Denver's surprising loss to San Diego took the Broncos out of the driver's seat for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. More worrisome, however, was how poorly Peyton Manning and company played at a time when they should be hitting their stride
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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Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington (No. 12). When Cousins, Washington’s fourth-round pick in 2012, got a chance to play last season, he was impressive: 69 percent passer, four touchdowns, three picks, 101.6 rating. Now he’ll have the last three games of a disastrous season for the team to prove his worth. It’s no secret to anyone in Washington (or New Zealand, for that matter) that Washington, missing its first-round pick in 2014 as the last vestige of the Robert Griffin III trade, wants to develop a trade market for Cousins. GM Bruce Allen would love to recoup a low-first-round pick for him, because Griffin, even with his struggles this year, is unquestionably Washington’s quarterback of the future. So Cousins gets to face the Falcons, Cowboys and Giants to end the season, with Griffin sitting. It’s a good time to go in: Atlanta and Dallas, combined, have allowed 66-percent passing, with 52 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions.
Sound Bite of the Week
“I’m sure everybody knows by now that coach decided to shut me down for the rest of the season. I talked to coach, he talked to me about it. I expressed my desire to play. He explained to me his reasoning. At the end of the day, coach’s decision is what we go with.”
—Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, on being made the team’s third-string quarterback this week—and likely for the last two weeks of the season as well—by coach Mike Shanahan.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The latest on Shanahan. Did he clean out his car this week? His garage? You’ll hear some news on Mike Shanahan’s benching of RG3, certainly, but let’s keep these things in mind after analyst after analyst has talked about how damaging a blow this is for a 22-year-old player: Griffin will have a new coach next year, and he’ll get to show the world that either this was a fluky year and he never felt right the whole season and he got messed up by the Shanahans … or maybe he isn’t the savior he was supposed to be. I do find it interesting that, according to Mike Shanahan, the owner and GM were on board with the move to yank Griffin. The season needs to end, and Griffin needs to take three weeks far, far away, and when he comes back there needs to be a new coach (Jon Gruden? Art Briles?) who coaches him hard and builds back his confidence. If he’s scarred for life at 22, then he was over-drafted to begin with.
2. Test for Trestman. Josh McCown’s passer rating is 21 points higher than Jay Cutler’s, and his TD-to-Interception differential is plus-12, compared to Cutler’s plus-five. But Cutler, after four weeks off with a high ankle sprain, got his job back Thursday from Trestman and acted like it was no big deal. (Has anything ever seemed a big deal to Cutler?) But Cutler goes to Cleveland needing to play well for the Bears to keep pace with Detroit. They’re tied atop the NFC North at 7-6. Will Trestman waver if Cutler stinks and loses? I would if I were him.
3. The zebras to rebound. Good start for Bill Vinovich’s crew Thursday night in Denver; no gaffes. The NFL needs a newsless Sunday from the men who have had a very bad couple weeks.
4. AFC home-field. New England can win out and win it, now that Denver has a third loss. But for New England to cop the top seed, a tough sweep might be necessary (at Miami, at Baltimore, vs. Buffalo).
5. Road sweet road. Saints are 1-3 in their last three roadies, and now take off for St. Louis and Charlotte in back-to-back weeks.
6. Someone’s going to get hurt. Ravens (7-6) at Lions (7-6). Bring the smelling salts.
7. Some boring playoff races. Three games left. Only one division tie at the top (Detroit and Chicago, NFC North). The biggest drama might be whether a 7-7 team (San Diego) or a pair of 7-6ers (Miami and Baltimore) end up winning the AFC’s sixth seed.
8. Son of Gronk. Zaniest stat line from last weekend was Pats running back Shane Vereen’s against Cleveland: 12 catches, 153 yards; three carries, nine yards. Vereen and Josh Boyce will be the combo platter to replace Gronkowski starting Sunday in Miami.
9. This is groovy: All three Florida teams play at home at 1 p.m. Sunday. Second time in the past month it’s happened. Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay started the season a combined 4-20. They’re 11-4 since. Roll this one around in your head: Jacksonville’s got a very good chance to finish second in the AFC South. Tough go this weekend, though … Pats at Dolphins, Niners at Bucs, and, in the latest installment of “Gus Bradley Vies for Coach of the Year,” the Jags host Buffalo.
10. Dirty dozen for Houston. The drive for Teddy Bridgewater continues in Indy. A 12th straight loss (I still cannot believe the 2013 Houston Texans have lost 11 straight) would keep at least a one-game lead in the race for the first pick in the draft.