The Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns are both clinging to long-shot playoff hopes in a crowded AFC postseason picture.
The Browns have to win out to have a remote chance of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002, but they will have to conquer a major nemesis when they visit the Broncos on Saturday night.
Cleveland (5-7-1) has lost 11 in a row to Denver (6-7), one of the teams it is chasing, and its last victory over the Broncos came more than 28 years ago -- a one-point victory in October 1990. Still, the idea of playing a meaningful game in December for a team that won one game over the previous two seasons is something no player on the current Browns roster has experienced.
"I think everything when you're dealing with pride helps in motivation," Cleveland interim head coach Gregg Williams said. "Remember this when I say this: When you have to work extremely hard on motivation, you don't have the right people. The right people are supposed to be motivated at this level. That's how you keep your job. This job is a tough job at this level in the profession. The pride factor of seeing that (playoff) possibility is still there does help."
The Broncos had played themselves back into contention by rattling off three straight victories, including wins over the Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers, but they fell back in the pack after a stinging 20-14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers last weekend.
That loss left Denver one game behind the Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans. Baltimore holds the sixth and final seed via a tiebreaker.
Broncos head coach Vance Joseph knows his team faces an uphill climb to reach the postseason and does not want to see a repeat of last week's loss at San Francisco, when Denver fell into a 20-0 hole at halftime. Among the players Joseph pointed a finger at was quarterback Case Keenum for playing too conservatively.
"He was a little cautious with the ball," Joseph said. "The bottom line: We've got three weeks to play, he's got to make more plays and sometimes taking some chances allows you to make more plays. There are going to be turnovers so he can't worry about that. You can't play this game perfect, but I want Case to be more aggressive, especially down the seams of those cover-3 defenses.
"That's where the soft spots are. He's got to be aggressive down the seams and not worry about making mistakes."
Keenum has four touchdown passes and no interceptions over the past three games, but he has failed to throw for at least 200 yards in that span. Granted, Denver is depleted at wide receiver with Emmanuel Sanders done for the season and the trade of Demaryius Thomas, but Keenum is well aware that it is crunch time.
"We're at that point in the season where we've got to make plays and we've got to score points," Keenum said. "I think that's our best defense, us going out there and scoring points -- it's when those guys are on the sideline. I've said that before and I can't get caught back there with the ball in my hands. I've got to give guys chances down the field.
"It looks different on different plays, but in general, that's a good mindset to have. I think being smart with the ball, continuing to be smart with the ball, but giving guys chances when we feel like it's a good matchup or advantageous time to take a shot or take a chance down the field (is important)."
The Browns have won three of their last four games behind quarterback Baker Mayfield. The No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft became the first first-year starting quarterback to throw at least one touchdown pass in each of his first 10 starts since Kurt Warner in 1999.
Mayfield, who has 19 scoring passes against 10 interceptions, must be wary of Denver's pass-rushing tandem of linebackers Von Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb, who have combined for 25.5 sacks. However, Mayfield's focus is on keeping the playoff drive alive.
"Take it one week at a time and put us into a position to -- you talk about the playoff picture, we're still right there," Mayfield said. "We have to win out. For us, the mentality is, 'Win one week at a time.' We can't handle anything else. We just have to take it one week at a time. For us as a team, that's what we need."