LOS ANGELES — The Broncos had every reason to make excuses this week.
By early Friday afternoon, the team had learned it would be without more than a handful of starters due to COVID protocols. In a week in which the team also cancelled practice on Thursday and shifted its Friday practice to a walkthrough — all while trying to maintain its playoff hopes with a win over a division opponent — the Broncos faced their share of adversity.
And yet, the team's attitude did not change.
"Our guys' attitude during the walkthrough was tremendous," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Friday. "I thank them for that, [and] I admire them for that, but I expected that. These guys are a bunch of fighters and competitors and they're going to go out there and play — and play to win. We have a good group of guys from the intangible aspects, and we're going to go out there and play well."
As Fangio met the press Friday afternoon, he reiterated that would be no excuses for a Broncos team looking to climb back to .500 without its starting quarterback and without many of its best players.
"They don't draw pictures, so we're going to play a game on Sunday," Fangio said. "We're going to be expected to win. We're going to go out there and give it all of our efforts to go get that 'W'. You're right, it's a no-excuse league, and we're certainly not going to use any."
And if the Broncos were to get a win, it would do more than potentially keep their playoff chances alive. It would also represent a remarkable display of effort and focus from a team that has battled all year.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can earn their fifth win in their last six tries against the Chargers:
CAN THE BRONCOS SURVIVE THE LOSS OF KEY STARTERS?
The Broncos' hopes of earning a season sweep over the Chargers weren't helped by the team's COVID-19 issues this week. Over the last several days, Denver has added a slew of starters to the Reserve/COVID-19 list — and that means they'll be without several key players on Sunday against Los Angeles.
Wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick, cornerback Bryce Callahan, right tackle Bobby Massie, outside linebacker Bradley Chubb, nose tackle Mike Purcell and inside linebacker Baron Browning are all starters who remained on the Reserve/COVID-19 list as of Saturday afternoon.
As if that didn't make the task challenging enough, the Broncos are also without key depth players. They'll be without special teams ace Mike Ford, their top two reserve edge rushers in Jonathon Cooper and Stephen Weatherly, their swing tackle in Calvin Anderson and their dime safety in Caden Sterns.
Fangio said Friday that the team won't reinvent the wheel with its game plan, but he acknowledged that they'll make some changes.
"We're just going to adjust some of the plays offensively to fit our personnel — both from a talent standpoint and a knowledge standpoint," Fangio said. "The same thing will happen defensively."
From a talent standpoint, the Broncos will have to rely on some practice squad elevations and other seldom-used players to match up with Justin Herbert and Co. Wide receiver Seth Williams, outside linebacker Pita Taumoepenu and cornerback Michael Ojemudia could be among those with an elevated role on Sunday.
And in the likes of Courtland Sutton, Justin Simmons, Pat Surtain II and Co., Denver still has plenty of playmakers available.
CAN DENVER MAKE THE BIG PLAYS AGAIN?
In the Broncos' Week 12 win over the Chargers, Herbert and the Los Angeles offense moved the ball well. After a pair of three-and-outs in the opening quarter, the Chargers rebounded to record 357 yards of offense and convert half of their third downs over the course of the game.
Denver, though, gave up just 13 points — which is a bit surprising, as the Chargers posted five drives that traveled at least 40 yards. The Broncos, who totaled fewer yards of total offense, had just three such drives and scored 21 points on offense.
The key for the Broncos? They made the big plays that they needed on defense. The Broncos forced an incompletion on fourth-and-3 from the Denver 35-yard line in the second quarter, sacked Herbert on a third-quarter third down that forced the Chargers to settle for a long — and eventually missed — field-goal attempt and picked off Herbert in the end zone as the Chargers drove to tie the game early in the fourth quarter.
Without three of their top four edge rushers and with a depleted secondary, the Broncos won't have an easy time finding the same success. But against an offense as potent as Los Angeles', it's clear three or four plays can turn the tide of the game.
CAN THE BRONCOS GET THE HELP THEY NEED?
The games around the league won't impact the Broncos' on-field performance against the Chargers, but Denver's fans will be excused if they keep an eye on the scoreboard on Sunday afternoon.
For the Broncos to remain in the playoff race, they'll need to do more than just earn a win against the Chargers. They'll also need help from several teams in Week 17, as the Broncos need several AFC teams to suffer losses.
Denver will need the Titans to defeat the Dolphins and the Rams to defeat the Ravens in the 11 a.m. MT slate, or else the Broncos' playoff chances will be finished before they kick off at SoFi Stadium. Denver will also need the Browns to earn a win over Pittsburgh on "Monday Night Football" to cap Week 17.
The Broncos' playoff chances are currently less than 0.1 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight's simulation. Those chances would still be less than one percent at the end of Week 17, even if all goes right for the Broncos. It could, though, set the stage for a wacky Week 18.
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