ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The first thing for the Denver Broncos to consider is the math surrounding their playoff chances.
After this past week’s games, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the 7-6 Broncos a 27% chance of making the playoffs. FPI gives three of the Broncos’ remaining opponents — the Cincinnati Bengals (30.7%), Los Angeles Chargers (83.9%) and Kansas City Chiefs (95.5% ) — better percentages than the Broncos to make the postseason.
If they want to reach the postseason for the first time since Super Bowl 50, conventional wisdom suggests the Broncos must win all or almost all their remaining games against a quarterback parade of Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr and Patrick Mahomes.
Or, to put it another way: They need to win all or almost all of their games against the No. 2 (Carr), No. 4 (Herbert), No. 5 (Mahomes) and No. 8 (Burrow) quarterbacks in the league by passing yards.
But for a team that hasn’t played meaningful games this close to the holidays since Peyton Manning was actually playing and not an already-enshrined Hall of Famer, it’s progress.
“I think it’s good for obviously us — the team and players,” coach Vic Fangio said. “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.”
“I feel like this is the first true time we’ve been in the mix since I’ve been here,” said Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb, the team’s first-round pick in 2018. “… Everybody is on board to try win these games and we all know these next four games — we’re pretty much going to have a four-game playoff run before the playoffs. We know every game counts.”
Kicker Brandon McManus is the only player on the team’s current roster who has put on a Broncos uniform for a playoff game. Safety Justin Simmons, one of the cornerstones of the current team, came to the Broncos in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft — the first draft after the Super Bowl 50 win. Only once during his tenure have the Broncos finished above .500.
Sunday’s game in Empower Field at Mile High against the Bengals (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS) will be the latest chance to measure whether the Broncos are ready to change that.
In the days leading up to the Dec. 5 game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, Broncos players and coaches said Kansas City would test their playoff chops. But despite holding Mahomes to 15 completions and without a touchdown, the Broncos’ offense largely spun its wheels and special teams had another game-changing mishap to add to the season’s list in a 22-9 loss.
“The outcome was more than disappointing, but it was good for this team to get that rep,” Simmons said. “That’s what that type of game looks like in some respects and we see where we came way short of the mark. That has to light something under you. But it’s something we talk about openly. Full transparency, we talked about that amongst other things, kind of like the whole trip back from Kansas City. We talked about how you can’t let opportunities like that slip.”
In the big picture, the Broncos’ defense has found a bit of a rhythm and are No. 2 in points allowed, No. 7 in total defense as well as a No. 8 in red zone defense. The Broncos have surrendered an average of 16.9 points per game over their past seven (they’re 4-3 in those games).
Run defense has been a bit of a concern — demonstrated by struggles against Cleveland and Philadelphia — but with the quarterback cast they will face, starting with Burrow, it will require quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the offense to do far more of the heavy lifting.
And a team that has had a blocked punt, a blocked field goal and a muffed punt over the past five games has to get far more from its special teams.
“I think we all have a responsibility,” Simmons said. “I don’t remember the last time where we’ve played meaningful games in December, being a part of that four-year skid of playing in not meaningful games, when you get there that’s the type of questioning I’m looking at. How do you get that message across? What do you do? How do you approach that? It’s about all of use doing our jobs and doing everything each of us can to make sure we do our jobs without mistakes and see where we can go.”