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'You have to have a playoff mentality': Broncos face critical test vs. AFC South-leading Titans

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the NFL, it's unwise to look past any game on the schedule.

Each week, any team has the opportunity — and ability — to pull an upset and earn a win. And as the Broncos aim to go on a run to salvage their postseason hopes, they won't underestimate any team on their remaining schedule.

But as the Broncos prepare for a Week 10 matchup with the AFC South-leading Titans, it's clear that this particular game could be a litmus test for the rest of the year.

With a win, the Broncos would earn their first victory of the season over a team with a winning record. They would garner their first true road win, and they would knock off a team that has advanced to the postseason in each of the last three years. The Broncos would also climb back to 4-5 with a win and firmly reinsert themselves into the wild-card race.

A loss, though, would send the Broncos tumbling to a 3-6 mark with eight games to play. Their margin for error would largely disappear, and Denver would be forced to finish 7-1 or 6-2 — with two games against the AFC West-leading Chiefs and a road game against the AFC North-leading Ravens left on the slate, among other challenging games.

As such, quarterback Russell Wilson said the Broncos must approach this weekend's matchup with a win-or-go-home mentality.

"You have to have a playoff mentality right now," Wilson said Wednesday. "This is one of those things you approach this week and understand that you're playing a great football team in the Tennessee Titans. They do a lot of great things across the board. We have to be at our best and bring our A game. That's what we're looking forward to: preparing at the highest level this week. The only thing that matters is today. All the other stuff down the road doesn't really matter. At the end of the day, we have to have a great practice today and make sure that today's practice is excellent and at the highest level."

For the Broncos to earn a much-needed win against the Titans, they must be able to match the physicality of a team that leans on NFL-leading rusher Derrick Henry and a top-10 offense.

"They are an unbelievably physical football team," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "That's what they pride themselves on. That's how they run the ball. That's how they do everything — from defense, offense, and special teams, also. They bring it. It's something you point out to the team. You let them know that these guys are going to bring it every single down. They love contact, they love being physical, and they pride themselves on that. It's a challenge for our entire team to go against a very, very good physical football team."

The Broncos, though, believe they may also be finding their stride. Several offensive players spoke Wednesday about the benefit of going up-tempo, and Wilson commented on the Broncos' ability to respond to adversity in Denver's 21-17 win over Jacksonville.

"Ultimately, throughout the season, you continue to evolve as a team," Wilson said. "There's an evolution of your team. I think London was a big moment for us because throughout all these games — every game has been close and down to the wire, the last possession or two, or whatever it may be. To be able to execute and win the game with the game on the line [is big]. I remember walking out onto the field, and it was starting to pour down rain a little bit. A rainbow came out and I was like, 'All right, here we go again.' That's what you look forward to — those moments. Those moments where you get to answer the call. Not every time is going to go your way, but every time you believe it's going to go your way. That's the mentality you have to have when you walk onto the field. In clutch situations and in big moments, I've never feared them. I don't think our football team does at all, either.

"We look forward to what's ahead. Obviously, it's going to be a great game this week. Like I said, they have a great football team and a lot of great players. We have to be at our best."

The Broncos have been clear — both before the season and in recent days — that they'll aim to play their best football late in the season. They've also spoken of the need to string together wins and go on a run. That begins this weekend, and the stakes are high.

With a win, the Broncos will nearly double their playoff chances. According to the New York Times’ playoff predictor, Denver's chances will improve from eight percent to 14 percent with a victory. But with a loss, the team's chances drop to just four percent.

The stakes aren't quite at the level of a playoff game, but they're close. On Sunday, Denver will aim to earn a statement win.

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