ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — No reason exists for understatement. Zero purpose is served from a soft sell.
The Broncos remain tied for the AFC's seventh and final playoff spot with five teams. One of those is Cincinnati. You know, this Sunday's opponent at Empower Field at Mile High.
"We keep talking about 1-0 and of course that's the mentality this week. At this point, it's almost like win or go home," safety Justin Simmons said. "The biggest game of the season is this one Sunday. Both of us are sitting at 7-6 with a chance to push ourselves up in the playoff race. We need this. We need it bad. Sunday can't come fast enough. I haven't played in meaningful December games in how long, and I really want to get us to the postseason."
Mitigating factors suggest this is a favorable matchup for the Broncos, the type of swing game that can define a season. The Broncos left themselves with little elasticity because of losses to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Oakland and Philadelphia. But Denver is playing better. The Broncos offense is percolating, showing improvement on third down (39 percent, 17th overall) and on touchdowns in the red zone (58 percent, 19th).
Denver scored on all five of its red zone possessions against the Lions. And the Broncos imposed their will, bullying the Lions for 184 yards on the ground. And yet, angst lurks. For all of the momentum, especially from Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon and the offensive line, the Broncos remain dangerously one dimensional.
A receiver has caught a touchdown pass once in the past seven games. Former Pro Bowler Courtland Sutton has 10 catches for 119 yards over the last six games. Tim Patrick counters with eight receptions for 70 yards with no scores over the past four games. Both are tremendous players who have bought into blocking in the run game. But they cannot remain high-priced decoys.
Not over the final month. Not this week. The Bengals rank 29th in passing yards allowed per game at 256.8.
"At the end of the day, we’re winning. That should be the most important thing. No matter how we do it, who has a great game. I watched the New England Patriots, first game I watched all year, and their quarterback threw the ball three times. You think anyone was pouting in their locker room? It's hard to win in this league," said quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who has 18 touchdowns and seven picks this season.
Bridgewater has proven he can take care of the ball. As the Broncos have climbed back into contention by going 4-2 over their last six games, Bridgewater boasts six touchdowns, two interceptions and zero fumbles. He is not the reason they will lose. But can he win a game with Cincinnati vulnerable through the air?
"(Our receivers) are involved in the running game. So those guys have been huge in different areas. Of course we would love to get them going in the passing game. It's a passing league, we want to see them make highlight plays," Bridgewater said. "But however these wins present themselves, that's what it's all about."
The Bengals have yielded 19 passing touchdowns, and been flagged for 11 interference calls. It drives home the point that the Broncos must look for explosives off play action, with Bridgewater giving Sutton and Patrick a chance when covered. Jerry Jeudy creates space off the line of scrimmage, making it easy to understand why Bridgewater has leaned into him as a target. Still, Jeudy has not scored a touchdown this season.
The Broncos do not need to reinvent themselves. But the looming opponents demand reframing of expectations for the offense. There's no shame in rolling up the sleeves and grinding out yards on the ground. The Broncos do it well. But there's little chance they pull off wins in three of the final four weeks — the necessary total for the postseason by my metrics — as a one-dimensional attack.
"Whether we run it 40 times and pass it five," Bridgewater said, "or pass it 40 and run it five, I am fine with whatever helps us win."
Bridgewater dismissed a recent report that he wants a $25 million per year contract. He will be a free agent at season's end. "Until it comes from me, it’s not true. I haven’t mentioned anything about a new deal," Bridgewater said. There are scenarios where Bridgewater could return to the Broncos as the starter or as a bridge quarterback for a first-round pick. However, educated speculation remains that the Broncos will make a run at Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson if they become available. ...
If Kenny Young (concussion) cannot start, the Broncos will continue to use their eighth inside linebacker this season in Jonas Griffith. Griffith played vs. the Lions after Young's injury. ...
Broncos kicker Brandon McManus won AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors after collecting eight points. McManus, the team's player rep, also responded to a question about the NFL's increasing number of positive COVID-19 cases. He said he has not spoken to the union about COVID issues in 2 1/2 months, but would like to see the league pay for antibody tests to help players be better informed on whether they should get vaccinated or receive a booster shot.