ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Not quite a half-full, half-empty argument, but there are enough ripples in the pond for the Broncos over the past eight games to at least evaluate some things as they point to the final two games of the regular season and into whatever becomes of the playoffs.
A thank you note might be in order as the Miami Dolphins did the Broncos a favor Sunday with a 24-20 win against the New England Patriots that again puts the Broncos ahead of the pack in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC despite the Broncos' loss Thursday night to the San Diego Chargers. Friday, Broncos head coach John Fox, with the players set for a weekend off, attempted to at least stem some of the angst about Thursday night’s defeat with; “I think we lost our third game, not our 13th. We don’t think the sky is falling."
And it’s not, not at 11-3, with two wins already in hand against the Chiefs. The Broncos still have the AFC’s best record and the second-best record in the league behind the Seahawks’ 12-2. But there is still a bit of a cleanup to be had on Aisle Broncos if they are going to play in the Trophy Game.
Same players, still need better defense: The Broncos are 5-3 in their past eight games. In those eight games they have surrendered at least 27 points five times, including all three losses.
Their offense, with quarterback Peyton Manning fueling the performance, is poised to break a pile of single-season records. But in the end, a look-pretty-and-lose season would leave an empty feeling, something many of the league’s highest scoring offenses (including the current single-season record holder, the 2007 Patriots), have had to live with.
And the ’07 Patriots had performed far better on defense -- they finished No. 4 in scoring defense in the regular season at 17.1 points allowed per game -- than these Broncos have. The Broncos are surrendering 26.6 points per game, 25th in league. It would also be time to recall the Broncos have surrendered 83 points, 694 passing yards, nine touchdown passes and had just one sack in their past two playoff losses combined -- the double overtime loss to the Ravens last January and the 45-10 implosion against New England to close out the 2011 season that effectively ended Tim Tebow's tenure in Denver.
Significant help isn’t on the way beyond Champ Bailey's potential return to the defense, so whatever the Broncos do, they have to do it with the people on hand.
“It’s something that we’re working on," Fox said. “It’s something that we have to get better at. I don’t think it’s acceptable for anybody, including those guys in that room. I think they understand that, and we have to get better to get where we want to go."
Wave bye to flags: The Broncos have spent a lot of time discussing the character and talent in their locker room, and deservedly so.
But there are times when the Broncos lack the kind of down-to-down discipline that is essential in postseason football, and part of the rather enormous difference between cruising through an October blowout and winning a tight game in January.
You don’t have to look beyond a third-quarter drive Thursday night when the Broncos, in need of as many possessions as possible in a game they trailed 24-10 at the time, had a neutral-zone infraction on a punt that gave the Chargers first down. Denver had a 12-men on the field penalty later in the drive that turned what would have been a second-and-14 into a first-and-5.
After 14 games, before Thursday night’s affair and this weekend’s games, the Broncos were one of just five teams with at least 110 total penalties, including those that were declined.
Seattle, Oakland, St. Louis and Tampa Bay were the others. The Broncos have also had four games this season with at least 10 total penalties, including those that were declined, and after 13 games no team had more defensive holding penalties (13) than the Broncos.
Adjust for Welker injury: The Broncos might need a tactical adjustment with Wes Welker's concussion, his second over a four-game span.
It kept him out of Thursday’s game, and Fox said Friday that Welker had not yet been cleared medically to return to activity. It makes Welker’s availability uncertain, and even with Andre Caldwell's performance Thursday night, the Broncos lack a consistent presence in the slot when they go three-wide without Welker in the lineup.
That’s an issue, especially with an 0-for-6 performance on third down in the first half Thursday night, and the Chargers' ability to keep the ball away from Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in the second half -- just three catches combined after halftime. For the season, including penalty snaps, the Broncos have worked out of the three wide on 77.5 percent of their offensive snaps.
Against the Titans, the Broncos worked out of the three-wide set on 57.6 percent of the snaps, and still scored 51 points as they used a two-tight-end set that included Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas, the best receiving combination at the position, much of the time when they weren't in three-wide. They worked out a two-tight-end set on 68.5 percent of the snaps Thursday night, including penalty plays, and finished with a season-low 20 points.
Tamme played just nine snaps in the game as the Broncos went with a more physical look in the two-tight-end set with Virgil Green and Thomas together against the Chargers’ 3-4 look. When the Broncos couldn’t run the ball effectively, that bigger set lost its benefit. And if they’re without Welker, it likely leaves them trying to decide between a little more protection for Manning in the formation or a little more pop with Tamme and Julius Thomas in with Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
Get special again: By the time the season was a month old, Trindon Holliday had two touchdown returns. Then Holliday had a 40-yard return in Week 5, and David Bruton had a 35-yard run on a fake punt in Week 6. Toss in Matt Prater's NFL record 64-yard field goal against the Titans, and there has been plenty to like.
At their best, the Broncos' special teams units have been lock-it-down solid over the past two seasons. But as injuries, particularly on defense, have jumbled the depth chart there, the special teams units have looked unsettled as well.
Holliday has not looked confident fielding the ball of late, especially Thursday, when he returned after missing a game with a shoulder injury. He’s muffed five catches in the past eight games, losing two of them. The Chiefs’ Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown, and a punt hit Tony Carter in the leg in the loss against New England in Foxborough, Mass.
Any one of those plays are just the kind that turn playoff games.