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Sunday, November 2, 2008
This is the AFC West's best?

By Bill Williamson
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN .com's Bill Williamson

DENVER -- What's the difference between the AFC West and the United States presidential race?

There will be a winner this week in the chase to be president.

 
 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
 Denver quarterback Jay Cutler played his worst game of the season Sunday, tossing three interceptions.

Further cementing its stranglehold on the title of worst division in the NFL, the AFC West went a combined 0-3 Sunday. It was the second straight week the division went winless. The four AFC West teams are now 10-22 at the halfway point of the season. No, don't expect an AFC wild card to come out of this division.

With half a season to go, there is a legitimate chance the AFC West will produce the first playoff team with a losing record in the playoffs in a non-strike shortened season. Two 4-5 teams made the playoffs in 1982.

Only a strike could save this division. As silly as it sounds, the Denver Broncos, losers of four of their past five games, are leading the division. Denver is 4-4; San Diego, which had a bye this week, is 3-5; Oakland is 2-6 and Kansas City is 1-7.

After a 26-17 loss to visiting Miami on Sunday, in which the Broncos continued their sloppy ways on offense and untimely lapses on defense, Denver players tried to find a way to be positive.

"The division hasn't been good, we can look at that," Denver linebacker Nate Webster said. "But, come on, we need to start winning some games."

The Broncos, who play on a short week Thursday night at Cleveland, had an opportunity to separate themselves from San Diego while the Chargers were on a bye. With wins over Miami and Cleveland, Denver could have been 6-3 while San Diego was still 3-5. Now, Denver must try to avoid being 4-5 as the Chargers prepare to play host to Kansas City next Sunday.

"We have to shore things up," Denver running back Michael Pittman said. "We have to do it quick."

There is plenty of work to do. Quarterback Jay Cutler is coming off his worst game of the season, the vaunted Denver running attack is coming off its second-worst effort in the history of the franchise and the battered defense probably will now have to play without another stalwart, linebacker D.J. Williams, who suffered a knee injury.

"This was a bad game," Cutler said.

Other key developments from Sunday:

Turnovers continue to kill Denver: The Broncos continued to be careless with the ball. Cutler was the culprit Sunday. He threw three interceptions, two in the first quarter -- including one that was returned 32 yards by Miami cornerback Will Allen for a touchdown to give the Dolphins a 13-0 lead.

The Broncos have committed 15 turnovers in their four losses. Eleven of the turnovers have come in the first half of games. In the past five weeks, Denver has been outscored 56-0 on series after turnovers.

Simply put, the Broncos' defense is not stout enough to withstand the pressure of Denver's offensive mistakes.

The turnovers are also ruining a strong offense. In Denver's first three games, which were essentially mistake-free, Denver scored 114 points. In the five games since, Denver has scored a total of 76 points and no more than 19 points in a game.

"Turnovers, it's that simple," Cutler said when asked his thoughts on his unit's biggest issue.

Nowhere to run: In 14 seasons under Mike Shanahan, Denver has been the premier rushing offense in the NFL. It wasn't Sunday. Denver had 14 yards rushing. It was the second-fewest yards in team history. It was a Miami record for fewest rushing yards allowed. Denver ran the ball only 12 times. Shanahan categorized the effort as "embarrassing."

This is battered unit. Pittman left the game because of recurring neck stingers. After the game, Pittman suggested he may need time to rest the injury.

This may open the door for promising rookie Ryan Torain, who was eased into action Sunday. It was his NFL debut. The fifth-round pick from Arizona State broke his elbow in training camp in early August.

Torain was a non-factor against Miami. He had three carries for 1 yard. However, with Pittman hurting and Selvin Young out for the past three games with a groin injury, Denver may have to turn to Torain in an attempt to regain the Denver rushing spark.

Marshall no fan of defensive scheme: Fresh off his lowest catch output since becoming a starter late in his rookie season in 2006, Denver star receiver Brandon Marshall, who had two catches for 27 yards, was more focused on the game plan of Denver defensive coordinator Bob Slowik.

Marshall didn't like the fact that Denver cornerback Karl Paymah, who replaced the injured Champ Bailey, was playing so far off of Miami receiver Greg Camarillo. He had 11 catches for 111 yards.

"When I look at it, it's common sense, if I was a receiver going against our defense and they're stacking the box and we're playing a one-high defense and eight in the box, and the DBs are 10 yards off of me, I'm going to catch 10 to 12 balls a game," Marshall ranted. "I don't even know that receiver's name who caught all those balls.

"Tighten up the coverage and just play ball, it's real simple. It's real simple. They don't need to be 10 yards off. Tighten it up. You say they don't do that against us, the reason why is a receiver will kill them."

When a star bashes the coaching scheme, it is a sure sign of the wheels falling off a team.

Webster didn't buy into Marshall's complaint. He pointed to Denver's defense nullifying Miami's Wildcat formation. Miami ditched the Wildcat after having very little success using it Sunday. Miami had 75 yards rushing and Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington completed 23 of 40 passes for 281 yards.

Webster also pointed to Miami's final series as the only poor defensive possession Denver had. The Dolphins went on a 15-play, 80-yard drive that took 8:02 to give them a nine-point lead with 3:08 to go.

"That was it," Webster said. "I don't think our defensive scheme really hurt
us today."

Walking more wounded: When Bailey was lost for at least a month with a torn groin, Williams became Denver's best defensive player. The 2004 first-round pick was having a Pro Bowl season with 77 tackles at weakside linebacker.

Now Denver -- which also lost starting strongside linebacker Boss Bailey for the season two weeks ago -- probably will have to play without Williams for a while.

Shanahan said Williams has a sprained MCL in his knee and he had no idea how long Williams would be out. Williams, who didn't talk to reporters Sunday, departed the stadium on crutches. If Williams is out for an extended period, it could be devastating to Denver's defense.

He is a playmaker, and without the Baileys and Williams, the defense will be stretched extremely thin.

Yes, it was a disastrous Sunday for Denver. But here's the bright spot for the Broncos: They are still the best in the West.

Yes, the AFC West is that bad.