DENVER — It seems hard to believe that in the wake of the tragic loss of Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos must still play a football game this weekend.
As those on the team who knew Thomas grieve his passing, they must also prepare for a critical matchup with the Detroit Lions.
It's an unenviable task, made more difficult for Denver given the stakes. At 6-6 and in the middle of the AFC wild-card race, there is no margin for error. As safety Justin Simmons said earlier in the week, the Broncos need to find a way to win this game to keep pace.
"It's a must-win," Simmons said on Wednesday. "… I know me personally in talking with the [defensive backs] — and getting ready to talk to the team kind of throughout the week — the message is it's a must-win. There's no thought of even leaving that stadium with a loss. Because it is playoff time. One loss and your chances are drastically down the drain. … Like I say every week, you can't say it, you've got to do it. Our focus is all on winning on Sunday."
Their opponent, the Lions, is just 1-10-1 this season, but they'll present a tougher challenge than their record would suggest. Since their Week 9 bye, the Lions have lost a pair of games by three points or fewer, tied the Steelers and earned their first win in Week 13 against the Vikings.
"Their entire season, they've lost a lot of tough games," Fangio said. "… They're playing really good football right now. The record is what it is, but the tape shows you a different football team. They're really playing good football right now."
On what will certainly be an emotional day in Denver, these will be the questions the Broncos must answer to earn a much-needed win and move back above .500 on the season.
WILL THE BRONCOS' DEFENSE START FAST?
The Broncos' defense has been one of the best in the league this season, allowing the third fewest points per game in the league entering Week 14. In recent weeks, Denver's defense has limited the high-powered Cowboys and Chiefs offenses to 16 points and the Chargers to just 13 points. Against the Cowboys, all 16 of those points came in garbage time.
If you remove the two defensive touchdowns and the special teams touchdown that have been scored against the Broncos this year, they've allowed an average of just 16.6 points per game.
If there's an area where the Broncos can improve, though, it's early in games. In four games this season, the Broncos have allowed 10 points on their opponent's first two drives.
"I don't have a real answer for [why that's happened], but I can tell you it's on our mind and we're always trying to perfect that," Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said Thursday. "We always want to start the game fast and get control of it. It doesn't always happen, and we'll look at ourselves. It's always specific to every opponent. We want to stop them, get the ball to our offense right away and take control of the game. That's what our intentions are."
Denver plays its best football when it builds an early lead rather than chasing one. If they can prevent Detroit from going ahead in the early moments, it will greatly increase their chances of earning a win.
CAN THE BRONCOS GET THEIR WIDE RECEIVERS MORE INVOLVED?
The Broncos made it clear during the bye week that Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick are a big part of this team's future, as they signed the two players to a four-year and three-year contract extension, respectively. Both players, though, haven't quite made the impact in recent weeks that Broncos fans have become accustomed to seeing.
In the last five games, Sutton has caught just nine passes for 110 yards, and he's been held out of the end zone since Week 6 against the Raiders. Patrick, meanwhile, had productive games against Washington and Dallas, but he has just six catches for 49 yards in the last three weeks. Sutton's drop in production happens to line up with Jerry Jeudy's return to the field, but Head Coach Vic Fangio said there wasn't a connection between the two events.
"I think it's coincidental more so than by design, for sure," Fangio said Monday. "We'd like to get the ball to Courtland as much as we can. Courtland is a playmaker for us, and we've got to find a way to get him the ball."
Jeudy has found a bit more production — he's Denver's leading receiver since he returned from injury in Week 8 — but he has yet to score a touchdown in his six games this season. That drought is not unique to Jeudy; Broncos receivers have scored just one touchdown since Week 6.
As the Broncos look to get Sutton and Patrick more involved and get all three players into the end zone, Fangio said play-action passes and formations will be a focus.
"Our whole passing game needs to improve a little bit," Fangio said this week. "We never got into a rhythm last week in our last game. The week before, we didn't have a lot of the yards either. We just need to get our passing game, as a whole, in a better rhythm."
The Broncos will need their trio of receivers to be at their best down the stretch, and Sunday's game against Detroit would be a perfect time to get back on track.
HOW WILL THE BRONCOS HANDLE THE EMOTION OF SUNDAY'S GAME?
The Broncos will wear No. 88 helmet stickers to honor Thomas, and they'll have both a pregame video tribute and a moment of silence. Simply put, there will be some emotional moments on Sunday as the team remembers one of the franchise's all-time greats.
There's no real way to quantify how this could impact Sunday's game, but it's also impossible to ignore. The grief that Broncos players are feeling is real — and it will likely be a difficult afternoon for many.
"Obviously, the people that knew him and were around him — they're sad and depressed, and down a little bit," Fangio said on Friday. "I think everybody handled the day well. We had a good practice, and we're ready to pay tribute to him on Sunday."
Tackle Garett Bolles echoed that sentiment, saying that the Broncos hoped to honor Thomas through their play on both Sunday and through the rest of the season.
"His legacy will live on," Bolles said. "The one thing he always said was his name was going to be in these rafters, and everyone's going to know who he is for so many years. We've got to put 88 in our hearts, and hopefully he gives us that juice, he gives us that desire to go make the playoffs. That's what I feel like we need to do for him, and hopefully we do that."
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