SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The Denver Broncos have been a sometimes team this season.
As in sometimes they're good enough, and sometimes they're nowhere close to good enough. Sometimes they play playoff worthy football, and sometimes they look like the playoffs are some lost idea they simply can't recall.
And now the sometimes team finally faces a bottom line, or as safety Darian Stewart put it: "Now we have to play without bulls----ing around."
Because after Sunday's disheartening 20-14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Broncos are hanging by the thinnest of threads in the AFC's jumbled playoff discussion.
They are now a 6-7 team trailing four 7-6 teams already fighting for the sixth, and final, playoff spot. That puts them on the list for a Christmas miracle with the amount of help they would need to earn a January game, but it also clarifies their part for the regular season's final three weeks.
"No excuses, we can't point fingers; that team came out and outplayed us, in the first half especially," said Broncos coach Vance Joseph of the 49ers on Sunday. "Our record right now, we're still in it, and every game now is a must-win. We haven't talked about that, but we have to now: Every game that we play is a must-win."
"[The message is] that we've got to go ahead and win the rest of our games ... period," said running back Phillip Lindsay. "There's no way around it, so that's what we're going to go do."
Broncos linebacker Von Miller -- who, like most of teammates, has said the Broncos are better now and have been better all season than their record -- was asked Sunday if getting mad, as a team, would help.
"Mad and pissed at what? [A] 6-7 record is nothing any of us could predict. Getting mad and pissed, we've got to direct that. If we want to get mad and pissed at somebody, we should get mad at the Cleveland Browns," Miller said of the team's next opponent. "Pointing fingers in the locker room, that's not going to help. If you want somebody to point the finger at, I'll gladly take it. ... We'll be all right."
Miller is routinely the most optimistic of optimists about the team's potential, but it's clear he, and most of the Broncos, are often confused by their results at times. Sunday was no different, as they surrendered 210 yards receiving on seven catches to 49ers tight end George Kittle in the first half of the game.
It was a total so ridiculous that it was the most receiving yardage the Broncos had surrendered to a tight end in a game in franchise history. And then in the second half Kittle did not have a catch.
"We're not consistent, we have to be more consistent," said defensive end Shelby Harris. "We have to play better, execute better; we keep putting ourselves in a hole, and then we try to dig out every week."
The Broncos have losses to the 4-9 New York Jets and the 3-10 49ers and wins over the Chargers (10-3) and Steelers (7-5-1). They dig, they battle, they fight, it's just that sometimes this team has fought itself along the way -- such as Sunday, with 11 penalties to go with a 2-of-15 season-worst performance on third down.
The Broncos have a short week and get the 5-7-1 Browns on Saturday night. The Browns, with rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield leading a lineup filled with rookies, have won three of their past four games. They are digging out from a 1-31 mark in the 2016 and 2017 seasons combined and a coaching change this year. Their current record is progress worthy of confetti.
But the Browns haven't reached the playoffs since 2002. The Broncos' nearly identical 6-7 record has a different feel, top to bottom, even after last year's 5-11. Questions about Joseph's future will hang in the wake of every loss or win until either Broncos president Joe Ellis or president of football operations/general manager John Elway speak publicly on the topic.
Still, the Broncos' path is clear the rest of this season.
"Every game has been win-out in my opinion," Miller said. "This is the type of space I'm used to playing in, especially this season, so it's nothing new."