Seventeen days left in the regular season, and my Seattle-New England Super Bowl pick is looking good, with both controlling conference home field through the playoffs in the wake of San Diego’s 27-20 win at Denver on Thursday night. But the story of the day is Denver. Specifically, the holes in Denver’s game as the Broncos drive to the playoffs.
The five things about Denver that should worry Bronco fans this morning:
1. The inability of Peyton Manning to challenge San Diego downfield all night
Maybe he was in “take what they give us’’ mode. Maybe he never felt comfortable with the pesky and variable Charger rush keeping him off-balance all night. Maybe it’s the wear of a long season on his 37-year-old right arm. Whatever, Manning’s longest completion was 22 yards, and he had but three incompletions longer than 20 yards out of 41 throws. To see him dink-and-dunk in the final two minutes with no timeouts on the clock and needing two scores was the height of frustration. You don’t want to throw into the teeth of umbrella coverage downfield, but you also can’t be taking eight yards consistently without being able to stop the clock. Where was Demaryius Thomas (four catches, 49 yards)? The passing game Thursday night was disturbing. I don’t think it’ll continue, but one bad game could have blown home-field through the playoffs, and could mean Peyton Manning, to get to the Super Bowl, could have to play Tom Brady in New England, where Brady is 7-2 all-time vs. Manning.
2. No Welker
Andre Caldwell (who’d played 32 snaps in the previous three games) stepped in to catch six balls for 59 yards and two touchdowns. Good sub. But what was missing was Wes Welker (out with a concussion) sitting down in the familiar holes with the laser throws he and Manning have perfected. In less than a season, Welker has proven how valuable he is. We all saw it Thursday night. No word if he’ll be back for the very winnable final two games (at Houston, at Oakland), but if Denver doesn’t sweep those two games, the Broncos risk getting passed in the West by 10-3 Kansas City and having to play a Wild Card game instead of getting the bye a vet like Welker will need.
3. Knowshon the No-show
San Diego has been generous against the run this year despite some stout players (Corey Liuget’s legit), but the Broncos were feeble running it, particularly on first down: seven carries, 11 yards. That includes a minus-six for Montee Ball. Starter Knowshon Moreno had eight carries for 19 yards. What killed Manning all night was knowing if he was going to get anything done, he’d have to do it himself. And he couldn’t.
4. A sieve of a run defense
San Diego is not the best running team in the league. Not close. But the Chargers ran 44 times for 177 yards, and held the ball for 39 minutes. Did you see the spectators in orange jerseys on Ryan Mathews’ 23-yard touchdown sprint down the left sideline? Luckily for the Broncos, Jamaal Charles is the only franchise back playing well who is set to be in the AFC playoffs.
5. No shutdown corners in sight
Denver can’t count on Champ Bailey to play much of any valuable role in the playoffs (he’s been day-to-day all season with a foot injury), and rookie backup Kayvon Webster was burned three times that I saw, twice by rookie San Diego wideout Keenan Allen (who, by the way, is the leader in the clubhouse for Offensive Rookie of the Year in my book). And Webster is due to have surgery on a thumb he injured Thursday night; he’ll miss at least next week’s game in Houston. Denver will have to win scoring contests to advance in the playoffs. Until Thursday night, when the front seven contributed just two sacks and two pressures, that worried nobody in Denver.
No need to panic, Bronconians. The first home playoff game, should Denver win out against two bad teams, will be four weeks from Saturday or Sunday, in the divisional playoff round. But in Houston and Oakland, it would be nice to see Manning challenge some safeties downfield, and nice to see Welker back, and nice to see the defense stop somebody. Thursday proved one thing for the Broncos’ immediate future: It’s no lock they can win a scoring contest every game. And when they struggle on offense, they can be an ugly team.
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