ENGLEWOOD — The stakes remain impossible to miss for the Broncos, and became more complicated by a potential COVID-19 outbreak that prompted the cancellation of Thursday's practice.
Even with the dangling playoff carrot coated in mold, the Broncos have plenty to play for over the final two weeks.
Run the table, and it would provide the franchise its first winning record since 2016. Win out and it would show Denver has gained traction in the AFC West. Top the Chargers and Chiefs, and it could help secure embattled coach Vic Fangio's job for the final year of his contract.
Educated speculation continues to swirl that the Broncos will make a change at season's end with Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, Bills defensive boss Leslie Frazier and former Eagles coach Doug Pederson receiving buzz as possible candidates.
Against this backdrop, the Broncos are dealing with COVID issues. Fangio scrapped practice after four players landed on the COVID-19 list: starters cornerback Bryce Callahan and right tackle Bobby Massie and backup outside linebacker Stephen Weatherly and special teamer Mike Ford.
This follows three additions on Wednesday, starting receiver Tim Patrick, reserve offensive tackle Calvin Anderson and rookie safety Caden Sterns. As a result, the Broncos are down to the third string right tackle Quinn Bailey.
"I think we needed to hit the pause button to get our hands on what is going on here," said Fangio, who has shown a measured approach and an abundance of caution over the last two seasons on the COVID issue. "The hope is tomorrow to have a good practice Friday and Saturday and go out and get a W."
The omicron variant continues to spread rapidly with multiple major cities setting all-time highs for positive tests. The NFL has been impacted like all sports leagues. Aligning with Center for Disease Control's recommendation, the league shortened its isolation period for players with positive tests from 10 to five days, allowing for their return with a negative test if they are asymptomatic and are cleared by their team physician.
The Broncos have had 26 players land on the COVID list, among them starters Noah Fant, Garett Bolles, Malik Reed, Mike Purcell and Lloyd Cushenberry, and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur test positive over the past two-plus months.
Fangio quoted Angels manager and friend Joe Maddon when describing how the Broncos are dealing with an issue that left them without a bye week and playing with a receiver at quarterback a year ago.
"Joe said, 'You have to embrace the suck (borrowing from a Navy Seal expression). Sometimes it sucks. You have that tough five seconds then you move forward," Fangio said. "Our guys have done a great job of adapting."
The focus of Fangio and the players remains narrow. Fangio has long adopted the "Don't Worry, Work" mantra, matching a sign in his office. And the players are committed to competing for the staff and each other.
In the Chargers, Fangio has an opponent that could create traction for a final push down the straightaway. The Broncos are 1-10 against the Chiefs and Raiders under Fangio. However, they boast a 4-1 mark vs. the Chargers, in large part, because Fangio's defense has given Justin Herbert fits. The budding second-year star, who has become the player Trevor Lawrence was supposed to be, made his first Pro Bowl this season.
It wasn't because of his play against the Broncos.
Herbert owns a 1-2 record vs Denver with six touchdowns and four interceptions, tied for his most against any team. The Broncos have also sacked the former Oregon standout seven times, more than any other opponent.
In the team's first meeting this season, Denver's defense produced its second best effort of the season, second only to the smothering of the Cowboys' Dak Prescott. Herbert completed 28 passes for 303 yards, but was intercepted twice by rookie Pat Surtain II, once in the end zone and once for a pick six.
"It is a chess match. We will not show him the same look," Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said. "And we know he will do some things differently as well."
The Broncos defense has posted some glowing statistics, ranking top 10 in four defensive metrics, including tied for first in points allowed at 17.3 per gme. However, it has not translated into wins. Fangio explained that they have lost close games, sputtered offensively, especially in the passing game, and not produced enough takeaways. Denver has 19, the most in Fangio's three seasons in Denver, but 17th best in the NFL, a reflection of the difficulty of stealing the ball when trailing.
"We haven't done enough," Fangio said. “But, I think it would be a great thing just for our players (to finish first in scoring defense).”