With their season on the line, Broncos face two tough tests in Chargers, Chiefs

Justin Herbert runs wild against Pittsburgh. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez USA TODAY Sports.
Justin Herbert runs wild against Pittsburgh. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez USA TODAY Sports.

Oh how quickly things can change in the NFL.

A few weeks ago, the Broncos were hot off their biggest win of the year, a drubbing of the Cowboys in Dallas which was Vic Fangio’s team’s most complete game since he took over in 2019. At 5-4 overall, Denver was right in the thick of things in the AFC West, with a then second-best record in the division.

However, the Broncos came out and laid an egg against the sorry Eagles, followed by last week’s bye for the orange and blue. And while Denver sat and rested for a week, the rival Chiefs and Chargers each improved their standings in the AFC West.

After starting slowly this year, the Chiefs have found their rhythm and have rolled to four straight wins to lead the division at 7-4. And the Chargers, whom Denver plays this week, are fresh off a thrilling 41-37 win over the Steelers in which Pittsburgh scored 27 points in the fourth quarter alone, but couldn’t hold off red hot Justin Herbert and Los Angeles.

“It’s a quarterback-heavy division with the other three teams obviously,” Broncos head coach Vic Fangio said after practice on Monday. “[They have] good offenses [and] good defenses. Kansas City’s playing really good defense now. The Chargers are and the Raiders have stepped it up defensively. I see complete teams that are led by really good quarterbacks.”

While Patrick Mahomes is still arguably the best quarterback in the NFL, he’s struggled with protecting the ball this year. His 11 interceptions are nearly double his total in 2020 (6) while Mahomes has more fumbles (3) this year than in all of 2020 (2) as well. Simply, the Broncos will have to put pressure on Mahomes — which is a weak point of this particular Denver team — and force him into making a few mistakes if the orange and blue want to upset the Chiefs in Kansas City.

That’s an already tall task, especially considering the Chiefs rarely ever lose at Arrowhead Stadium in November and/or December.

But first, the Broncos battle against a white-hot Herbert. In that thrilling 41-37 victory over the Steelers on Sunday Night Football, Herbert set a record by throwing for 382 yards while rushing for another 90 yards. The good news is, the second-year star is turnover prone; in the Chargers’ four losses, he has six interceptions thrown.

The good news is for Fangio’s defense is they’re currently the third-best in the league in scoring (18.3 PPG) and the league’s most expensive secondary has picked off eight passes this year. The bad news is, the Chargers like to go for it on fourth downs, which makes it all the more difficult for a defense to stop.

“Yeah, it’s basically just another—whatever the distance is — it’s like a third-down, but if they don’t get it [then] it’s your ball right there,” Fangio explained on Monday. “They have been aggressive to do it. We’ve done it a fair amount and would have done it some more but too many of the fourth downs were too long. They’ve been aggressive with it. They did it last night. It didn’t work, but it was the right move. I would have done the same thing. Obviously, they feel good about it, and then a big part of it too was because of their quarterback.”

Speaking of quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater and the Broncos offense will have their hands full in terms of trying to keep pace with the high-flying Chargers and Chiefs offenses the next two weeks. Bridgewater and the Broncos have been underwhelming offensively most of the year — that Dallas game was an exception — but he has protected the ball well overall. To wit, Bridgewater has zero turnovers the last three weeks, and according to analytics, he’s a top-12 QB this year.

The simple truth is this: While the Broncos have seven games remaining on their schedule, these next two weeks will make or break the season since Denver faces the top two teams in their division. Denver will have to play a complete game in all three phases to have a chance to beat either of the two, and losses in the next two weeks will leave the Broncos as even longer shots to make the postseason.