Critical Juncture: Sunday’s game dictates where the Broncos go from here

Denver Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco (5) looks to pass during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park. Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

By all accounts, it’s a meaningless game.

At 1-4, there are games on the schedule. Whether or not they’re to be considered big games is up for debate. At 1-4, if any games are to be meaningful, they’re all big.

Tennessee comes to Denver with a 2-3 record – nearly as uninspiring of a mark as the Broncos’ 1-4. The thing about the Titans, however, is that mediocre is pretty normal. Not since 2008 have the Titans won their division; they’ve only been to the postseason once in the past decade. The number of big games the Titans have been a part of for the better part of their existence since they were the Houston Oilers, can be counted on one’s fingers.

In Denver, big games are the norm. The Broncos, by and large, are one of the NFL’s marquee franchises. Denver is not a “rebuilding” kind of organization. When you haven’t had back-to-back losing seasons since 1972 (until now, that is), there hasn’t been a real reason to believe a rebuild is necessary. As such, this is foreign territory in Denver.

A 1-4 team squaring off against a 2-3 team is an event that won’t soon find its way to primetime. Outside of Denver, few will care.

But in Denver, this game – while not “big” relative to the immediate season – could mean everything.

It’s a tipping point. A defining moment. It could be the game that decides where the Broncos go from here.

Win and you’ve got to go – at least for the moment – all in.

Lose and look hard in the mirror.

Beating the Titans at home, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing in terms of how good the Broncos really are or could be. It’s a team with bad record beating a team with a slightly better bad record at home. They should win, but even if they do, it hardly means the Broncos are a playoff caliber team.

But winning two in a row – especially in a season where two losses were downright unlikely, unlucky, “defeat snatched from the jaws of victory” type losses – makes it extremely difficult for an organization to look its players in the eyes to tell them that tough changes are coming down the pike. With some not-too-creative math, the Broncos could just as easily be 4-2.

If you’ve won two in a row, or four-out-of-five, and you’re John Elway, do you want to call Phillip Lindsay or Courtland Sutton into your office to tell them that you’re making a change at quarterback? That you’re trading Emmanuel Sanders or Chris Harris Jr.? Do you want to call in your 61-year-old head coach, who’s just notched his second career win and possibly getting the hang of things, and tell him, “Nice job, but we’re going to switch it up a bit from here”?

That would be a very mixed message from any front office.

But if you’re John Elway, do you actually believe your team still has the potential to find its way to the playoffs, even if they’ve won two in a row, especially when one comes over a very mediocre Titans team? A win certainly makes that concept more realistic, but Elway has been there and done that. He knows what a contender looks like. Besides, even if the Broncos play well, the math still doesn’t work too well. It’s fair to say that, at the very least, he’ll need a larger sample size to accurately conclude his team is worthy of a playoff spot.

In short, a win now means the Broncos will likely stand pat until the team gives Elway reason to do otherwise.

A reason like a loss.

If the Broncos lose on Sunday, the focus should undoubtedly turn toward the future. The present – at 1-5 – is shot. Last season, only one 9-7 team made the playoffs. Four 10-6 teams made it. Does anyone believe the Broncos could finish the season going 9-1 or even 8-2? That’s a tall order for even the best teams in the NFL.

If the Broncos lose on Sunday, it’s a shame Drew Lock must spend time on the Injured Reserve List until week 8 is over. He can’t play soon enough. That’s not even a knock on Joe Flacco, who, by most accounts, has played fairly well. It’s just that a 1-5 football team needs to start trying to decide whether or not a franchise quarterback should be on the radar for next year’s draft.

If Lock plays and loses (a lot), great. The Broncos will know he’s not capable and have, in the meantime, set themselves up for a higher draft choice. Perhaps the Broncos unload some of the most burdensome salaries for draft picks and cap space, creating the foundation for an all-out rebuild.

If Lock plays and plays well, the Broncos might decide that Lock is the future. Then, they can look to shore up other areas of need through the draft. Maybe trades are still made, maybe not. How good is Lock right now? The Broncos must find out, records and standings be damned.

When the chips finally fall on the 2019 NFL season, it’s unlikely around the league will point to the week 6 matchup between the Broncos and Titans as significant. But from John Elway’s vantage point, this game could not be bigger.

The result will largely dictate what he must do from here.

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