Bron­cos have NFL’s tough­est re­main­ing sched­ule

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Groke

A dropped pass by Ben­nie Fowler at the goal line Sun­day in Ten­nessee landed some­where be­tween the Bron­cos sit­ting pretty in the AFC and the Bron­cos cling­ing to life. Den­ver, a team that was specif­i­cally built for an­other run to the Su­per Bowl, is sud­denly in dan­ger of not mak­ing the play­offs.

At 8-5, the Bron­cos hold the sixth and fi­nal play­off spot in the AFC, but only by a dis­tant tiebreaker. The Mi­ami Dol­phins (8-5) are one game be­hind Den­ver in games against com­mon op­po­nents.

In their three re­main­ing reg­u­lar-sea­son games — against New Eng­land (11-2), at Kansas City (10-3) and against Oak­land (10-3) — the Bron­cos have the tough­est re­main­ing sched­ule in the NFL. It’s one of the most dif­fi­cult fi­nal three-game stretches in league his­tory. Den­ver is the first team to fin­ish against three teams with at least 10 wins since 1978, ac­cord­ing to NFL re­search.

For­get about Sun­day’s game against the Pa­tri­ots be­ing a re­match of last sea­son’s AFC cham­pi­onship. The Bron­cos are in sur­vival mode.

“It’s al­ways a sense of now or never,” wide re­ceiver Em­manuel San­ders said. Sure, but, now it’s re­ally now or never. “We’ve got to have a dog men­tal­ity, a bear men­tal­ity, you know?” T.J. Ward said. “Once you want it, you have to keep charg­ing. You can’t sit back and sulk and feel sorry for your­selves, man. We got to pick it up.”

Here’s the sim­ple math: 11 wins gets the Bron­cos in the play­offs; 10 is push-

ing it; nine and they’re most likely cooked.

Sun­day’s 13-10 loss to the Ti­tans put the Bron­cos in a wor­ri­some spot.

With Den­ver at No. 6 in the AFC, they are a tiebreak ahead of No. 7 Mi­ami and one game in front of Bal­ti­more (7-6) and Ten­nessee (7-6). And the path to the play­offs for those teams is de­cid­edly eas­ier. The Dol­phins’ and Ravens’ re­main­ing sched­ules each in­clude two games against teams with los­ing records. The Ti­tans, who travel to Kansas City this week, fin­ish against Jack­sonville and Hous­ton.

And the Bron­cos are trend­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion. They are 2-3 in their past five games. In their past three, they have just one win, against the 2-11 Jaguars.

“If the sea­son ended to­day, we’re a play­off team,” Den­ver coach Gary Ku­biak said. “My con­cern right now is how we’re play­ing. We have to play more con­sis­tent as a foot­ball team.”

Be­hind Devon­tae Booker and Justin Forsett, the Bron­cos on Sun­day ran for just 18 yards, their third­low­est sin­gle-game rush­ing to­tal in 57 sea­sons. The Ti­tans’ run de­fense ranks third in the NFL, with 86.6 yards al­lowed per game. The Pa­tri­ots are nearly as good, rank­ing No. 5 in the league at 90.2 yards per game.

The Bron­cos’ climb to the play­offs, with three daunt­ing games in three weeks, starts against the team tied for the best record in the NFL, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s Pa­tri­ots.

“We have a big game com­ing up this week against the best team in foot­ball,” Ku­biak said. “They have a lot of wins un­der their belt. The real chal­lenge for us right now is to play bet­ter.”

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