ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The Denver Broncos began the season with high hopes of ending their protracted playoff drought and making a deep postseason run behind veteran QB Russell Wilson and rookie head coach Nathaniel Hackett.
Instead, they head into Sunday's finale against Justin Herbert and the playoff-bound Los Angeles Chargers (10-6) aiming to avoid an ignominious end to a soured season that spiraled almost from the very start.
With a win or a tie against the Chargers, the Broncos (4-12), under interim head coach Jerry Rosburg, would avoid the first 13-loss season in the franchise's 62-year history.
“I don’t like to focus on all the losses,” right guard Graham Glasgow said. “People know by now what a bad season we’ve had. Instead, I just think it would be nice to have a win on the way out.”
The Broncos, mired in a seven-year playoff drought following their Super Bowl 50 championship, are in for another offseason of change following Hackett's firing the day after their blowout loss to the Rams on Christmas Day.
Wilson looked like his vintage self in a 27-24 loss at Kansas City last weekend under Rosburg, 67, who fired two coaches, benched his slumping kick returner, switched offensive play callers and activated a tight end who caught his first TD pass of the season after being largely ignored by Hackett.
Rosburg has brought discipline and accountability to the team, but plans to return Monday to the hyperbaric oxygen therapy venture he was involved with before GM George Paton lured him out of retirement this season to serve as a senior assistant to Hackett.
The Chargers could know by kickoff if the game has any postseason seeding implications for them. If Cincinnati beats Baltimore, the Bolts will wrap up the fifth seed regardless of what happens against the Broncos.
However, a victory by the Ravens would mean the Chargers would also have to beat the Broncos to secure the fifth seed. Both teams would finish 11-6, but LA would win the tiebreaker by having a better conference record.
The fifth seed would face the AFC South winner -- either Jacksonville or Tennessee -- in the first round.
“You have to take the facts on the ground, as they happen, to make your determinations," Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. "Once we find out about that game, we’ll make the appropriate decisions moving forward ... Our approach this week is to go beat the Broncos and to play our best.”
The Chargers pulled most of their starters early in the fourth quarter during last Sunday’s 31-10 victory over the Rams. Quarterback Chase Daniel played two series after Herbert was taken out. Daniel is likely to see more time than that if Sunday’s game has no bearing on the Chargers’ playoff seeding.
Rosburg said he's more comfortable heading into this game than he was last week's.
“I'm digging in on the tape, which I really enjoy. So, I have a greater understanding of this football team than I did the Kansas City team,” Rosburg said. “The intimate parts, the personnel, the scheme concepts, this week I'm better prepared that way.”
And he's better prepared to handle his game-day duties, Rosburg said
“I was a rookie last week. I’m now an experienced sage veteran on the sideline,” he cracked. “So, I’m anticipating not getting my headphones on the wrong channel and disrupting the communication and I’ve been practicing the management of time and timeouts."
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler needs two touchdowns to become the sixth player in league history with two straight seasons of at least 20 scrimmage TDs.
The last player to do that was Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson during the 2005 and ’06 seasons for the Chargers.
Last week, Ekeler became the fifth running back with at least 100 receptions in a season. Accomplishing a milestone in Denver would be particularly poignant for Ekeler, who grew up in Eaton, Colorado, and went to college at Western State Colorado. He was signed as an undrafted player by the Chargers in 2017.
The Chargers’ defense has been one of the league’s best units over the past month. During their four-game winning streak, the Bolts have allowed a league-low 11.3 points and 238.3 yards per game.
Besides being on a roll, the group is getting healthier. Joey Bosa returned last week after missing 12 games due to a groin injury, and safety Derwin James is likely to be back this week after being sidelined against the Rams due to a concussion.
AP Sports Writer Joe Reedy in Costa Mesa, California, contributed.
Arnie Stapleton, The Associated Press