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Honesty will be the best policy if Broncos are to cure their ills

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When all is said and done in what has been a maddening, mysterious and crushingly disappointing season for the Denver Broncos, folks might look back and discover linebacker Von Miller simply asked the question in December that needed an answer in October.

After a dismal loss in South Florida -- 35-9 to the Miami Dolphins -- that was the Broncos’ eighth consecutive defeat, Miller slapped all the cards on the table.

"I mean, everything, everything is tough right now," Miller said that evening. “Everything. What is Bronco football? We have to find that. We have to grind and get back to whatever it is. You can’t say Bronco football is what we did in 2015. That’s two years ago. We have to find identity. We have to find the guys that’re ready to take their game to the next level."

There you have it -- no muss, no fuss, the bottom line.

However, that eight-game losing streak -- the team’s longest since 1967 -- cratered the season weeks ago. It ruined the Broncos’ plans and turned their 3-1 start into little more than an afterthought.

But then the Broncos won more games in a five-day span this past week -- a Sunday victory over the New York Jets, followed by a Thursday night triumph over the Indianapolis Colts -- than they won from Sept. 24 to Dec. 3. And they won those two games by being who they were built to be -- a run-first team with a defense that can consistently close the deal, if it’s not subjected to subpar field position for an entire game.

“I think we showed who we are a little bit," said Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “We have a lot of champions on this team ... and we showed when we play our style, we can win. It won’t mean as much if we don’t finish out the last two games like that, but that’s our personality, maybe."

It will have to be part of the Broncos’ offseason discussions, as the team’s decision-makers, led by general manager John Elway, try to determine if the roster didn’t have enough talent to be the team everybody believed the Broncos would be -- or if the Broncos didn’t use those players the way they should have. Or, if the failings were some combination of both.

Because as happy as the Broncos were inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday night with their second consecutive win, there was also the feeling of "Where has this been?" hanging over the proceedings.

“It is bittersweet," is how coach Vance Joseph put it Friday. “But I’m happy for the players."

Some have pointed to Bill Musgrave’s work as interim offensive coordinator with a more concerted effort to run the ball, with 80 carries combined in the past two games and the use of bigger personnel groupings that suit these Broncos far better than the wide-open three-receiver looks that were the hallmark of Peyton Manning's time with the team. Musgrave replaced the fired Mike McCoy last month, and -- the rout in Miami aside -- the Broncos have played with a tempo that fits them much better in recent weeks.

A turnover-prone team for much of the football year -- their minus-15 turnover margin is still second worst in the league -- the Broncos have just one turnover in the past two games. That kept the defense largely out of harm’s way in a far bigger comfort zone of defending a long field, instead of a short one.

“The last two weeks, we haven’t turned the ball over at a high rate," Joseph said.

"I truly think how Billy [Musgrave] has called the game for the quarterback has minimized mistakes, has minimized the ball being batted around. He’s done a good job."

The Broncos know, however, they're not cured. Their special teams have been a problem for much of the season, and the defense has surrendered 26 touchdown passes -- a number too big not to be a concern. They had four members of the 2017 NFL draft class who were game-day inactives Thursday night, and the quarterback carousel has seen the team change starters four times this season, due to either injury or poor play.

With two games remaining, though, Joseph is a first-year coach trying to show how a late rally means his message is getting through to the players, that his process is one the Broncos can indeed trust moving forward. Because tough questions will be asked in the weeks and months ahead as the Broncos try to figure out how to make 2018 better.

“Something good is happening. The more we kind of figure out our formula to win, it’s going to be better for us here," Joseph said. “I’ve been proud of the players for how engaged they’ve been, how hard they’ve worked. We’ve got a good team, a good locker room. It hasn’t been perfect; we have to fix some things in the offseason."