ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Melvin Gordon III hasn’t been in a Broncos uniform since he was waived in November, but his scouting report on Austin Ekeler earlier this season still stands.
“Austin Ekeler is one hell of a back,” he said.
The Broncos (4-12) will finally put an end to one of the most disappointing seasons, perhaps the most disappointing season when preseason expectations are considered, in the franchise’s history Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers in Empower Field at Mile High. How much “business as usual” it will be for the Chargers remains to be seen, but if they need the game to keep their playoff positioning, the Broncos will see plenty of Ekeler.
The Chargers are currently the No. 5 seed in the AFC and by the time 4:25 pm ET kickoff rolls around, the Chargers could be the No. 5 seed regardless if they win or lose against the Broncos. If the Cincinnati Bengals defeat the Baltimore Ravens in a game that kicks off at 1 pm ET, the Chargers would be the No. 5 seed in the playoffs no matter the result in Denver. So, they could rest players for next week’s wild-card round.
In that scenario, Ekeler, quarterback Justin Herbert, Joey Bosa or any of the other frontline Chargers players may not play.
“We’re expecting Sonny Liston, if Joe Palooka shows up so be it,” interim coach Jerry Rosburg said of the Broncos’ prep work.
• The spark that ignited the Titans-Jags feud
• TB12 and other Raiders QB options
• Stage set for the Lions-Packers matchup
• Fins’ hopes hinge on Thompson
• Hilton’s success in Dallas no surprise
If the Broncos do get the heavyweight champion version, Ekeler figures to be a big part of the Broncos’ to-do list on defense. The Eaton, Colo., native (city of 5,900 northeast of Denver) is coming off an AFC Player of the Week honor with his 161 yards from scrimmage in the Chargers’ 31-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, which included a 72- yard touchdown run.
Ekeler has two carries of at least 70 yards this season and is now just the second undrafted player — along with Priest Holmes — to have constructed consecutive seasons of at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage and at least 15 total touchdowns.
He’s tied for fourth in the league in receptions with 103 and over 10 previous meetings against the Broncos, Ekeler has done most of his damage via the passing game. He hasn’t had a game with more than 58 yards rushing against the Broncos — he’s averaged 3.7 yards per carry in those 10 games — but as a receiver, he’s had a touchdown in two of the last four games against the Broncos.
And in the Chargers’ overtime win in November, Ekeler was targeted 16 times in the passing and finished with 10 receptions.
“It’s that ability as a runner or receiver and how they get him involved so much in both, that makes him different than some guys,” safety Justin Simmons said. “You have to be ready to adjust to how his role shifts sometimes in the down-and-distance situations.”
For many of the Broncos’ faithful, each time the former Division II Western Colorado standout touches the ball against the Broncos, it is a reminder of the player who ran for 2,400 yards to go with 42 touchdowns as a senior at Eaton High School and worked feverishly under the radar with no power-5 college offers.
And as the Chargers have ended their own three-year playoff drought this season they have leaned slightly more on their run game as they close out this regular season. After four consecutive games when the Chargers did not crack 85 net yards rushing, they have also committed to it enough to have rushed for 101 yards in their win against the Colts to go with the 192 last week against the Rams.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley said earlier this week he believed the difference was the Chargers “had the right amount of inside runs that, what I would say, were more direct runs, power runs.”
A loss Sunday would give the Broncos their first 13-loss season and make them winless in AFC West games in a season for the first time since the strike-shortened 1982 season.
The Broncos have had just one other 12-loss season, in addition to this one — in 2010 when they finished 4-12 and Josh McDaniels had been fired with four games remaining in the season.
As Rosburg put it: “We’re out to win so we can celebrate with one another.”