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Game Preview: Denver Broncos vs. Los Angeles Chargers | Week 17

DENVER — The focus is on getting an eighth win.

As the Broncos approach a Week 17 matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers, Head Coach Sean Payton made it clear that nothing is more important than finding a way to earn another victory.

"We're playing for something," Payton said Friday. "We're playing for something. Remember when I used that analogy — again, I'm just referencing a team, I know the coach well — and I referenced the 1-6 Lions. They flipped the script. The final week of the season, they're trying to get their ninth win. An hour before kickoff, they got eliminated before the Packers game. They're eliminated from the postseason. They went out and won that game and finished 9-8. You think that mattered? That mattered a lot. These games matter a lot, especially as you're building, like we are. This game is the one. To get to nine, you have to get to eight first. I think it matters a lot, and I think they understand that."

As the Broncos look to earn the win and sweep a divisional opponent for the first time since 2019, they'll be led by quarterback Jarrett Stidham.

"The No. 1 push behind this — and it's a decision I'm making — is to get a spark offensively," Payton said Wednesday after making a change at quarterback. "Obviously, it's difficult. All of us feel like, 'Man, we didn't do well enough.' One of the things we saw when we signed Stidham in the offseason was not only film from preseason games, but regular[-season] games. He's a guy that I'm anxious to see play. If I didn't feel like he gave us the chance to win, then we wouldn't be making that move."

As the Broncos aim to boost their offense and get back in the win column after losing three of their last four, here's a look at a matchup to watch, a question for Denver to answer and a stat to know.


Jarrett Stidham vs. Los Angeles' defense

All eyes will be on Stidham as he makes his first start with the Broncos. The 2019 fourth-round pick will look to spark Denver's offense and recapture some of the success he found last season in his first start for the Raiders. Against the top-ranked 49ers defense, Stidham threw for 365 yards, three touchdowns and a 108.1 quarterback rating in a near upset over the eventual NFC finalist.

"He's someone who's got real good poise, he's got real good feet," Payton said Wednesday. "You see his arm strength, decision-making. Take a peek at the 49er game or take a peek at the Chief game or some of those things we saw. And then obviously we get a chance to see him every day against our defense."

Stidham's first start will not be without challenges. In their first game under interim head coach Giff Smith, the Chargers forced three turnovers and nearly pulled an upset over the Bills — and Los Angeles entered Week 17 tied for sixth on the season in sacks.

If Stidham can avoid pressure, though, there may be an opportunity to find success through the air. The Chargers have allowed the third-most passing yards entering Week 17 and rank 29th in total defense and 26th in scoring defense. The Broncos would need reserve receivers to step up on Sunday, as Courtland Sutton has been ruled out and Jerry Jeudy and Marvin Mims Jr. are listed as questionable.


Can the Broncos replicate their third-down success?

In the Broncos' Week 14 win over the Chargers, Denver dominated on key downs. The Denver defense held the Chargers to 0-of-12 on third down and 1-of-6 on third down en route to a near shutout. As the unit prepares to face quarterback Easton Stick again — this time, for a full game — the Broncos will aim to repeat that performance. And yet, they'll face a different challenge as they prepare for a team that demonstrated an aggressive approach against the Bills. Stick threw the ball more than 30 times in the two-point loss and completed seven passes that went for at least 15 yards.

"That makes it hard on defenses," Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph said. "Why go out there and run, run run when you can throw, throw, throw? That's challenging."

The Broncos, after their own Week 16 game, will look to prevent those sort of chunk passes. Denver forced seven three-and-outs and recorded a takeaway against the Patriots, but the Broncos also allowed five plays of at least 20 yards. Two of those plays spurred touchdown drives, while another put New England in position for a game-winning field goal.

"We're playing hard, we're making enough plays, but [from] time to time we're giving up some big plays, and that has cost us points," Joseph said. "Just focusing on details and not giving up random big plays from time to time is the key."



No stat has defined the Broncos more than turnover differential. In the eight games this season in which Denver has won the turnover battle, the team has posted a commanding 7-1 record. The Broncos' lone loss came in Week 1, when they held a plus-one advantage over the Raiders. Over the last seven games, however, Denver has been perfect when holding the edge in the turnover margin.

When Denver loses the takeaway battle, however, the team hasn't found success. The Broncos are 0-7 on the year when they give the ball away more than they take it, and Payton pointed to turnovers on Tuesday when asked about the differences between the Broncos' five-game winning streak and the team's recent 1-3 stretch.

"We were protecting the ball better," Payton said. "It's out all the time now. It was out the other day, [and] we're lucky we only had two turnovers."

Payton also noted that two-thirds of NFL games "are lost before they're ever won" and said the Broncos are still learning how to not to lose certain games.

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