PHILADELPHIA -- And so it has come to this for the Denver Broncos. After 16 weeks of being in control of their own fate and playing almost an entire season with a lead of some sort to protect, they must now accept the hard, cold realization that the easier part of their ride is over.
As the new year beckons and we stare down the final seven days of the NFL's regular season, the Broncos, for the first time, need help. Their long-forgotten 6-0 start assures them nothing. Their weeks and weeks spent occupying one of the six slots in the AFC playoff field is meaningless.
You can now almost smell the desperation in Denver. The Broncos (8-7) have to win next week's home finale against Kansas City (3-12) and hope the Jets (8-7) lose to the already-clinched Bengals in the final game at Giants Stadium or the Ravens (8-7) fall for the second week in a row, this time at Oakland, against the hated Raiders. The very Oakland that last week helped put Denver in this dire situation with a last-second upset at Invesco Field.
Oh, the football fates can be cruel indeed.
But Denver knows it has no one to blame but itself for its current predicament. Its latest failure, Sunday's 30-27 loss at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, really felt more like two losses rolled into one. The Broncos were beaten soundly, 27-10, through the game's first two-and-a-half quarters, but then rallied for 17 unanswered points and an improbable fourth-quarter tie. But then, as has been the case so often in the season's final two months, Denver's hopes were dashed once more, when Eagles kicker
So now it's win and hope, or the Broncos will become the first team in NFL history to miss the postseason despite holding a 3½-game lead in their division at some point during the season. Denver was up by that margin in the AFC West after winning in San Diego in Week 6.
"We've got to do our job. That's what we've got to do,'' Broncos first-year head coach
It's still quite remarkable, not to mention sobering, that Denver could find itself in this position. Only two teams have missed the playoffs after starting 6-0, and the Broncos desperately don't want to join the 1978 Redskins and the 2003 Vikings. But after entering every other week this season with control of either first place in its division or a playoff berth, Denver is finally on the outside looking in.
Players in the Broncos locker room tried to gamely talk about still having a "great chance,'' but it sounded a bit hollow coming on the heels of a second consecutive narrow defeat decided in the game's final seconds. Quarterback
"I'll take a chance, you know,'' Orton said. "We've got a chance. You go back and look at the offseason, and I think everybody would take a chance to make the playoffs. It's unfortunate how we've gotten here. But we've still got a great chance. But we've got to take care of our business, and that's the only thing we can control.''
Sorry, Kyle. But from 6-0 to 8-7 and on the brink of elimination is not a path you can dress up in any way. And this late-season skid makes last year's December collapse seem almost quaint by comparison.
You remember last year. That's when Denver became the first team in NFL history to lose a three-game division lead in the final three weeks of the season. From 8-5 to 8-8, with the Chargers catching and passing the reeling Broncos in Week 17. Denver responded to that debacle by canning longtime head coach
The potential reaction to missing the playoffs this year isn't likely to be that dramatic, but it's probably going to be just as painful, if not more so. Denver is developing a penchant for making the wrong kind of history, and this year's team might wind up carrying the baggage from this season's meltdown for some time.
"Any time you lose a couple games like this in a row, where you have an opportunity to win the game, you certainly feel like you let an opportunity go,'' McDaniels said. "We're in this situation because we didn't make enough plays to win the game.
"Being 8-7 doesn't mean we're out of the playoffs. And certainly it doesn't mean we're in, either. I hope, knowing that group of guys, that we'll be determined this week to have a great week of practice and prepare hard for the Chiefs, and do our job. That's the only thing to do. Win against Kansas City and hope we have an opportunity to play longer.''
But it's down to just hope for the Broncos, who in the past 10 weeks have gone from 3½ games ahead of San Diego to 4 games behind in that dizzying span of time.
"[We made] too many mistakes,'' said Broncos safety
Could the Jets or Ravens lose next week and help the Broncos save their season? Sure. Far stranger stuff has happened. The Bengals and Raiders are no soft touches, even if the game probably means little to Cincinnati (10-5), and Oakland (5-10) is out of the AFC playoff chase. But Denver needing help can't be a comfortable feeling.
"I'm proud of the way our team fought, but we're learning some tough lessons when you dig yourself holes like this against good football teams,'' McDaniels said. "Ultimately they can be too big to dig out of. [And there are] no moral victories.
"It's the NFL. There's a lot of things that go on. Some teams play well early in the year, some teams are playing well now, some teams play well the whole year. You've got to keep fighting, keep clawing, and keep trying to get better. As long as you've got a chance to get into the postseason, you have to.''
Best I can figure, the Broncos do have one bit of karma potentially in their favor next week. Denver's season began with a miracle win at Cincinnati in Week 1, when
"I sure hope so,'' Orton sighed. "I know last year we were in kind of the same predicament in Chicago, and we didn't take care of business in Week 17. And if we had won, we would have actually been in the playoffs. It's a terrible feeling. So I hope everybody comes out this week and works as hard as they can and prepares like it's going to happen. And if we win, maybe something good comes out of all this.''
For the Broncos, nothing much good has come out of these past two months. Now it's down to this: One more week. One more chance. They need to get it right, and get some help. Otherwise, another season has been lost.