Broncos coach John Fox defends Peyton Manning

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Strange as it sounds, John Fox finds himself needing to defend his five-time MVP quarterback.

''The sky's not falling. We're not getting ready to get rid of our quarterback. He's fine and, you know, we're all going to get better,'' Denver's coach proclaimed a day after one of Peyton Manning's worst games as a Bronco.

The Broncos (11-4) blew their shot at earning the top seed in the AFC playoffs for the third straight season when Manning threw four interceptions. Denver's defense and special teams also committed critical blunders in a 37-28 loss at Cincinnati on Monday night.

Denver can still clinch the No. 2 seed and the first-round bye that comes with it by beating Oakland (3-12) at home next Sunday.

The Broncos down-shifted their high-octane offense a month ago and began relying more on their ground game to ease Manning's burden. They had to dial up the pass Monday night when they found themselves trailing the Bengals 20-7 at halftime.

It worked, and they took a 28-27 lead into the fourth quarter, only to see Manning throw two interceptions to Dre Kirkpatrick in the waning minutes, One of those was returned for a 30-yard touchdown when he stepped in front of Demaryius Thomas on a miscommunication.

''I shouldn't have thrown it to him,'' Manning said. ''I probably had Emmanuel (Sanders) open over the middle, and I might have even had Julius (Thomas). I think his guy may have fallen down. I definitely picked the wrong guy to throw to.''

Counting once in the playoffs, this was just the sixth time Manning has been picked off four times in a game and the first since 2010.

Over the last month, Manning's numbers have nosedived. Although the Broncos won three of those games, it's been enough of a slide to merit concern from TV analysts, fans and fantasy owners.

In his first 43 regular-season games in a Broncos uniform, Manning averaged 27 completions per game for 318 yards. Over his last four, he's averaged 18 completions for 224 yards. His TD rate has fallen from 2.68 per game to 1.25, and his interception rate has more than doubled from .69 to 1.5.

None of that matters to Fox.

''I know if you look at the meaningful statistics as it relates to quarterback, I think he's probably in the top five in the National Football League, which we're pleased with,'' Fox said. ''And you know, all of us need to coach or play better here moving forward.''

Asked if he sees any physical changes in Manning - a drop in velocity perhaps - Fox answered with a tart ''No.''

A look at the rankings backs up Fox: Manning leads the league with 39 TD passes and his 102.9 passer rating and 4,454 yards passing both rank fourth in the league.

Manning has fought through some serious obstacles, too.

His O-line can't pass protect cleanly, continually committing infractions that wipe out big plays. Manning often lacks the time or the space to step into his throws and sometimes looks rushed even when he's not.

Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas hasn't scored in six weeks after scoring a dozen TDs through nine games. Since spraining his left ankle on Nov. 16, he's had as many catches - three - as games he's missed.

Wes Welker, who had 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 TDs last year, has dropped off drastically with 47 catches for 422 yards and two TDs this season.

Then there's the question of age starting to creep into the picture.

Manning, 38, is trying to supplant his boss, Broncos GM John Elway, as the oldest QB to win a Super Bowl. On Feb. 1, he'll be 97 days older than Elway was when he won his last NFL game and second straight Super Bowl.

Although it appears the road to the big game will go through New England, where the Broncos haven't won since 2006, Manning & Co. can increase their title odds by securing a first-round bye.

That would give them a much-needed break because they haven't had one since September, and it would give top tackler Brandon Marshall (foot) another week to get better.

''You're always working to increase your position so to speak,'' Fox said. ''But the reality is we're going to get an opportunity to compete for the Lombardi Trophy. We're in the playoffs.''

Behind a five-time MVP he still feels very good about.

NOTES: Fox said an MRI on safety T.J. Ward ruled out anything more serious than a strained neck. He's day to day.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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