DENVER — The stakes keep getting higher.
And the Broncos know it.
Denver will welcome the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday in a battle of 7-6 teams, and the winner will take a massive step forward in the playoff hunt. With a victory, the Broncos would increase their playoff odds to 40 percent, according to the New York Times' playoff simulator. And by the time the Broncos kick off on Sunday afternoon, a win may also be enough to put them in the playoff field through Week 15.
A Broncos victory paired with a Patriots win over the Colts would push Denver into the playoff field. Denver could also get into the field with a win and a Raiders win over the Browns, but that game has been postponed to Monday. A Broncos victory, a Raiders victory and a Patriots victory would give Denver the sixth seed through 15 weeks. Toss in an upset win from the Panthers over the Bills, and the Broncos would jump as high as the fifth seed.
None of those scenarios matter, though, if the Broncos can't take care of business against the Bengals — and that will be no easy feat.
Led by Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon and Ja'Marr Chase on offense and sack artist Trey Hendrickson on defense, the Bengals are a dangerous bunch. Both sides of the ball for the Broncos will need to be at their best in this one.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can beat the Bengals and increase their playoff odds:
HOW WILL THE BRONCOS RESPOND WHEN JOE BURROW EXTENDS PLAYS?
The Broncos will have a big enough challenge facing Burrow when plays stay on schedule. From the pocket, Burrow has proven why he was the first-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Burrow has the eighth-most passing yards and passing touchdowns in the league, and he has a passer rating above 100.0 on the season.
Burrow has benefited from the host of weapons to which he can distribute the ball. Chase has already surpassed the 1,000-yard mark, and he's tied for third in the league with 10 receiving touchdowns; he'll likely surpass the 100-yard reception mark during the teams' Week 15 meeting, as well. Tee Higgins is another solid option, and Burrow has the ability to hand it off to the NFL's second-leading rusher in Joe Mixon.
"He's a really good passer, he's accurate, got a strong arm, [and] he's got a good feel for their offense," Head Coach Vic Fangio said. "He's got really good guys to throw it to. They have a balanced offense, which makes it tough. You'd like to give all the attention to the passing game because of the quarterback and the weapons he has to throw it to, but Mixon has got over 1,000 yards already, and he's a really good running back. They're committed to having a balanced attack, and that's really what makes them go."
Burrow, though, may make his best plays away from the scripted passing game. Against the 49ers, Burrow escaped pressure to his right and fired the ball into the end zone for Chase. It was a hard play to defend, and it will test the Broncos' discipline in the secondary.
"He's good at that," Fangio said. "He's a good scrambler. His rushing yards don't indicate that, but he's had about three or four good scrambles where he ran for significant gains [that] got wiped out by penalties. He extends plays and he's courageous in the pocket. I've been impressed with his overall game."
The Broncos haven't given up many big passing plays in recent weeks, but Burrow will test them. Denver will need its rushers to keep Burrow in the pocket, and the secondary will need to adapt as the Broncos look to slow Burrow.
CAN THE BRONCOS EARN THE EDGE IN THE TURNOVER BATTLE?
Denver's secondary has come to play in recent weeks. After recording just four interceptions through the first seven weeks of the season — and all four coming in a two-week span against the Jaguars and Jets — Denver's defense has had a knack for the ball since Week 8. The Broncos have picked off at least one pass in each of their last six games, and they've added seven forced fumbles and a pair of fumble recoveries in that stretch.
The Broncos have stressed the need to earn takeaways, and it's led directly to wins against the Washington Football Team and Los Angeles Chargers during the Broncos' 4-2 run to put themselves in playoff contention.
They could have another opportunity to make big plays against the Bengals. For as dangerous as Burrow has been in the passing game, he's also made his share of mistakes. He's tossed 14 interceptions this season, and he has four games in which he's thrown multiple picks. He's avoided throwing an interception this year in just the same number of games.
The Bengals have also lost six fumbles in the last five games, though some of those mistakes have come via their special teams units.
Denver's offense, meanwhile, has kept hold of the football. Teddy Bridgewater has thrown just two interceptions in his last six games, and both of those picks came against Kansas City. In all, Denver ranks eighth in the league in fewest giveaways, while the Bengals are 25th. In a potentially close game, the turnovers — or lack thereof — could be the deciding factor.
CAN DENVER'S OFFENSE KEEP SUCCEEDING IN KEY SITUATIONS?
The Broncos' offense found a bit of a stride against the Lions, as they scored a season-high 38 points and dominated the game on the ground. At some point, Denver will likely need more production through the air from Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy, but the team shouldn't mess with a formula that can work this time of year.
Denver's biggest edge against the Lions — and in Week 12 against the Chargers — was its efficiency. In the key areas of the game, the Broncos came up big in their last two home wins.
The Broncos are a combined 8-of-8 in the red zone and 16-of-23 (69.6%) on third down across those two games, and that success will likely need to continue against the Bengals.
"You just play good ball when we get down there," Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "I think there were a lot of things for the number crunchers that worked well last week, but the devil is in the details when it comes to scoring. Each week it plays out differently. We were able to run the ball in [and] we threw it in a couple of times, so when you commit to running it and you get those extra yards to score, that's important. That means everybody is doing their job. Then when you do the same thing throwing it like we did, I just think it's just doing things well, whether you run it or pass it, and we found a way to do that."
The Bengals' defense poses a tough test with a strong rushing defense and a likely Pro Bowl edge rusher in Trey Hendrickson. If the Broncos can find success in the red zone and on third down, they should be able to still score enough points to earn a win.
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