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Horse Tracks: Bengals' matchup is a playoff game for Broncos

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Though it's really Game 15 in the NFL, the Broncos know it's the beginning of their playoffs - win and keep going, lose and ...well, we're not going to entertain that one.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Merry Christmas, Broncos Country!

The Broncos have the day off today - because Santa comes to Dove Valley too - but you can bet our players will be thinking about those Bengals once all the egg nog has been consumed (or their whiskey from Von Miller has been downed) and they turn their attention back to the huge showdown on Monday night.

"I love playing on Monday night," Chris Harris Jr said Wednesday after practice. "We're all used to it as a team. If you play here on the Broncos, all of our games are prime time, so you kind of get used to it."

But that doesn't mean it will be easy - especially after coming off two losses where the team fell apart in the second half. The coach and players have been insisting the main culprit was just a failure to execute, and quarterback Brock Osweiler believes that starts with him.

"I think it boils down to just fundamentals and execution," said Osweiler Wednesday after practice. "I know it sounds somewhat basic, but sometimes it's the little things and the basic things that get you back on track."

Named the starting QB for a sixth week a row, Osweiler started hot in the game against the Steelers, completing 14 of 18 passes, but came out the second half and could only make 7 of 26, finishing the game with a 47.7 percent completion rate. Osweiler isn't planning on having those kind of stats this weekend.

"I'm the first one to need to fix things. I can play better in the second half and I will play better in the second half," No 17 said. "I just think it comes down to executing your job play-by-play for an entire 60 minutes. That's what we're focusing on, but at the end of the day, it starts with me."

I'm the first one to need to fix things. I can play better in the second half and I will play better in the second half. -Brock Osweiler

Although his receivers should easily take some of the blame for that incompletion rate in the second half against the Steelers, Osweiler is not pointing fingers at anyone else, and he certainly hasn't lost any confidence in his top targets.

"I'm not worried about it one bit. Guys are going to drop passes at times. I'm going to throw interceptions at times. Guys are going to miss blocks at times. That's football," Osweiler said. "I'm very confident in Demaryius and Vernon. They're both very talented players. I think that they've proven themselves year in and year out for a very long time now."

But Demaryius Thomas recognizes he does need to play better.

"I'm not really frustrated, but I just have to stop dropping it," Thomas said matter-of-factly. "It's probably trying to move before I catch the ball and not looking the ball in. It happens, but it isn't frustrating. I just have to make a play."

Whatever the reasons for the mistakes last week, this Broncos team is well aware of what Monday night means. They consider this the playoffs for all practical purposes - win and they stay in the driver's seat; lose and they could be facing a non-postseason year for the first time since 2010.

"We know what we have to do. It's like a win or go home game," Thomas said. "It's like a playoff game right now because we're still in a situation where we have to get in the playoffs and put ourselves in a position to see where we'll be when it's that time."

The Bengals clinched a playoff spot with their win last week but are still vying for a first-round bye. Broncos must win this game to be aiming for the same opportunity as well as just ensuring a playoff spot at all.

"Pittsburgh is in the back of our minds. We've got a whole new challenge, a whole new team to face this week," said Aqib Talib, adding that the defense is preparing hard for some major offensive weapons - both named A.J. - on the Bengals squad.

We know what we have to do. It's like a win or go home game. It's like a playoff game right now. -Demaryius Thomas

The fact that Cincinnati is without starting QB Andy Dalton isn't really the issue.

"[A.J. Green] is one of the top receivers in the league - size, speed, talent - one of the best," Talib added. "[A.J. McCarron] is throwing the deep ball real well. He's throwing those fades real well. He's hitting a lot of deep balls on the money."

The Broncos are going to need as many of their own weapons healthy to take on this Bengals team. Strong safety T.J. Ward, who has been sidelined the past several games with an ankle sprain, put a helmet on in Wednesday's practice for the first time in several weeks. With backup safety David Bruton Jr. placed on injured reserve after suffering a fractured fibula against Pittsburgh, Ward and Darian Stewart's returns are crucial. Stewart didn't practice Wednesday, but Ward on the field is a good sign.

"I've been getting better daily and weekly," Ward said Wednesday. "I'm just trying to keep my positivity up and prepare the same way I've been preparing the whole season. It felt great to be back out there. I got to put my helmet back on for the first time in a long time. Just being out there, the atmosphere with my teammates, coaches and everything felt really good."

They're a very, very tough team. ...It's going to come down on defense. I like that. ...I like our odds.   -Von Miller

Von Miller likes the matchup. Given that the game features a battle of the backups, the outside linebacker believes the game will be decided by the defense that plays better.

"They're a very, very tough team. Very, very similar on the offensive side of the ball," Millers said. "It's going to come down to defense. I like that. If it can come down to defense, and we could just play our game, I like our odds."

Miller said he thinks some of the problems the last two games have been players getting a little ahead of themselves - at least that's what he did. But Miller feels he has reeled back in and is more focused.

"I think staying in the moment and in the week is where we've had our success," Miller said, adding that he got away from that mentality the past few weeks, but he's back to that approach. "I was thinking about the playoffs and the opportunity that we had. Now, it's time to dig in, get it done and just take care of the moment."

Good advice: Dig in and get it done, Broncos (AFTER you finish your egg nog/whiskey, though).

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