Broncos visit Titans as defending champs chase playoff berth
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Denver Broncos find themselves in catch-up mode in the mighty AFC West, and time is starting to run out for the defending Super Bowl champs to gain ground on Oakland and Kansas City.
“We understand this stretch, where we’re at and how well we’re going to have to play, but we’re excited and looking forward to it,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak said.
For the Tennessee Titans, hosting the Broncos on Sunday is the biggest game this franchise has played in years.
The Titans (6-6) share the AFC South lead with both Houston and Indianapolis, a spot Tennessee hasn’t held this late in a season since 2008 when winning the division wire-to-wire for the team’s most recent playoff berth.
The Titans have had four chances to climb above .500 this season and lost each time. Now they are well-rested coming off their latest bye in franchise history, and linebacker Brian Orakpo believes everyone’s refreshed and ready to chase a playoff berth after finishing the 2015 season with the No. 1 overall draft pick.
“They’re fighting for a position, and we’re fighting for a position,” Orakpo said. “It’s definitely going to be a great game.”
The Broncos are working through the NFL’s toughest finishing stretch after their overtime loss to Kansas City and a 20-10 win in Jacksonville last week, and now they hit the road again.
Then it gets really challenging with a visit from New England before Denver goes to Kansas City and wraps up the season hosting Oakland.
“We know we’re going to have to play really, really well,” Kubiak said. “Well, we’re going to have to play great if we’re going to get there, and we know that.”
Here are some things to know as the Broncos and Titans chase a playoff berth:
WHO’S AT QB: Kubiak is hoping Trevor Siemian is back after missing the Jacksonville win with a left mid-foot sprain. Rookie Paxton Lynch, who played collegiately at Memphis, got his first career win against the Jaguars, but completed only half his passes for 104 yards.
Siemian threw for a career-high 386 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in the 30-27 overtime loss to Kansas City. Kubiak said they will have both quarterbacks ready to play Sunday.
MARIOTA STREAKING: The Titans have no such questions at quarterback with Marcus Mariota a big reason why they have won five of their past eight games.
He has set a franchise record in throwing at least two TDs in each of the past eight games, and he has thrown 21 TDs with just three interceptions in that span. Mariota leads the NFL with a 117.7 passer rating and the Titans lead the NFL in scoring an average of 30.8 points per game since Oct. 6.
“I think the same Mariota you saw in college, that’s the same quarterback you’re seeing now,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said.
“It’s rare that you find a quarterback that has that success in college and continues to have the same type of success in the National Football League. Mariota, he’s doing it.
GET THE BALL: The Broncos have scored a league-high 103 points off turnovers and will test Mariota’s improved ball security. Opponents scored five TDs earlier this season off the Titans quarterback’s interceptions and fumbles, but the Titans have not turned the ball over even once over the past three games.
DEFENSIVE SHOWDOWN: Denver has the NFL’s stingiest defense against the pass, giving up just 192.7 yards per game. But the Broncos will have to find a way to slow down DeMarco Murray, the league’s second-best rusher. The Titans rank third in the league in averaging 141.5 yards per game with run defense a big issue for Denver, which is 28th in allowing 122.8 yards per game.
Titans coach Mike Mularkey said Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is too smart not to be ready to stop the run. “And we’ll be ready to throw it against their No. 1 pass defense,” Mularkey said.
THIN BACKFIELD: Running back Justin Forsett, 31, was claimed off waivers Monday from Detroit and is expected to play in Tennessee. The Broncos have three running backs on injured reserve with Kapri Bibbs the latest after spraining his left ankle in Jacksonville. The Titans are giving up just 92.3 yards rushing per game, seventh in the NFL.
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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker