It may have taken a little luck for the Denver Broncos to gain control of their postseason chances, but now they’ll do their best to capitalize on those fortunes and earn a team-record fourth straight playoff berth.
The Broncos can advance to the postseason with a win or a tie against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday when the teams meet in the regular-season finale at Invesco Field.
Denver (9-6) allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to score a touchdown with 41 seconds remaining last Sunday, but the long snap on the extra-point attempt sailed wide of holder Kyle Larson and the Broncos held on for a 24-23 victory in snowy conditions.
“I don’t know if it’s ever happened in my career,” Broncos safety John Lynch said. “Sometimes, luck plays a part of it.”
The Broncos can now make another trip to the postseason with a win or a tie Sunday, or a Kansas City loss or tie. A victory would also ensure their fourth straight 10-win season, tying the best run in franchise history.
The Broncos seemed well on their way to that mark when they started the season 7-2, but a four-game losing streak put their postseason chances in question. They have rebounded with back-to-back wins thanks in part to quarterback Jay Cutler, who took over for Jake Plummer on Dec. 3 and has become the first rookie in NFL history to throw multiple touchdown passes in each of his first four games.
Denver did lose Cutler’s first two starts to Seattle and San Diego, but has won his last two over Arizona and Cincinnati.
“Every game I feel more confident and more comfortable out there in the pocket and just playing,” said Cutler, who has thrown for 771 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. “Those first two were kind of rough. I hadn’t played in 10 or 11 weeks, so I was kind of raw.
“I am just getting more comfortable and I think that everybody is starting to feel me out. Just like I’m starting to feel out the coaches, so hopefully we can only get better from here.”
One of Cutler’s best stretches to date came in the third quarter Sunday, when he led a 99-yard scoring drive that resulted in Mike Bell’s 2-yard rushing TD to give the Broncos a lead they never relinquished.
“Quarterbacks are going to grow every time they take a snap. Like I said from Day 1, this guy is something special,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. “There are going to be some growing pains along the line. … And you can see (Sunday) he made some mistakes but when he was on the line he made some big plays.”
Bell’s touchdown was his eighth of the season, one short of the NFL record for an undrafted rookie, set by Indianapolis’ Dominic Rhodes in 2001. Tatum Bell, the Broncos’ leading rusher with 977 yards, needs just 23 more for his first career 1,000-yard season.
He will need to take better control of the ball, though, as he has lost a fumble in each of the last two games. Denver cornerback Champ Bailey recovered a fumble of his own Sunday and grabbed his NFL-best ninth interception, giving him three in the last two games.
The Broncos snapped a three-game home skid with last week’s victory and will try to improve upon their 13-1 record in their last 14 December home games. Denver has won its last three home matchups with the 49ers (6-9) and six of the last eight games overall between the teams, including a 24-14 victory on Sept. 15, 2002, in San Francisco.
The 49ers have lost four of their last five games following a season-high three-game winning streak. They amassed just 223 yards total offense last Sunday in a 26-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, which officially eliminated them from the playoff picture.
Despite his club’s recent struggles, 49ers coach Mike Nolan still hopes the finale will give him a glimpse at next season.
“This last game, I’m actually glad that it means something to Denver, because hopefully that inspires our football team,” said Nolan, whose team has allowed an NFL-high 389 points. “This is the beginning of the offseason, of next season. It will be a defining game for many people. Some people might not talk about it, but it begins this week.”
Running back Frank Gore, who ran for two TDs last Sunday, hopes to have a defining game of his own as he needs 29 yards to break Garrison Hearst’s team record of 1,570 rushing yards in a single season, set in 1998.
Quarterback Alex Smith failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in six games last week, completing 62.1 percent (18-for-29) of his throws for 190 yards and his 15th interception of the season.
He will continue to be without leading receiver Antonio Bryant, who is serving the second in a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.