ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -Mike Shanahan 's offensive genius and defensive shuffling didn't pay their usual dividends in Denver this season.
The Broncos (6-9), who retooled last spring with designs on contending for a Super Bowl, are wrapping up their first losing season since 1999, when John Elway retired after consecutive championships and Terrell Davis suffered a devastating knee injury.
``Oh, it's the hardest season I've had since I've been coaching, there's no question about that,'' Shanahan said Wednesday as the Broncos began preparing for their season finale against Minnesota.
What makes this harder than eight years ago, when the two-time defending Super Bowl champs went 6-10 in Shanahan's only other losing season during his 13-year tenure?
``Because we're a better football team this year than we were in '99,'' Shanahan said.
They sure didn't show it, and now all they have to play for Sunday is pride.
The Vikings (8-7) are one of three NFC teams fighting for a wild-card berth, but the Broncos cringe at the notion they're playing the spoiler, a role the San Francisco 49ers embraced in last year's season finale when they denied Denver a trip to the playoffs.
``I don't approach it that way,'' receiver Brandon Marshall said. ``When you think about getting the chance to mess up the playoffs for someone else it means you are a loser. I'm not a loser. I never look forward to that kind of game.
``We want to end the year on a good note. I want to win every game. I want to win this one. I want to have some momentum to take into next season.''
Safety John Lynch said the motivation is never about denying the opponent anything other than victory.
``We are professionals. We get an opportunity to play in an NFL football game. I think any time you have that opportunity you owe it to yourself, you owe it to your organization, you owe it to the people paying money to watch you play to go play as hard as you can and I think as a matter of pride and then also building for the future,'' Lynch said.
``Sometimes you can discount a game like this as a throwaway game. But you never know when that journey is going to start and any game can be that turnaround game. And then Coach Shanahan has stated it very clear that guys are playing for their jobs here. So if all those other things don't motivate you, that should motivate you.''
This is what it's come down to for Denver, which started out with high hopes and a 2-0 record behind Javon Walker's two 100-yard games.
Since then, Walker has had one knee surgery, missed two months and caught just five passes.
The key offseason offensive addition, tailback Travis Henry, also has been a disappointment. He's been banged up and has spent much of the season - successfully - fighting the NFL over a yearlong suspension for a failed drug test.
Denver's run game was also affected by the season-ending injuries of linemen Ben Hamilton and Tom Nalen as well as trips to injured reserve by tight ends Stephen Alexander and Nate Jackson. Rod Smith was unable to return from offseason hip surgery.
Quarterback Jay Cutler had an up-and-down second season, admittedly wearing out toward the end, but he had a reliable receiver in Marshall, who has 92 catches.
The Broncos' real troubles have come on defense, where they lost top draft pick Jarvis Moss to a leg injury midway through the season and where the revolving door of linemen began spinning in training camp when Ebenezer Ekuban was hurt, Gerard Warren was traded and Kenard Lang was waived.
Aging safeties Lynch and Nick Ferguson have had tough, injury-marred seasons, Ferguson losing his starting job and Lynch pondering whether to retire or return for a 16th NFL season in 2008.
Even Champ Bailey failed to meet his high standards even though he earned his annual trip to the Pro Bowl.
The Broncos also have had their troubles on special teams despite the ballyhooed arrival of coach Scott O'Brien. Punter Todd Sauerbrun was waived for off-field misbehavior and replacement Paul Ernster was sent packing Wednesday after a pitiful performance that included a 17-yard punt Monday night at San Diego.
``Me,'' Shanahan cracked when asked who'd be doing the punting this week. ``I could average 30.''
Perhaps, but he's still bringing in a half dozen out-of-work punters for a look-see Thursday, hoping to sign one of them so Jason Elam won't have to work overtime Sunday.

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