DENVER — The stretch run is about to begin.
The Broncos return to the field Sunday to take on the Chargers and kick off a division-heavy finish to the season in which Denver will play five division matchups in its final seven games.
If Denver can go on a run, the playoffs remain a realistic goal for a team desperate to return to the postseason. A win over the Chargers would kick-start that goal, as it would set the Broncos up for a battle for first place in Week 13 against the Chiefs.
The Broncos, though, cannot look ahead. As they said often this week, their entire focus must be on the Los Angeles Chargers.
"Our total focus — emotionally, mentally and physically — is on this game," Head Coach Vic Fangio said this week. "I think if you try and get ahead of yourself, you're only setting yourself up for a fall. We've got to play this game to make the rest of them more meaningful."
The Broncos' attempt to get a win will be far from easy, as the Chargers profile as one of the best teams the Broncos will face this season. With a star quarterback in Justin Herbert, a talent-packed defense and an aggressive-minded head coach, the Chargers will test Denver at all levels.
Despite the Broncos' recent struggles, though, they've played tight games against the Chargers. Five of the last six games have been decided by a touchdown or less, and the Broncos have earned four wins during that span. A year ago, Denver earned one of its largest comebacks in franchise history as they stormed back from a 21-point second-half deficit.
These are the questions that will determine if Denver can earn another memorable win.
CAN THE BRONCOS SLOW JUSTIN HERBERT AND CO.?
If having Patrick Mahomes in the division wasn't enough of a problem, Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is proving to be another potential headache for the Broncos. The second-year player ranks seventh in the NFL in passing yards, tied for fifth in touchdown passes — and is a threat on the ground, as well.
"I thought the guy was really good last year," Fangio said this week. "… Nobody kind of knew how he would do, and he made a tremendous adjustment and adaptation to the NFL last year. I thought that their coaching staff last year did a great job with him. The coaching staff this year has just taken him to a new level, and he's really, really good. He throws the ball extremely well. He's got a big arm, but he throws with touch. He throws a very catchable ball. Obviously, he's big, so he's hard to get down. He's athletic and fast."
Against the Steelers last week, Herbert completed 73 percent of his passes for three touchdowns, one interception and a 116.1 quarterback rating while also scrambling for 90 yards.
Herbert also has a host of weapons with which to work. Running back Austin Ekeler scored four total touchdowns last week as a threat as a runner and receiver, and Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are weapons on the outside. The Broncos could benefit from the potential return of Bradley Chubb, but they'll need reserves to step up if Kareem Jackson and Shelby Harris cannot play this week.
For the Broncos, their defensive effort likely begins up front. Denver must improve against the run and create a pass rush to keep the Chargers' offense in check.
CAN THE BRONCOS EARN AN EDGE ON THE GROUND?
It would hardly be a surprise if the Broncos needed to score nearly 30 points — or more — to be in the game late against the Chargers. A year ago in Denver, the Broncos won a 31-30 nail-biter as their offense finally took off in the fourth quarter. This year, the Broncos will likely need to find success earlier in the game, as they've yet to fight back from more than a seven-point deficit to earn a win this season.
The Broncos should have a path to control both time of possession and the scoreboard. Despite being better against the run in recent weeks, the Chargers' run defense is a potential soft spot in an otherwise stout defense. And that's the area where the Broncos have thrived at times this season. Denver ranks just 17th in rushing offense, but an effective and timely ground game has been the common thread in the Broncos' success this season. Against the Cowboys, Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams both found success, and it paced Denver to their best win of the year.
Teddy Bridgewater will still need to make timely throws, and the Broncos must push the ball down the field more than they did against the Eagles. If Denver can control the clock via the run game — and keep Herbert off the field in the process — it may give the Broncos their best chance to find offensive success.
CAN DENVER TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE CHARGERS' AGGRESSIVENESS?
Few teams have been more aggressive than the Los Angeles Chargers.
In Brandon Staley's first year as head coach, the Chargers have gone for it 18 times on fourth down, which ranks fourth on a per-game basis. Many of those attempts have not been from late-game necessity. Instead, Staley and the Chargers have taken advantage of opportunities to extend possessions. In the last several weeks, that aggressive approach has been on display when it mattered most.
On the final possession of the Chargers' Week 9 win over the Eagles, LA went for it — and got it — on fourth-and-1 at the Philadelphia 39-yard line and on fourth-and-1 at the Philadelphia 28-yard line. Against the Steelers last week, the Chargers went for another fourth-and-1 — this time from their own 34-yard line in a tied game in the fourth quarter. They were unsuccessful, but they held on for the win.
In Dallas, the Broncos stuffed the Cowboys on a pair of early fourth-down attempts and gained momentum for the rest of the game. It's a near certainty that the Chargers will go for it at some point on fourth down during Sunday's game. If Denver can come up with a big stop, it could be the momentum shift the Broncos need.
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