DENVER -- The Denver Broncos have slogged through a gauntlet of playoff hopefuls, an arduous trek that has included the best the NFL has to offer this season, and they have emerged on the other side with something to for.
“Right now we’re 5-6,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “That’s where we are … Obviously it’s been a tough month and a half … most teams would lose their minds and not work hard, but we haven’t done that so the reward for sticking together and having great chemistry is coming now.”
Denver finished a run of opponents nobody in the league has seen in over four decades. The Steelers were the third consecutive Broncos opponent who had won at least five games in a row before facing Denver -- the Texans had won five in a row when they arrived in Denver, the Chargers had won six in a row and the Steelers arrived with a six-game win streak.
Not since the 1976 expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers has anyone else had to go through that kind of schedule. And that doesn’t even include the Broncos' two meetings against the 9-2 Kansas City Chiefs, who were 3-0 and 6-1 when the Broncos faced them, to go with the 10-1 Los Angeles Rams, who were 5-0 when the Broncos faced them earlier this season, or even the season opener against Seattle Seahawks, who also find themselves back in the playoff picture.
As Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said last week: “Nobody -- nobody -- has faced what we have this year. We haven’t always played the way we can, we know that, but nobody has had to line up against what we have this year, we’ve played the hottest teams in the league, all of them."
And here they are at 5-6, not always much to look at, but they are a tested bunch that is suddenly staring at relevance. None of the Broncos’ next four opponents has a winning record and none have faced what the Broncos have to get to this point.
“If you love what you do, you’re going to find a way, that’s where we are,” safety Darian Stewart said. “We love what we do, we stick together and we believe we can find a way. Even sometimes when it doesn’t look like we might be able to find a way.”
Sunday the Broncos survived a 41-completion onslaught from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a fake-field goal for a touchdown by to end the first half and a 97-yard Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster connection right after halftime that might have more than wobbled a different kind of Broncos team.
But these Broncos also got a 100-yard rushing game from rookie Phillip Lindsay, blocked a field goal, forced a fumble -- with a high-effort, never-surrender play from safety Will Parks that Stewart called “the greatest play of the game” -- on Steelers tight end Xavier Grimble that turned what was going to be a touchdown into a touchback, and forced another fumble on the last play of the third quarter as the Steelers were positioning for at least a field goal.
And with 1:03 to play and the Steelers on the Broncos' 2-yard line, nose tackle Shelby Harris, who became a dad earlier this week, intercepted a Roethlisberger pass to close the book on the fifth win.
“We haven’t flinched,” Joseph said. “ … We’ve been in every kind of game you can name, tight games, blowouts, we’ve won some closes, lost some close ones for our team, whatever happens out there, we never flinch … they will play from the first snap to the last snap.”
Joseph has made appearances on the “hot seat" lists after the Broncos surrendered 323 yards rushing in a horrific loss to the New York Jets in October or when they dropped to 3-6 when Brandon McManus’ potential game-winner against the Texans drifted wide right just two games ago, before the Broncos turned away seven-win teams in consecutive weeks.
“It’s no secret to what we’re doing, you keep believing, you keep having faith,” Parks said. “We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, doing what we can do, doing what we know we can do.”
The Broncos have played hard to dig themselves out of a tough spot or two. And now the Broncos have five games left to do something with all of it.
While they aren’t always statistically handsome and have been their own worst enemy at times, they have put themselves in the one place many never expected them to be, in the playoff race.
Back in the playoff conversation.