ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos' lack of Pro Bowlers were unexpected.
Unexpected to Head Coach Vic Fangio: "I was very, very surprised and disappointed."
Unexpected to Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell: "We really feel like they were deserving."
And unexpected to safety Justin Simmons: "You ask any guy in this league that's competitive, you always think you're the best at what you do. And so obviously I think I'm the best at what I do."
But in the same breath that Simmons spoke about being denied his second career Pro Bowl appearance, he noted that individual accolades often accompany team success. And Simmons knows what he'd prefer to find over the final few weeks of the 2021 season.
"What I'm more concerned about is trying to find ways to win games [and] get in the playoffs," Simmons said. "Those individual accolades will come."
It should be noted that the Broncos have more wins at this point in the season than any year since 2017 and somehow have fewer Pro Bowlers, but Simmons' point remains. For the Broncos to receive recognition, they know they'll need to start winning the big games.
"Any time you're winning, you get more prime-time games," Simmons said. "There's more national coverage. Players and teams and fans get to see your team play. And then with that comes a lot more recognition. Pat [Surtain II]'s been playing absolutely amazing, Dre'Mont [Jones]'s been playing absolutely amazing — we've had linebackers plug in, week in and week out, that have played absolutely amazing as of late. I just think guys don't get the recognition they deserve unfortunately because we haven't been winning football games. And even though we've been in position the last few games to potentially be first in our division or have a one-up in terms of heading into the playoffs, we just haven't found ways to win those games. For me, that's a little bit more important. Once those things start happening, the recognition starts coming."
The Broncos have a chance to earn one of those wins when they take on the Raiders this Sunday at Allegiant Stadium. Denver must earn a victory to stay in contention for a playoff berth, and the Broncos will have to get that win against a Raiders team that has held the edge over the last three years. The Broncos have lost four of their last five games against the Raiders, and their last road win over the Raiders came in 2015.
"They've played well against us," Fangio said. "They have a balanced offensive attack, and any time you're balanced, that always makes it tougher to defend. They have a good pass rush, which has affected us some in the past. They're a good team and they've managed to what beat us four out of the five times."
The Raiders have scored at least 30 points against the Broncos in each of their last three meetings, and in their Week 6 matchup, the Raiders were aided by five passing plays of at least 30 yards.
"We definitely have to limit them," Fangio said of the last meeting. "They got three [explosive plays] for sure that come to mind immediately that were huge in the game. Anybody's defense — but especially ours — we can't give up the explosives."
To the Broncos' credit, they've been far better against the deep pass. The Bengals struck on a long touchdown, but the score was not the result of a receiver beating his defender deep down the field.
"It's going to be a collective defensive effort," Simmons said. "I don't think we played our best defense the first time we saw them at home earlier in the season. Now later on in the season we're finding our groove, we're playing a little bit better defense, better overall complete defense. The biggest thing for us is going to find ways to limit their opportunity as an offense and give our offense more opportunities — obviously that being takeaways. That's the one area that I've consistently talked about while I've been up here, outside of communication, and that's going to be something we're going to have to be great at on Sunday in order to win."
In the Broncos' Week 6 loss, they did not record a takeaway — and Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has thrown just two picks against the Broncos in their last 11 meetings. Both of those interceptions came in the Broncos' nail-biting loss to the Raiders to end the 2020 season.
Denver will also need to avoid their own turnovers. In Las Vegas last year, the Broncos turned the ball over five times en route to a 37-12 loss. Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said Tuesday that protecting the ball will be "critical" for the Broncos' chances.
"Turnovers are a bugger," Shurmur said. "That game [against the Bengals] is different. We're in a scoring zone and that puts us ahead — at one point we did get ahead — but that puts us ahead. That gets us our 17 points. Then the other one was before the half. We put ourselves in a field-goal situation, but there were plays in that drive where we could have gotten closer. That's three [more points] and that's 20 [total points] in a hard-fought game, [with the] backup quarterback coming in. That doesn't change any of the other things that happened during the game. So we have to keep that in mind and just keep rolling. But in and around all of that, taking care of the football is very important. As you think back, we're much better this year taking care of the ball than we were a year ago. I think it helps us in an operation like that, and it's got to continue. When turnovers turn up and they take scores off the board, that's critical for the team that we have."
The Broncos' calling card over the last few weeks, though, has been their defense. Denver now ranks second in the league in points allowed, and the Broncos will face a Raiders team that has topped the 20-point mark just once in the last seven weeks. That stretch coincides with the loss of Henry Ruggs III — and star tight end Darren Waller remains out of practice and hasn't played since Thanksgiving.
If Denver can limit Carr and Co., the Broncos could be in position to get a win.
And the fact the win would come against an AFC West foe would be secondary to the fact that Denver earned a victory that would keep its season alive.
"We've got to get wins," Fangio said. "Would I love them to be against AFC West [teams]? Yes. But we need to get some wins."