- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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DENVER -- These new-look Denver Broncos are on the right track. But they are far from a finished product. Peyton Manning and the Broncos teased the home crowd in an impressive season-opening win over Pittsburgh two weeks ago. However, Sunday, fans were given a dose of reality.
For the second straight week, Manning and the Broncos were given a stern, painful lesson by one of the better teams in the league. The Houston Texans showed the Broncos they have a ways to go if they think they can hang with the top playoff contenders.
The good news for Denver is it is not being embarrassed by the game’s best teams. The bad news is the NFL is not an "almost" league.
Denver's 31-25 loss to the Texans was eerily similar to the 27-21 loss at Atlanta in Week 2. The Broncos fell behind early, Manning caught fire in the second half, the Denver defense settled and they had a chance to win both games.
Just like the Atlanta game, Denver surrendered a key first down with fewer than three minutes to go. If the Broncos would have held, Manning could have had a legitimate chance to win the game.
The Broncos are 1-2 because they are not a complete team yet.
“We’re close,” Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. “But it’s going to take more than that.”
There is potentially a good team here. Last week, during ESPN’s “Monday Night Football," Jon Gruden and Steve Young said they expect the Broncos to gel at the midway point because Manning will finally be comfortable. They expect this team to make noise in the AFC playoff chase in November and December.
The AFC West continues to look unimpressive. After looking great against Oakland and Tennessee, San Diego was humiliated 27-3 at home by Atlanta on Sunday. The Chargers looked far from a team ready to run away with a division crown. Kansas City and Oakland both had late wins Sunday for their first victories of the season. The Broncos are in a three-way tie for second (and last) place at 1-2.
Manning is keeping the AFC West race in perspective after two straight non-divisional losses. Manning makes his first start against a division opponent next week against the Raiders.
“Division games count double, so we have to learn from this game, address it, be honest -- everybody needs to be accountable -- and try to improve for it,” Manning said. “It’s not the ideal situation. Everybody would love to be 3-0. But that is not the way it is right now. We’ve got to keep fighting and find a way to correct some of these mistakes and a find a way to play better.”
The problem for Denver is pretty simple, especially against teams like the Falcons and the Texans -- the Broncos are not good enough right now to spot teams an early lead. Denver fell behind 20-0 last week and it fell behind 21-5 and 31-11 against the Texans.
Denver miscues fueled the huge deficits in both games. Against the Texans, Denver’s offense stalled. When not forced to punt, the offense was settling for field goals. The Texans’ offense had their way against a Denver defense that was stout in the first two weeks.
Denver did show life on both sides in the second half of both games.
While the Denver defense rallied, Manning came alive in the second half. Manning led two touchdown drives in the final 10 minutes as the Broncos’ receivers stopped dropping passes and the offensive line started to protect better. But it was too late to overcome Houston.
“We need to feed off of each other,” Manning said. “We done it at times, but we need to be able to do it for 60 minutes.”
Yes, the Broncos think they can get there and they might. For now, they just aren’t good enough yet.