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Only 'playoff games' remain on schedule for Broncos, who sit at critical juncture

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Super Bowl 50 seemed far away on Monday night in the visiting locker room at Arrowhead Stadium.

The confetti, the Lombardi Trophy and the diamond-encrusted rings were just faint memories among the pre-wrap, tape and towels scattered on the ground.

On this night in particular, one which saw the Broncos turn the ball over five times in a 29-19 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, a return to that pinnacle seemed out of reach.

But as the Broncos dressed amid the growing concerns surrounding the now 3-4 team, linebacker Brandon Marshall offered a reason to believe this may not be a lost season.

The mentality that existed on that championship team isn't any different than the mentality that exists now, Marshall said.

"It feels the same," said Marshall, whose body straightened and voice changed tone when speaking about the 2015 team. "All we need is a blade of grass. That's all we need. Give us one inch, we're going to play defense. That's how we take it, that's how we see things."

The only difference between that 2015 unit and the current iteration is turnover differential, and the Broncos took a positive step toward fixing that issue on the defensive side of the ball. Against the Chiefs, who had turned the ball over just once all season, the Broncos forced a fumble and picked off a red-zone pass attempt.

Maybe, then, the playoff version of this team isn't so hard to imagine.

Maybe it's just the matter of minimizing correctable turnovers, like a Jamaal Charles fumble that the Chiefs returned for a touchdown or a muffed Isaiah McKenzie punt return that led to three more points.

If that's true — if this team isn't too far from its previous playoff success — then the Broncos will receive welcome news just in time.

Because, as running back C.J. Anderson put it Monday night, the Broncos just don't have any other options.

"Got to be 12-4," Anderson said. "Got to find a way. Playoff game from here on out. Got to [have] better detail, better focus, take care of the ball better. 12-4."

That leaves the Broncos, obviously, with no margin for error. As Anderson put it, that's "what you gotta be if you want to win."

"I guess we love tough challenges, so we'll just keep grinding," Anderson said.

While a playoff berth would still be possible — even probably — at 11-5, 10-6 or maybe even 9-7, Anderson's point wasn't lost on the rest of the locker room.

On both the offensive and defensive side of the football, players understood the margin for error is largely gone.

"When you look at the division leaders, of course you see the Chiefs are at the top," outside linebacker Shane Ray said. "We're still fighting for our position. It's going to come down to it. This is a long season. Football really starts in November. That's when the games really count and everything gets amped up.

"We need to start just taking the approach that every one of these games is a playoff game for us. All these games are must-wins for us. We've got to do better."

The first challenge will come quickly. As the Broncos left the field at Arrowhead Stadium on Monday evening, they were just over 90 hours away from touching down in Philadelphia.

Denver arrives in the City of Brotherly Love on Friday evening, and they'll play their first "playoff game" against a team with just one loss.

Their work will begin in practice this week as they try to implement Head Coach Vance Joseph's "MORE" sentiment and salvage the second quarter of the season. To Marshall, that means more film study, more urgency and more work.

"[There's] the whole saying, 'Work smarter, not harder,'" Marshall said. "[Well,] we've got to work harder and smarter."

Should they do that, perhaps the Broncos can recapture some of the playoff magic they've found in five of the previous six seasons.

But it's a mentality that must return, regardless.

Just ask Demaryius Thomas, who laughed when asked about treating each game down the stretch as a single-elimination contest.

"I was treating this one like a playoff game," Thomas said. "Last week, too."

Facing a critical juncture in their season, Thomas' teammates have arrived at the same conclusion.

Round 1 sits just six days away.

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