ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The NFL playoffs don't start for another month, but the Broncos are approaching a series of games that will rival the feeling of a win-or-go-home postseason matchup.
Following the Broncos' 38-10 win over the Lions, Denver is one of five AFC teams with a 7-6 record. All five teams are jockeying for the final two wild-card spots, and the 8-5 Chargers have a tenuous hold on the fifth seed following Week 14.
Denver currently holds the 10th seed in the AFC, as the Broncos' conference record has pushed them down the standings. A Week 15 showdown with the ninth-seeded Bengals (7-6) could help the Broncos make up some ground, and it's one of more pivotal games of this weekend.
"It's the next game," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Monday. "Obviously we're in the tail end of the season, and our whole focus is to win this next game. It's a big game — no denying that — for them and for us. Our whole focus will be to win this game."
With a win, the Broncos would improve their playoff chances from 23 percent to 38 percent, according to the New York Times' playoff predictor. A loss, though, would drop the Broncos' playoff hopes to just eight percent.
Denver will face a stiff challenge against former first-overall pick Joe Burrow and a talented Bengals offense, but the Broncos have taken steps just by being involved in a meaningful December football game.
"It feels good," Bradley Chubb said. "I feel like this is the first true time we've been in the mix since I've been here and I feel like everybody in the locker room feels that same way and everybody's on board and trying to win these games. We all know these next four games, we pretty much are going to have a four-game playoff run before the playoffs. We know that every game counts, we've got to win every last one of them. We're going to have that mindset … throughout [our] preparation."
Denver hasn't been over .500 this late in the year since 2016, when the Broncos were eliminated following a Week 16 loss in Kansas City. The Broncos last had a late-season chance at a playoff bid in 2018, when Denver rallied from 3-6 to 6-6 with a series of winnable games to finish the season. Key injuries, though, hampered the Broncos' chances and the team ended the year 6-10.
"It's definitely good [to be in the mix]," Fangio said. "There's no denying that. I think it's good for obviously us, the team [and] the players. I think it's good for our fans. I think it's good for you guys to cover something with a little more pop to it. But we've got to be one game at a time. We said after the Kansas City game, we had five games left that was going to determine what happened. We passed the first test, we've got to go after the second one."
While Fangio said he wished the team could have earned a couple of more wins prior to this point in the season, he did say he was pleased with where his team stands.
"We're playing good football right now," Fangio said. "We have our issues that we have to get solved like everybody does, but I feel good about our team moving forward to these last four games."
The Broncos will play two of those games at home, including their Week 15 matchup with the Bengals. After starting the season 1-2 at Empower Field at Mile High, the Broncos have won three of their last four home matchups.
"They'll be ready for it," Fangio said of his team. "Our fans are great. Our stadium's electric all the time. Maybe they'll just be a few less no-shows and it'll be even a little bit louder."
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
As Fangio noted Sunday night, the final score hid the importance of the Broncos' final first-half drive. Up 14-10, Denver's offense got the ball back at its own 22-yard line and moved 44 yards to kick a field goal as time expired. The field goal pushed Denver's lead to 17-10, and it gave the Broncos some breathing room after the Lions scored 10 consecutive points in the second quarter. Without the field goal, the Lions would have had the chance to take the lead on their first possession of the second half.
Denver's drive wasn't spurred by any big plays, but the team correctly managed the clock. With all three timeouts remaining, the Broncos were able to target the middle of the field, and Teddy Bridgewater found Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant twice each to help move the ball. After the Broncos used their final timeout with 12 seconds to play in the half, their week of work paid dividends. Bridgewater found Jeudy in the middle of the field, and he got down quickly so that the team could get up to the line and spike the ball.
"Every Wednesday, I pick certain end-of-game, end-of-half situations and we do it," Fangio said. "And then every Thursday or Friday — we've adjusted the schedule — we do two-minute drills [on] both sides of the ball. Luckily, the one that we had at the end of the half, the 12 second[s], get yards, clock it before it runs out — we did that one last week on Wednesday, which was just luck."
Fangio said Bridgewater's experience helped in that situation, but the practice the team put in was critical, as well.
"I think it helped that we've done it a lot," Fangio said. "We've practiced that situation more than a couple times during the season, and it was really good by everybody."
EMBRACING THE RUN GAME
The Broncos ran the ball 39 times on Sunday, which meant wide receivers Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy and tight ends Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam and Eric Saubert had to be more than just pass-catchers. Against the Lions, the Broncos' skill players helped the offensive line pave the way for Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams' strong day.
"I think they did a good job with that," Fangio said. "Particularly the one run I remembered that was near our sideline, Courtland was grinding his block pretty good, which got us some extra yards. Those guys take pride in that, our coaches do a good job of coaching it, and they're all in on it."
After receiving a game ball on Sunday, Gordon also recognized the entire offense's blocking efforts.
"It was blocked up well," Gordon said. "We gave credit in the team locker room to the offensive linemen — as we should — but I just want to give just a brief moment to thank the tight ends and the wide receivers. Those guys fight their butt off to make plays. We're fighting as a unit right now. I love to see it, and hopefully they hear this because I didn't get to say it in there. I'm thankful for those guys as well because those guys help create the lanes and the receivers help really make the explosive runs — if you didn't know. The line absolutely did their thing today and hopefully we can continue to finish this thing out the right way."