarterback kept the ball on a designed read option to notch Denver's first score, and he scrambled for another touchdown later in the game to keep the Broncos in the game.
As the Broncos move into the final game of the season, Wilson will aim to continue his momentum that coincided with Offensive Coordinator Justin Outten taking over play-calling duties.
In Week 18, the Broncos could also add some more dynamic plays to the mix; Rosburg spoke this week about the need to stretch the field.
"We need to do a better job than we did a week ago of fitting the pieces together," Rosburg said. "The run game was fine, but[it's not good enough] if you don't have action off of that to open up and get the ball to your playmakers downfield, and you don't have moving the pocket — those kinds of things that come off the run game. We need to get the ball in our playmakers' hands. I think I mentioned this earlier. I love the way Courtland Sutton plays his game. Jerry Jeudy has had a really good couple of weeks. We need to find a way to not play this game in a box."
If the Broncos can combine the efficiency of their Week 17 performance with a few more big plays, they could ride offensive momentum into the offseason.
HOW WILL RAVENS-BENGALS IMPACT THE MATCHUP?
The Broncos could face a significantly different Chargers team depending on the result of the matchup between the Ravens and Bengals at 11 a.m. MT.
If the Ravens are able to upset the Bengals, the Chargers would need to defeat the Broncos to lock up the fifth seed in the AFC for the postseason. But should the Bengals win, the Chargers would already be slotted into the five spot no matter the result of Sunday's matchup in Denver. As a result, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley could decide to use a cautious approach to the game. According to Los Angeles Times beat writer Jeff Miller, Staley told reporters the Ravens' game will impact who plays against Denver.
The Broncos played the Chargers' starters tough in Week 6, but it would be an easier task to get a win if Denver isn't facing the likes of Justin Herbert, Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, Derwin James and others.
Denver, though, is preparing as if it will see Los Angeles' starters.
"We are expecting [former world heavyweight champion boxer] Sonny Liston out there," Rosburg joked. "If [comic strip boxer] Joe Palooka shows up, then so be it."
CAN THE BRONCOS' RED-ZONE DEFENSE RESPOND?
The Broncos' red-zone defense, which has ranked first in the NFL for much of the season, has slipped to fourth ahead of the final matchup of the year.
The Chiefs scored touchdowns on four of their five red-zone trips in Week 17, and the Broncos are determined to return to their standard in Week 18.
"Defensively, we did a lot of good things," Rosburg said. "The three three-and-outs that we had in the second half — we used to call that a 'knockout' back in a previous position. That's hard to overcome, but their offense overcame that with explosive plays, and they beat us in the red zone. We didn't play very well in the red zone on defense, and I know our coaches are working on that."
If Denver can limit Herbert — or Chase Daniel, should he play — in the red zone, the Broncos will have the chance to slow a Chargers offense that topped 30 points in its last outing.
In the Broncos' Week 6 loss to the Chargers, Denver found the red-zone success the team will look to replicate this week. The Broncos held Herbert and Co. to just one touchdown in four trips inside the 20-yard line.
Should the Broncos replicate that success, they'll have a good chance to get a win.
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