Far be it from me to imply that the Denver Broncos are facing turmoil, not at 7-1. But Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts does seem to indicate that something is amiss in the Mile-High City.
Maybe this team isn’t as good as the defensive death squad that suffocated Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers a week earlier. Maybe it is, and Sunday’s defeat was merely a bump on the road to Super Bowl 50. But Denver began its 2015 campaign by beating the Baltimore Ravens 19-13; a win that was sealed only after Joe Flacco threw an interception in the end zone on the final drive. In the following weeks, the Broncos needed a fourth quarter comeback to beat the Kansas City Chiefs (3-5), were up by just five points late in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions (1-7) and worked overtime to beat the Cleveland Browns (2-7).
The moral of the story isn’t that the Broncos defense isn’t as good as it seems, or that the offense can’t do enough to win when they’ve got Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. But one can’t help but notice that Denver is too inconsistent to be declared a legitimate threat to the New England Patriots or the Cincinnati Bengals.
To their credit, the Broncos do have some signature wins this season. In addition to that aforementioned thrashing of the Packers, Denver also beat the Minnesota Vikings, now 6-2 and tied for first in the NFC North, and scored a tough road win over the suddenly-not-a-joke Oakland Raiders. However, the Broncos uneven play showed up in a major way on Sunday, as they were unable to take a lead at any point in the game against an underperforming Colts team that just fired its offensive coordinator.
Denver’s defense came into the game ranked first in points, yards and passing touchdowns allowed, and second in turnovers forced. Indianapolis had the second-most turnovers in the NFL and Andrew Luck had thrown 12 interceptions in six games. Everything seemed to be set up perfectly, but instead, the Bearded One had his best game of the season.
For just the second time all year, Luck did not throw a pick, and he finished with 252 yards and two touchdowns. This against a Denver defense that had intercepted Alex Smith twice in Week 2 (he only has three interceptions total all season), picked Derek Carr in Week 5 (he only has four on the year) and held Rodgers to just 77 yards in Week 8.
But the Broncos will have to take a long look at what went wrong against Indianapolis, as they didn’t just get burned by T.Y. Hilton (five catches for 82 yards), but were similarly scorched by the likes of Griff Whalen (five catches for 73 yards) and gave up touchdowns to Jack Doyle and Ahmad Bradshaw.
Compounding the issue is that DeMarcus Ware left the game with a back injury and did not return, plus the fact that Aqib Talib’s appalling eye gouge on Dwayne Allen will probably warrant a suspension from the league. Von Miller was held without a sack and is on pace to finish with only eight, which would be a career-low for any full season. It’s hard to say if anyone on the Broncos defense had a good game, including star cornerback Chris Harris, who tweeted afterward, “Terrible game by me.”
The Broncos must now look ahead to the second half of their schedule and wonder what kind of team they’re going to be. Not only do they have games against New England and Cincinnati that will likely determine home-field advantage in the AFC, but they have rematches with the Chiefs and Raiders looming, plus a trip to Pittsburgh. This loss to the Colts was probably something they could not afford, as Manning is just 2-5 in his career on the road in the playoffs.
For Indianapolis, they “took control” of the AFC South with their hilarious 4-5 record. Literally any of the four teams in that division can win it with a strong second half, and Indianapolis isn’t necessarily more qualified to do that than any of the other three, considering this is their first win outside of the division all year. Chuck Pagano gets to keep his job for at least two more weeks, as the Colts have a bye in Week 10, but then they go on the road for four of their next six games.
Meanwhile, the Broncos probably aren’t in any danger of losing their division after Oakland fell to 4-4 on Sunday, but are they headed for a number-three seed and a second-round loss in the playoffs? Or can the defense find its footing and bring its best each week? Because Manning won’t be carrying this team to victory anymore.
On Sunday, Manning fell three yards shy of setting the NFL’s all-time passing yardage mark and one victory shy of the most regular-season wins by a quarterback. Both of those records will belong to him eventually, but if Denver wants to give him an opportunity to win his second Super Bowl before riding off into the sunset, then the Broncos need to not only get right, but get right on a regular basis.