Winning close games separates good teams from bad teams in the NFL. Football is truly a game of inches.
One or two plays make the difference. In close games this season, the Denver Broncos offense has done what it needed to in order to be victorious — the defense has not.
When the NFL’s 100th anniversary season got underway, most thought the Broncos offense would struggle. An aging quarterback, who lost his job to a rookie, taking over the helm of a new offense with a new coordinator and an offensive line with question marks tends to do that.
With an elite quarterback under center a team can expect to win by scoring 30 points every game. Nobody thought the Broncos would be that team.
Once the season got underway, the lack of wins has been the offense's fault in the eyes of fans and pundits alike. Cries to fire the offensive coordinator have been a week in and week out knee-jerk reaction chanted by those disgruntled by the Broncos' ineptitude. The offensive woes have been troubling, but not altogether unexpected.
What people did believe was the Broncos defense would be improved under Vic Fangio, a defensive guru. It was thought that the defense would be able to carry this team.
That has not been the case and frankly, Fangio's side of the ball that is to blame for the Broncos' losing record, especially when considering the offense was not supposed to be great. In reality, the offense has done enough to win games, the defense has not.
The Broncos defense deserves credit for the two of the team’s three victories this season. However, they have left four wins out on the field.
Case in point, last Sunday’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The offense and the defense both had a great first half. The team came out of the locker room after halftime with a commanding 20-0 lead.
The Broncos offense did its job in the second half by eating the clock and putting the team in position to score nine additional points, enough to win the game and score more points than in any game this season. The Broncos defense was an entirely different story in the second half.
Let’s examine each of Minnesota's second-half drives.
Vikings Drive 1
The first drive out of halftime, the Vikings marched 75 yards in nine plays, scored a touchdown, and used up only 3:31 of the clock. They converted a fourth down along the way and made a huge play of 44 yards on a deep throw. All killers when protecting a huge lead.
The Broncos offense responded by orchestrating a 12-play, seven-minute clock-eating drive, culminating in a field goal to maintain the three-score lead.
Vikings Drive 2
The Broncos defense rewarded that effort by allowing another 75-yard drive in which the Vikings converted another fourth down, a 3rd-&-14, and a 3rd-&-10 that was only converted because of an unnecessary and dumb defensive pass interference penalty on Duke Dawson. Even if the pass was caught there was little chance the first down was converted on that infamous play. This drive also ends in a touchdown which makes it a 10-point game.
The Broncos offense went three-and-out on the ensuing possession. That was tough, but it was Denver's only three-and-out of the second half. Even though the drive had only three plays, it still ran 2:29 off the clock.
Vikings Drive 3
The Vikings get the ball back and toss a 54-yard scoring strike on third down, only taking 53 seconds — defense’s cardinal sin when protecting a lead. Now Broncos fans realize this game is likely going to be lost.
The Broncos offense responds with a six-play drive to get into field goal range, offering up a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, Brandon McManus misses, dooming the Broncos in the process. If he is successful, the offense only needs to get into field goal range to win in the final seconds of the game, but instead will be forced to go for a touchdown in the waning seconds to secure a victory.
Vikings Drive 4
The defense fails again on the next Vikings drive. It is another quick strike when Kirk Cousins hits Kyle Rudolph on a 32-yard pass play for the go-ahead touchdown. In four drives, the Vikings scored 27 points on four touchdowns and only used a shade over three minutes per drive. That is poor defense by any standard, but with a 20-point lead, it is a complete disaster.
The Broncos offense mounts a comeback with a 19-play drive, but falls short on a couple of questionable non-calls for pass interference in the end zone. The offense had the team in easy field goal range, but unfortunately needed a touchdown.
Had the Broncos defense made one stop in the second half, the team is victorious. Instead, they allowed 27 points in the second half after having accumulated a huge lead. This was not supposed to happen this year.
The defensive players said all year that if they could play with a lead, the sacks and takeaways would come in bunches. They have not. Not one single impact play that made a difference occurred in the second half. The defense failed the Broncos last Sunday. It was a win squandered in the final seconds.
A Woeful Pattern
Last Sunday’s loss is not the only time the defense has let the Broncos down. Fangio's unit has kept the Broncos in games for sure, but have not come through when it mattered most.
Week 1, the defense forced only four incompletions allowing Derek Carr to march down the field at will converting 10-of-14 third downs.
In Week 2, the Broncos offense went on a 12-play, 62-yard drive to score a touchdown and a two-point conversion to take the lead against the Chicago Bears, leaving only 31 seconds on the clock in the process. The defense responded by allowing Mitchell Trubisky to convert a 4th-&-15 to set up the go-ahead, walk-off field goal.
We're talking about the same inept Bears quarterback who has an 82.2 passer rating on the season. Another win squandered in the final seconds.
Week 3 was a turnover disaster for the Broncos offense. The defense did what it could, except force a turnover. It was a drubbing by the Green Bay Packers.
Week 4 was another complete failure by the Broncos defense. They allowed Leonard Fournette to run all over them to the tune of 225 yards. The defense also let a rookie quarterback carve them up on the final drive set to up the game-winning field goal after the offense scored the go-ahead touchdown late. Another huge let down by the defense. The third win squandered.
Week 7 was just a complete embarrassment. Sans Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs manhandled the Broncos defense in first half, setting up a 30-6 drubbing in Denver.
Week 8 was another second half failure by the defense. After a low-scoring defensive struggle in the first half, the Broncos offense marched out of the tunnel after halftime and right down the field to put the team up 13-3.
The defense, in return, allowed a field goal, a touchdown, and a game-winning field goal with 22 seconds left on the clock. The final drive showcased another long pass to set up the game-winner when Jacoby Brissett hit T.Y. Hilton for 35 yards on a broken play. It was another case of a Cardinal sin by the defense and another win squandered.
What it Means
The Broncos' defensive star players are the catalyst to 'coming through in the clutch'. However, it has been unknowns that have stolen the spotlight, if it can really be called a spotlight at this point.
Von Miller is having a down year and has been invisible in the second half of most games. He is the star of the team making franchise quarterback money, but unfortunately, he has not been his usual self. This isn’t the first time in his career that he has faced double and triple teams, but it is the first time in his career he has been a non-factor in the second half of close losses.
Of the seven losses the Broncos have endured, most can be laid at the feet of the defense. This is why the Broncos are a bad team right now.
Good teams find a way to win and bad teams find a way to lose. Many will point out the Broncos’ defensive stats as an indicator that it isn’t their fault for the losses.
I love analyzing stats as many of you know, but frankly, that and fantasy football are what they are good for. They mean little when the defense can’t step up when it counts.