DENVER — Imagine the Broncos in the playoffs.

Try it out. Bend your mind for a minute. It’s Jan. 4, 2020, and the Broncos proved the naysayers wrong and slipped into a wild-card game. How’d they get there in Vic Fangio’s first season here?

The path to the postseason looks something like this: Bradley Chubb pressures the quarterback into an interception. Next possession, Chubb pressures the quarterback into a near interception. Two possessions later, Chubb smacks the quarterback into the turf and forces a fumble. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

“He’s going to be even better,” Von Miller said of his pass-rushing buddy during the Broncos’ 24-15 preseason loss Monday to the San Francisco 49ers at Mile High Stadium. “It’s super scary.”

August football is the time for big dreams. What else? Not quite sure. Monday night, the Broncos saw first-round draft pick Noah Fant limp through the tunnel and into the locker room with a foot injury and second-round pick Drew Lock exit the building wearing a brace on his throwing hand.

“Little sprain,” Lock said afterward, comparing the injury to a jammed finger many have had while shooting hoops. “Should be all right.”

5 things we learned from the Denver Broncos' preseason loss to the 49ers

And they still have two preseason games left.

“I think they’re mild (injuries) in nature,” Fangio said.

Ask around, and the Broncos reaching the playoffs this season is only a dream, and a silly one at that. But there’s always a way, and the Broncos’ way starts with Chubb, Miller and the defense. Chubb did all of those things we were talking about — forcing an interception of Jimmy Garoppolo, nearly forcing another, then strip-sacking C.J. Beathard — in one quarter of work. Chubb can book his Pro Bowl flights right now if he's near a computer. If there’s a cool party for All-Pros, he can reserve a limo for that, too.

“The (Fangio) scheme is amazing. We’re always disguising. They never know who’s coming,” Chubb said.

Chubb had 12 sacks as a rookie. Perhaps it's worth a mention Miller had 11.5 sacks as a rookie, then ballooned to 18.5 in Year 2.

Super scary is right.

This Broncos defense must be super scary. It’s their best bet, a double-down on a formula that's the norm around here. The offense still looks like it’s in slow motion. God forbid something else happens to Emmanuel Sanders.

Where’s the juice?

Quarterback Joe Flacco and the first-teamers (first-timers?) managed three points on three possessions in the first quarter, and three points won’t cut it. We’ve been through this before.

"We've got to punch it in there and get seven (points), not three," Fangio said.

Imagining the Broncos in the playoffs requires a lot of dreaming about the defense. There, you’re well-versed: Since Von Miller danced into the building in 2011, the Broncos have averaged a top-four defense in terms of efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. That’s how good Von's defense has been. Twice it has finished second in efficiency (2012 and 2013), twice it has finished first (2015 and 2016). Is this a good time to remind everyone that Fangio’s Bears defense ranked No. 1 last season?

I asked Chris Harris Jr. how this defense compares to the other rowdies he's played with.

“It’s hard to say,” Harris said. “I can’t describe it yet. We have to get on the field and get in live action. I’ve been a part of a lot of No. 1 defenses. We’ve definitely got the tools to do it. We’ve got great coaches putting us in the right positions to make plays. But at the end of the day we’ve got to handle it and get those numbers once those prime-time games come.”

In three days watching the Broncos and 49ers in joint practices and an exhibition game, the evaluation was clear as day: they are mirror images of each other. They have some good players at the top of the list, but the list isn’t long enough. The Broncos will require another outstanding draft to erase their misses and become a factor in the AFC playoff picture.

“The last two weeks in a row our special teams have gotten whipped,” Fangio said, bluntly, adding he might infuse the special teams with starters. See, the reserves aren’t good enough.

Imagining the Broncos in the playoffs starts with the defense. With Chubb as the wrecking ball, it ground Garoppolo into a handsome ball of mush: 1-of-6 passing, 0 yards, 0.0 passer rating. Save it for the regular season, fellas. The Broncos will need another top-three defense to make their postseason dreams come true.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

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