Broncos try to keep playoff hopes alive when they visit Cincinnati on Sunday

Denver has played the toughest schedule in the NFL to date but an easier stretch could fuel a late push for the playoffs

INSIDE SLANT

There is budding optimism in Denver these days. After being left for dead in terms of their playoff chances, the Broncos (5-6) are a game out of the second AFC wild card with five games remaining following two straight wins. And they might just rally to reach the postseason after losing six of seven games. One of the biggest reasons for the renewed hope is Denver has finished the toughest part of its schedule and plays just one team with a winning record the rest of the way – the Los Angeles Chargers in the last game of the season. By then the Broncos could be playing for a playoff spot if they can take care of business against a weaker schedule. Their next four opponents have a combined record of 13-30-1 entering Week 13 and two of their three road games remaining are against Oakland and San Francisco, both of which are 2-9. If Denver doesn’t make the playoffs there are certain games to look back upon as the reason – an overthrown pass near the goal line late against Kansas City in Week 4 and a missed field goal against Houston in Week 9 that would have given the Broncos a win. Make those two plays and they’re 7-4 and challenging for the AFC West title. Denver needs help to reach the postseason. It is tied with Miami, Tennessee and Cincinnati and one of its losses is to Baltimore, which at 6-5 holds the tiebreaker between the two. The other team ahead of the Broncos is 6-5 Indianapolis, and the Colts have some tough games left – at Jacksonville this week and at Houston next week. All Denver can do is take care of business – starting with the Bengals on Sunday – and hope the Ravens and Colts stumble to create an opportunity for a trip to the playoffs for the first time since winning Super Bowl 50 three seasons ago.

NOTES & QUOTES

-- Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr. needs just one interception to reach 20 for his career with Denver. The undrafted free-agent signee out of Kansas in 2011 would become the 12th player in franchise history to have at least 20 interceptions. He got his 19th against Pittsburgh on Nov. 25 while playing most of the game opposite Antonio Brown. “It was tough, we knew it was going to be a tough battle,” he said.

-- Nose tackle Shelby Harris will have a tough time topping last week in Cincinnati. Harris snagged his the first interception of his career in the end zone to seal the win over Pittsburgh, and it came two days after his wife gave birth to a girl. “I am truly blessed,” Harris said.

--Outside linebacker Von Miller has at least a half-sack in six straight games and can match his career-long streak against Cincinnati. He needs one sack to tie Steve McMichael for 41st on the NFL’s all-time sack list.

BY THE NUMBERS

--Denver has gone from a dominant defense that led the team to a Super Bowl championship to a bend-but-don’t-break unit this season, and opponents have really tested that the past two weeks. The Los Angeles Chargers had 479 yards of total offense on Nov. 18 but the Broncos pulled out a 23-22 win. Last week the Pittsburgh Steelers rang up 527 yards, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passing for 452 yards. Denver faced two of the league’s premier quarterbacks in those games but will face third-year backup Jeff Driskel, who starts in place of Andy Dalton. Driskel will go against the NFL’s No. 25 defense in terms of yards allowed (389.3 per game), but Denver only allows 22.9 points a game, which ranks 13th overall. A.J. Green should return after missing three games with a toe injury to give Driskel a high-level weapon.

PLAYER NOTES

-- Tight End Jeff Heuerman was placed on injured reserve this week. He suffered a bruised lung and three broken ribs in the win over Pittsburgh on Nov. 25.

-- Linebacker Brandon Marshall returned to practice this week after missing three games with a knee injury. His status for Sunday’s game has not been announced.

-- Linebacker Shaquil Barrett suffered a torn hip flexor against Pittsburgh and has been ruled out for Sunday. He could return before the end of the regular season.

-- Cornerback Tramaine Brock (ribs) did not practice Wednesday and could miss Sunday’s game. If he can’t go rookie Isaac Yiadom would step into the starting spot opposite Chris Harris Jr.

-- Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders needs just 25 receiving yards to reach 5,000 as a Denver Bronco. Sanders had seven catches for 86 yards against Pittsburgh.

-- Running back Phillip Lindsay needs 33 yards from scrimmage to become the first Denver rookie to reach 1,000 total yards since Knowshon Moreno in 2009. He would be the eighth Broncos rookie to reach the mark.

SERIES HISTORY

This is the 31st meeting between the teams and second time in as many years they are facing each other. Denver leads the overall series 21-10-0 but Cincinnati has an 8-7 home record in the series. The Broncos have won three of their last four games at Paul Brown Stadium, including a 29-17 victory on Sept. 25, 2016. Denver won eight straight against the Bengals from 1983-98 and Cincinnati has never won more than two in a row against the Broncos.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

Tight end Matt LaCosse is going to get a chance to prove himself against Cincinnati. LaCosse becomes the de facto starter after Jeff Heuerman was placed on injured reserve with a bruised lung and three broken ribs. Heuerman was playing well after another starting tight end, Jake Butt, was lost for the season in September. LaCosse has shown flashes of pass-catching talent over the past couple of weeks. He had a 44-yard grab against the Houston Texans in Week 9 and caught the first touchdown pass of his career in the win over Pittsburgh. LaCosse played in just seven games before this season, five with the New York Giants, but has seen action in all of Denver’s games this year. He could be weapon against Cincinnati, especially if offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave opts to use more two-tight end sets instead of lining up with three wideouts.

GAMEPLAN

Denver’s offense might have a breakout day against the NFL’s last-place defense in yards allowed. Cincinnati gives up an average of 439.6 yards per game, so quarterback Case Keenum has a chance for a big day and the Broncos’ ground game can get big chunks of yards. Rookie running back Phillip Lindsay has gained 780 yards on the ground but without a ton of carries. Look for him and fellow rookie Royce Freeman to attack the Bengals’ suspect defense. If the ground game can get going that should open up things in Cincinnati’s secondary. Rookie wideout Courtland Sutton is coming off one of his worst games but has an opportunity for a big game.

Cincinnati has solid running backs in Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard and will probably have wide receiver A.J. Green back from a toe injury that cost him three games. Denver can limit their effectiveness by getting pressure on quarterback Jeff Driskel, who is making his first NFL start for the injured Andy Dalton. If the Broncos can bottle up the running game that will give edge rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb plenty of opportunities to get to Driskel.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Denver’s running game against Cincinnati could give the Broncos a chance to control the clock and keep quarterback Case Keenum off the turf. The Bengals allow 147.5 yards rushing per game and Denver’s two rookie backs will bring different styles to attack the Bengals. Phillip Lindsay has emerged as the primary back, gaining 780 yards on the ground and 167 more receiving yards. Lindsay hasn’t been overused and should be fresh while Royce Freeman, who was slowed by a high ankle sprain that cost him a couple of games, could find his rhythm against the porous Cincinnati defense.

The Bengals’ offensive line will be tested against arguably the best edge rusher in linebacker Von Miller. Miller has sacks in six straight games despite being constantly double-teamed. The attention on him has opened up opportunities for rookie linebacker Bradley Chubb on the other side of the line. Cincinnati might have to keep a back in for extra protection for quarterback Jeff Driskel. If Miller and Chubb can do some damage it could create turnovers and give Keenum a short field to work with.

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