DENVER — The playoffs are in sight.
When was the last time the Broncos could say that in December?
It's been since 2016, to be exact, when they fell just one win short of a playoff berth. But after a dominant 38-10 performance over the helpless Lions Sunday at Empower Field, the Broncos (7-6) are squarely in the playoff hunt in the final stretch of the season, with four meaningful games remaining.
"Winning is what it's all about in this league," coach Vic Fangio said. "Everybody enjoys a win. It's cured more ills than penicillin, but penicillin lasts a lot longer. This win just lasts for six days and then you've got to go do it again."
It didn't take long for the Broncos to jump on the depleted Lions, getting out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and a 17-10 lead at halftime. It was all Broncos in the second half, taking a commanding 31-10 lead into the fourth and finishing them off with a touchdown in the final two minutes of the game.
For the Broncos, it was arguably their most complete performance of the season. The defense came up with two turnovers, thanks to a fumble recovery by rookie outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper and safety Justin Simmons, who recorded his fifth interception this season. And the offense found its rhythm after a disastrous performance a week ago against the Chiefs, with running backs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams combining for 184 yards on the ground and four total touchdowns. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater also had a solid day, going 18 of 25 for 179 yards and two touchdowns.
Sunday was the definition of complimentary football for the Broncos, which could be a morale boost going forward.
"It does a lot, but our team is pretty confident," Bridgewater said. "We have a group of men who are confident in themselves. Every day they come into the facility you see their confidence in guys. What you're seeing on Sunday is really a testament to what the guys are doing throughout the week."
The Broncos' road to the playoffs won't be easy though.
They get the young and talented Bengals (8-5) at home next week, then travel to face the plummeting Raiders (6-7), then head to Los Angeles to take on the up and down Chargers (8-5). They close out the season against the surging Chiefs (9-4). Currently, the Broncos sit in 10th place in the AFC, holding the same record as the Bengals, Browns, Bills and Colts.
For some, Sunday's win over the Lions might be considered fool's gold, as the Broncos have consistently played well one week and subsequently put together a stinker the next. But for a team that hasn't really played a relevant game in December in five years, last week's disappointing 22-9 loss to the Chiefs followed by this week's dominant 38-10 win over the Lions could be a lesson learned.
"That (Chiefs) game was a really good game for us to play in terms of playing a meaningful game in December," Simmons said. "And obviously we fell way short. It wasn't anywhere close to what we wanted. But in terms of, 'hey guys, you see how hard it is and what it's going to take' — we're going to need way more effort than that for the rest of this year. It was great that we were able to find a win tonight at home playing a good Detroit team.
"And we need to come back ready to go again against a really good Cincinnati team. That win right there will set us up for the last three games of the season. But it's still that 1-0 mentality. This is a must-win on Sunday."
There's still plenty to clean up for the Broncos, and few will celebrate a win over a team like the Lions. But the Broncos did take care of business Sunday and in the NFL that's never an easy task — especially only three days after the sudden death of former Broncos star receiver Demaryius Thomas, who was honored throughout the game and clearly on the minds of players, coaches and fans alike.
So while some may overlook the Broncos' performance Sunday, they continued to stay in the hunt. And after five seasons of missing the playoffs, that's all Broncos Country can ask for.
"I don't know what (the playoff picture) looks like right now," Fangio said. "But we're going to approach every game like it's a must-win and go at it like that and see how many we can get here in the next four weeks."