Reality arrived Sunday afternoon for the Denver Broncos. They ran head-first into New England, a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and after one idyllic quarter, they discovered some painful truths.
First and foremost, this idea of a storybook season might have been nice, but it ain't happening. Sure, the Broncos looked like world-beaters for a while Sunday, but then came the turnovers, the mistakes and the 41-23 loss.
We saw that Denver's defense — after being so lucky in facing teams with major injuries and either slumping, backup or rookie quarterbacks — still can't stop a sophisticated passing game, especially backed by a solid ground attack.
We saw that quarterback Tim Tebow, while making progress, still hasn't reached the point of being able to beat the NFL's truly elite teams. And the offense as a whole won't go far unless runner Willis McGahee (hampered by a nagging hamstring problem Sunday) is full speed.
But the Broncos have come too far this season to fold their tent now, since they still are leading the AFC West.
At 8-6, they face two more games, both certainly winnable: at Buffalo on Saturday, then at home against Kansas City on Jan. 1. Meanwhile, surging San Diego (7-7) finishes with trips to Detroit and Oakland, while Oakland (7-7) goes to Kansas City before hosting San Diego. Kansas City, still barely alive at 6-8 after knocking off Green Bay, hosts Oakland before going to Denver.
Having so many division games at the end — which the NFL did on purpose with this year's schedule — makes the situation more complicated, but also more interesting.
Certainly, San Diego is playing better than anybody, as evidenced by that whipping of Baltimore on Sunday night. Even with those two road games, the Chargers should finish 9-7, which means the Raiders could be no better than 8-8.
Denver's road to a division title looks like this: Win the last two games, and nothing else matters; lose to Buffalo but beat Kansas City, and the tiebreakers look favorable; beat Buffalo but lose to the Chiefs, and that could be troublesome. Why? Because the Broncos are 3-2 inside the division, while the Chargers are 2-3. So the finale against Kansas City — and, that's right, Kyle Orton — means more.
For the record, there is one set of circumstances, unlikely but possible, by which Denver could wrap up the division on Christmas Eve. That would be the Broncos (favored by a field goal) beating Buffalo, with the Chargers and Raiders losing.
Most likely, though, the Chargers will force Denver to sweat for the AFC West title. In other words, after being humbled by New England, the Broncos now have to prove themselves by showing how they can bounce back.
For a lot of teams, the end of a lengthy winning streak damages the players' equilibrium. This is where Tebow's leadership, McGahee's availability and the defense's resiliency will make a difference. You'd have to figure McGahee wants to play at Buffalo, because he started his career there before being traded to Baltimore. Tebow and the offense have to avoid turnovers, which had much to do with their unraveling against the Patriots.
Let's put it this way: Given how far the Broncos have come this year, a lot of people now expect them — and, of course, Tebow after being coached through the months ahead — to be much better next year. But if that's a realistic prediction, Denver needs to prove it now. Beat the Bills and dispose of Orton and the Chiefs, finish 10-6, win the AFC West and perhaps even a playoff home game before making an honorable exit.
That would be the best setup for a superlative 2012. Anything less, and we'll go into the offseason wondering if that six-game winning streak was a fluke.