Broncos still on track 

End Zone

For more than a week now, the Denver Broncos and their kingdom have reveled in that crazy second-half comeback victory at San Diego, seen by ESPN's Monday night national audience.

Everyone acts as though that outcome was totally unexpected, beating the mighty Chargers on their home turf, especially after being down 24-0 at the half. And after that, suddenly, the masses believe that Denver may never lose again, that Peyton Manning is on his way to another MVP season — and we'll all live happily ever after.

That must mean it's time for a little reality check. So let's get to it.

First, if you remember this column from Sept. 5 (and more than a few apparently do, because I've been hearing about it), nothing about Denver's season so far has been a shock. That's because you read it here first.

Pardon a little boasting, but my game-by-game predictions pegged the Broncos at 3-3 entering their bye week. Not only that, but every game has followed the forecast: Denver beating Pittsburgh, losing to Atlanta and Houston, whipping Oakland, falling at New England, then knocking off the Chargers.

The projected synopsis for that visit to San Diego said this: "Back on Monday night, with Philip Rivers psyched to dismantle Denver. But he also has laid some eggs in this rivalry. Broncos, 26-23."

The actual score would have been 28-24, of course, until Rivers made the Chargers' self-destruction worse with a pick-six interception in the final minutes. So yes, even two months ago, it was easy to see that game coming.

All you had to do was think back to Denver's last prime-time date in San Diego, on Oct. 19, 2009. That was the night when Eddie Royal (then with Denver) returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the first half, before Rivers imploded in the second half. Scoring the game's final 17 points, the Broncos turned a 23-17 deficit into a 34-23 victory.

We know for sure now that Rivers, despite so much promise, never will be a championship quarterback. We also know that the Chargers lost this latest game far more than Denver won it.

For the record, that preseason prediction beginning at 3-3 had the Broncos surging after this bye week to an 11-5 finish and the AFC West title. It probably won't happen exactly that way, but the remaining losses from this view were Nov. 11 at Carolina and Dec. 16 at Baltimore. Given that both the Panthers and Ravens are facing lots of injuries and/or adversity, Denver actually could win those road games. And with the rest of the schedule looking less than ominous, the Broncos truly could make a serious run now.

But it's not guaranteed. I see four concerns that still could derail Denver.

Run defense. The Broncos' linebackers still aren't making enough plays against good opponents. Keith Brooking, at 37, has brought savvy and fresh spirit, but Denver ranks 20th in run defense, which must improve.

Special teams. Too many mistakes, too many mental errors. Those early kick-return fumbles on Oct. 15 would've been fatal if not for Rivers disintegrating and Manning awakening the offense. Special teams have to be an asset, not a liability, for Denver to go far.

Pass protection. Manning has been hit too much, and losing center J.D. Walton (broken ankle) didn't help. Veteran pickup Dan Koppen has stepped in adequately, but can he hold up?

Ronnie Hillman. Denver needs another dimension to its offense, and the rookie runner could provide that. But he hasn't so far, just showing flashes of potential. If he can come on in November and December, taking some of the load off Willis McGahee, that could make a huge difference.

We'll see how long September's prognostication holds true. But if most or all those concerns melt away, Orange Nation should enjoy the remaining 10 games — and perhaps beyond.



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