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After Sunday’s game, the Broncos need to pick a lane for the season

(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

On one front, the Broncos are in “win-now” mode. That would explain trading for Joe Flacco, giving Chris Harris Jr. more than a $3 million pay raise this season in exchange for absolutely nothing in return, signing a big-money right tackle in Ja’Wuan James and hiring a 61-year-old, first-time head coach.

Those are the types of moves made by a team trying to make the playoffs in 2019.

At the same time, Denver is acting like a team that is rebuilding. That would explain trading up in the second round to draft a quarterback, adding seven players to the roster after training camp and preseason had concluded, and hiring an offensive coordinator who has never called plays at the NFL level.

Those are steps taken by a franchise worried about 2020 and beyond.

Short term, the Broncos plan of taking both routes makes some sense. John Elway and Company don’t know which way makes more sense for their team at the moment, so they’re buying time to figure it out.

Long term, however, this is a strategy that isn’t going to work. Eventually, the Broncos will have to pick a lane.

A team can’t fully commit to winning now, while also jumping all in on rebuilding, at the same time. And if they don’t get 100 percent behind either path, the chances for success aren’t very good.

So which route should the Broncos follow?

Well, that’s a complicated question. But a simple answer could be provided as early as Sunday.

If Denver beats Chicago at Empower Field, improving to 1-1 on the season and showing signs that the 11-22 team from the past two seasons plus is a thing of the past, then it’s time to push chips into the middle of the table and bet on 2019 being a successful season.

That would mean putting the nearly $12 million in cap space that the team has at its disposal to use. Perhaps it’s a trade for Trent Williams, bringing in a veteran left tackle to replace Garett Bolles. Maybe it’s acquiring a middle linebacker, upgrading from Todd Davis and Josey Jewell. Or possibly it’s signing Aaron Colvin, a cornerback just released by the Texans.

If the Broncos fall to the Bears, however, dropping to 0-2 and making it painfully clear that the losses in previous seasons are not going to become a thing of the past any time soon, it’s time to start thinking about the future.

That would mean finding trade partners for Harris Jr. and Derek Wolfe, sending them to a contender later in the season in exchange for future draft picks. Both will be unrestricted free agents in the offseason, so it’s better to get something than nothing when they depart.

It would also entail fast tracking the development of Drew Lock, getting the rookie quarterback ready to play as soon as he returns from his thumb injury. That way, the Broncos don’t start 2020 with a totally unprepared signal caller.

Making the move behind center became more complicated last week when Denver redid Flacco’s deal to free up the aforementioned cap space. One of the main selling points when the quarterback was acquired from Baltimore was his team-friendly contract; the Broncos could cut ties with the former Super Bowl MVP after the 2019 season and not be on the hook for any remaining dollars.

Now, that’s not the case. Thanks to the restructure, Flacco now carries a dead cap number for both 2020, ’21, ’22 and ’23. The figure starts at $13.6 million next year and reduces by $3.4 million every season.

That makes parting ways with the veteran quarterback a painful proposition. Unless he’s in orange and blue for the next five years, moving on from Flacco will be have major salary-cap implications.

Why would the Broncos put themselves in this precarious position? They either believe they’re closer to being a contender than they appeared on Monday night against the Raiders or they don’t think Lock is the long-term answer.

There’s no other rationale for moving dollars around the way they did. They want Flacco to be in Denver beyond 2019 for a reason; those are the only two options that make sense.

So that makes Sunday’s game vitally important. All of Broncos Country should be rooting even harder than normal for the home team to get a victory.

That would justify the Flacco move. It would go a long way toward keeping popular veterans in town. And it could potentially motivate the organization to make a splashy trade.

Now that’s a fun course of action.

A loss, however, would become a disaster. It would mean a painful rebuilding project is on the horizon. It would likely cause the last members of the Super Bowl 50 champions to be jettisoned. And it would make the Flacco restructure look like one of the worst contract decisions in recent memory.

That’s a lot at stake in Week 2. This puts a ton of pressure on Vic Fangio, Rich Scangarello, Ed Donatell, Tom McMahon and the rest of the coaching staff to right the ship in a six-day span. And it puts a huge burden on Denver’s marquee players to perform at a high level.

Is that fair? Maybe not. But that’s the reality of the situation.

The Broncos need to pick a lane. And they need to do so sooner rather than later. That decision should be made on Sunday evening when the final gun sounds.