ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Broncos approach a Week 15 game against the Bengals, there's no shortage of motivation.
Denver sits just below Cincinnati in the playoff standings, and the Broncos and Bengals are two of five AFC teams with a 7-6 record. Their matchup on Sunday in Denver isn't quite an elimination game, but the team that earns a win will take a substantial step toward a playoff berth. And the losing side will see their postseason hopes take a significant blow.
"It's always good to have a little help in the motivation area," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Wednesday. "These guys know what's at stake [and] what possibilities we have with the last four games. I think they're attacking it with great enthusiasm."
Since the bye week, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said he's sensed a shift in the team's mentality as they entered a win-or-else scenario. The Broncos are 2-1 since the bye — and 4-2 since Week 8 — and they would likely find themselves with a playoff berth if they can finish with three wins in their last four games.
"I said prior to the Chargers game how the energy was just different," Bridgewater said. "It's still that way. It doesn't feel like it's Week 15 or whatever week it is right now. Guys are still bringing that same energy as if it were Week 1 or 2. That's exciting for this team. We have a great group of veterans, then we have a solid group of young players. [We're] combining that energy with that wisdom and the talent. Combining that all together, it's a recipe to try to make a run these next couple weeks."
Bridgewater said channeling that energy in an effective and positive fashion begins with the team's mindset.
"It's easy to say, 'Act like you've been there before' in these types of games, but sometimes you have guys who haven't been there," Bridgewater said. "It's more so like, 'Hey, man, just continue to trust your process.' We're sitting here with an opportunity to make a push. It also starts with reminding guys that you want to be playing your best football at this time of the year. You see that from some of our guys. Some guys are playing their best football right now. We just want to keep that going these next couple weeks."
Safety Justin Simmons said the experience of playing the Chiefs in Week 13 should prove to be a learning experience for the Broncos, as it gave them a taste of a playoff atmosphere. Simmons said he expects that same type of environment this weekend, and he hopes the team can make the most of a series of meaningful games.
"It means everything, and not even selfishly just for me — for the fan base, for Broncos Country, for the organization," Simmons said of being in the playoff hunt. "When I got drafted here, obviously they were coming off the Super Bowl, but even just being a fan of the game, recognizing how prestigious this organization is, in terms of winning, getting to the postseason, winning playoff home games and things like that — I just want to be part of the guys that get back there and not just are continuing the slope of not being there. So, selfishly, of course, I want to go and I want to experience that and I want to win. But more importantly, I want to make sure that we give that back to the fans and Broncos Country in general, because they deserve it."
LIMITING EXPLOSIVE PLAYS
Earlier in the season, Denver's opponents found great success through the air. The Giants, Jaguars, Ravens, Steelers and Raiders all connected on deep passes, and the Broncos were susceptible at times to giving up those game-changing plays.
That's changed in recent weeks, as the Broncos have given up just two passes of more than 35 yards since Week 7 — and one of those competitions came when a running back broke free from a linebacker in coverage.
"It's been a mix of a bunch of different things," Simmons said. "I'm sure you guys could have guessed communication is probably the number one thing I'm going to say, but the other aspect of that is I think our front has been playing tremendous football, getting pressure. I mean, shoot, 'Dre' [Dre'Mont Jones] had a series last game; he basically got us off the field himself. And guys are just playing really good. And I think due part of that as well is we've been doing fairly well against the run, too. When you're stopping the run and making teams one-dimensional or scoring on offense and teams are kind of behind the eight ball and not able to run the ball maybe the way that they wanted to or game-plan-wise — all that comes into effect. I think we're doing a good job of just playing complementary football, and defensively, we're finding ways to stop the run. And then we're just keeping the explosives and eliminating them. That's always going to be a formula to help you win games."
The Bengals will pose one of the toughest challenges of the year, as quarterback Joe Burrow likes to look deep down the field. He's especially dangerous when he extends plays, as he did last week against the 49ers. On fourth-and-5 from the San Francisco 17, he moved around the pocket before rolling to his right and firing to Ja'Marr Chase in the back of the end zone.
"He's good at that," Fangio said of Burrow. "He's a good scrambler. His rushing yards don't indicate that, but he's had about three or four good scrambles where he ran for significant gains [that] got wiped out by penalties. He extends plays and he's courageous in the pocket. I've been impressed with his overall game."
'YOU JUST WANT TO WIN FOOTBALL GAMES'
After Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick combined for three catches for 30 yards against the Lions, Bridgewater was again asked about how to get the team's wide receivers more involved in the offense. Sutton has just 10 catches for 119 yards since Week 8, and Denver's wide receivers only have one touchdown since Week 7.
As Bridgewater explained Wednesday, though, he's far more concerned with the team's results than how the Broncos fare in the passing game.
"At the end of the day, we're winning," Bridgewater said. "That should be the most important thing, no matter how we do it or who has a great game. I'll point out, I watched the New England Patriots play last Monday — I think it was the first football game I watched all year — [and] the quarterback threw the ball three times. You think anyone was in the locker room pouting? I'm at that point — and I'm trying to get guys to understand — that it's hard to win in this league. Whenever you come across those wins, it doesn't matter how it happens, as long as you win. We celebrate, then we talk about it come Monday. 'Hey, can I get involved a little more?' Our coaches have been doing a great job of trying to get guys involved, but at the end of the day it just comes down to winning."
Bridgewater said whether the team needs to run the ball 40 times or throw it 40 times, he's prepared for any game plan that helps earn a victory.
"This time of year, you just want to win football games," Bridgewater said. "However they come about, you just want to win."