Not long ago, the last quarter of the Broncos' season seemed to be little more than a tuneup for a long playoff run. But after last night's humbling at the hands of the Chargers, Denver's holiday season became way more tense.
The most important thing Philip Rivers and his squad demonstrated was that the best way to defend Peyton Manning is to keep him off the field. By holding onto the ball for almost 39 of the 60 minutes, the Chargers never let Manning get into the kind of rhythm he needs to thrive. Many of the QBs the Broncos might face in the playoffs—Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, and maybe Rivers again—are just the type of players who know how to maximize this ball-control tactic.
Of course, the best way to stop it is a sound defense, and the Broncos right now have the opposite of that. Whether it was coverage breakdowns, untimely penalties, or just being outplayed, the Broncos couldn't get the Chargers off the field when they needed it most. Although we're no longer in an era when "defense wins championships" as much as it used to, you still need a decent one, and the Broncos are currently in the bottom quarter of the league in points and passing yards allowed.
The loss also means that the team can forget about resting starters during the last two weeks, because as long as New England and Kansas City keep winning, the Broncos have to do the same to avoid being a 2-seed—or possibly even a 5-seed.
Their re-written prescription for the final two weeks:
—Go to the guy wearing number 58 and find out what he's done with Von Miller. After Miller's six-game suspension, no one expected him to be the singular wrecking crew he was during his first two seasons. But apart from one semi-dominant game (against the Patriots, encouragingly) he's been virtually invisible since his return. Rediscovering his pass-rushing mojo would make a huge difference in the playoffs.
—Restore some discipline on D. The Broncos' bad penalties, poor tackling, and sieve-like pass coverage all must be remedied, pronto.
—Limit injuries. Again, this would've been a lot easier to do if the last regular season game or two weren't must-wins. Wes Welker sat out last night with his second concussion in a month, so he's one unfortunate hit away from being seriously debilitated, if he's not already. And if Champ Bailey can return at all, it should only help the team's Swiss cheese secondary.
—Keep developing the two-back attack. Montee Ball has played well for the past three weeks. If he's overcome the fumble problems that plagued him earlier in the season he offers an excellent option alongside Knowshon Moreno.
—And speaking of fumbles, the Broncos desperately need to settle on a regular punt and kick returner. Trindon Holliday is ostensibly the man, but his own possession issues have caused the Broncos' coaches to yank him whenever he might have to handle a kick deep in his own territory. The problem is, this move has usually backfired. They replaced him with Eric Decker last night at least once, without incident. But they've also stuck Welker in there for him as well, and it's resulted in at least two disasters: the muff in week one that led to a Baltimore touchdown, and Welker's late "poison" call against New England that led to a game-ending turnover. Last night, after the Chargers went up 27-17 with just over 2:30 left, Holliday received the subsequent kickoff in the end zone. Although a long return from the explosive mighty mite might've given the team a whisper of hope, he bobbled the kick and took a knee. You think a lack of confidence might've played into that? The Broncos need to decide if Holliday's upside is worth the risk of the occasional fumble or bench him altogether. What we know for sure is the safest place for the ball to be is in Peyton Manning's hands. The next two weeks will be all about figuring out the best way to make that happen.
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Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.