Offensive struggles have Broncos in big trouble

SAN DIEGO -- Reality is setting in hard for the Broncos. Since John Elway retired after back-to-back Super Bowl victories, the Broncos haven't won a division title or a playoff game.

Every year, coach Mike Shanahan shuffles his roster, plugs in a different running back for a 1,000-yard season and keeps his defensive numbers low. But reality settled into the Broncos locker room following Sunday's 20-17 loss to the Chargers. Once again, the Broncos have to make an uphill run for a Super Bowl berth as they now trail the Chargers by two games in the AFC West and face the prospect of going on the road as a wild-card team.

"We keep shooting ourselves in the foot," wide receiver Ashley Lelie said. "We had the opportunities, but we didn't make them."

The loss was gut wrenching, especially for the Broncos offense. Jake Plummer threw four interceptions. Halfback Reuben Droughns was poked in the eye on his first carry of the game and then was gang tackled the rest of the game. He was limited to 38 yards on 14 carries. The usually dependable Jason Elam missed a 43-yard field-goal attempt in the first half. And on the final play, wide receiver Darius Watts didn't get out of bounds, so the clock ran out without Denver getting another field-goal attempt.

A week ago, the Broncos blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead over the Raiders in the Mile High snow with the chance to go 8-3. Now they are 7-5 and fighting for perhaps the last wild-card spot and a trip to maybe Indianapolis.

"It just hurts right now," Elam said. "You're just not quite over the hump. There's been a whole bunch of games now where we feel like we've let them get away. We're close. We're really close . We keep fighting and scratching and hope we can get in the playoffs somehow. Who knows what happens then."

The great part of Shanahan-coached teams is that they play hard and stick together. They don't point fingers. However, two fingers are being raised right now. The Broncos try hard like Avis, but they're No. 2.

"Anytime you turn the football over four times and have as many penalties (eight for 57 yards) as we did on the road, it's hard to win football games," Shanahan said. "We still had a chance to pull it out there late in the game and obviously we didn't take advantage of it."

The play most discussed was Shanahan's decision to call for a fade pass to Rod Smith on a first-and-goal at the Chargers' 7-yard line with less than four minutes left. The Broncos trailed, 20-17. At best, the Chargers were hoping to hold the Broncos to a field goal and settle for a tied score.

However, Plummer lofted the fade pass too high. Chargers cornerback Drayton Florence had his head turned away from Plummer and focused on Smith. Once Smith's eye opened wide, Florence reacted and tipped the ball away from Smith into the hands of Chargers defensive tackle Jerry Wilson for an interception.

Why the fade?

"That's kind of an option right there," Shanahan said. "You run a running play and then if you get a certain coverage of bump, you feel like you got an easy fade route to give the quarterback or the receiver the option to do it. It's a called run. You have the option to hit the fade if you feel like the guy has right coverage. Obviously, the ball was thrown slightly more inside and was deflected. It was just one of those things."

Plummer looked like he was shooting a missile into the air. It sailed high and came down too many yards before the sideline, giving Florence plenty of room and time to react and tip the ball. But those things seem to be happening too often to the Broncos down the stretch. They lose overtime home games. They lose home games in the snow. They lose crucial divisional road games like they did Sunday.

"Missed opportunities," Plummer lamented. "Obviously, the turnovers hurt. It was sloppy early with wet balls and stuff, but we have to take care of the ball. We didn't take advantage of the opportunities when we got it down in the red zone. When you get down there, you have to score. You have to score six points. We didn't."

Since 1998, the only AFC West teams not to win division titles are the Broncos and Chargers. In two or three weeks, the Broncos could own that designation by themselves.

"We came out and hit them in the mouth from start to finish and we won the game," Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer said.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.