Broncos: From near-disaster to a swaggering 1-0 

click to enlarge Denvers Jason Elam (1) celebrates winning kick with - holder Todd Sauerbrun. - GETTY IMAGES
  • Getty Images
  • Denvers Jason Elam (1) celebrates winning kick with holder Todd Sauerbrun.

Two seconds. Tick, tick. Inhale, exhale.

That's how close Denver came to suffering a disastrous defeat Sunday at Buffalo. That's how close the Broncos were to being 0-1 and staggering. Instead, they are 1-0 and swaggering, knowing it'll be 3-0 after they take care of pathetic Oakland this weekend and slow-starting Jacksonville on Sept. 23, both at home.

Surely, you didn't expect to come here and read about how uplifting Denver's lucky 15-14 win truly was. You don't really think escaping Buffalo like that means the Broncos have solved their many problems. Or do you?

If you got caught up briefly in the euphoria, that's fine. Certainly, pulling out a last-second victory on Week 1 is a good way to start the new NFL season. It's also true that, as any coach will confirm, it's better to play poorly and win than to play well and lose.

But until Denver's field-goal unit somehow set up in time for Jason Elam to redeem himself at the end Sunday, the Broncos were staring at an inexcusable defeat. The primary causes were clear: multiple special-teams problems, Elam included, and an offense that couldn't finish drives. As expected, quarterback Jay Cutler mixed nice plays and throws with appalling mistakes.

Clearly the brightest spot for the Broncos was their defense, which played far better than at any point in the preseason. Granted, Buffalo's offense leans on an immature, underachieving quarterback (J.P. Losman) and a rookie runner (Marshawn Lynch) trying to adjust on the fly to the pro game. But the Denver defense took advantage of all that, stopping the run most of the time and putting pressure on Losman. The jury still is out on the linebackers, but at least they didn't make stupid mistakes and blow assignments.

On special teams, in particular the coverage failures that gave Buffalo a punt-return touchdown and a kickoff return that nearly went the distance, breakdowns probably can be attributed to having only five linebackers. For most NFL teams, extra linebackers and defensive backs all trying to earn more playing time form the backbone of those coverage units.

Facing Oakland and Jacksonville the next two Sundays is the perfect recipe for a Denver team that needs plenty of work, repetitions and fundamental development. Beyond those two all-but-assured victories, the Broncos face their first serious tests at Indianapolis on Sept. 30 followed by San Diego at home on Oct. 7.

Later on, Denver has to be ready for playing six of its final nine games on the road at such places as San Diego, Chicago and much-improved Houston and Detroit.

If you saw any of San Diego's opening win against Chicago, you know the Chargers will be hard to stop from cruising to another AFC West title. That leaves Denver, at best, battling for a wild card against the likes of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, Tennessee and the New York Jets. Six teams, two available spots.

Being 1-0, and in all likelihood 3-0, makes that challenge seem less ominous for Bronco Nation. But even against the Raiders and Jaguars, it will be important for Denver to make strides, especially on offense and special teams. Cutler has to stop his occasional Jake Plummer imitations and be able to throw downfield more often with success.

Bottom line: These Broncos are a work in progress. At this point, they do not deserve to be listed among the NFL's top 10 or 12 teams. But the schedule is in their favor, at least for now.

And if you need more doses of reality in weeks to come, the medicine cabinet will be right here.

Tick, tick. Inhale, exhale.

Bits and pieces: In case you missed it, Air Force announced its first Athletic Hall of Fame class to be inducted at an Oct. 19 dinner at The Broadmoor ($75 a ticket, info at goairforcefalcons.com). It includes all-Americans Brock Strom and Chad Hennings from football, Bob Beckel from men's basketball, Michelle Johnson from women's basketball, 1984 Olympic 400-meter champion Alonzo Babers (track) and longtime athletic director Col. John Clune.

Can't argue with those choices. But it's highly unfortunate to have a new event of that stature just five days before the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame dinner, Oct. 24 at the World Arena, with this year's class also including Strom. It's too late for 2007, but Air Force and the Colorado Springs Sports Corp. must sit down and deal with this problem. They can't compete against each other, because if that happens, everyone will lose.

If you watched the Baltimore-Cincinnati NFL game Monday night, you couldn't miss Rick Neuheisel, the former Colorado head coach now serving as the Ravens' quarterbacks coach. We'll see where that leads. ... Speaking of CU, that 33-14 loss at Arizona State exposed the Buffaloes as still rebuilding, with new quarterback Cody Hawkins unable to cover for a shaky running game. Nevertheless, playing Florida State at Boulder on national TV (8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN) is an upset opportunity because the Seminoles aren't that good, either.



Friday night lights Columbine (2-0) at Doherty (1-1), 7 p.m., Berry Stadium, matching two strong 5A teams.

See the headline? Rockies began this week just three games behind in the National League wild-card race.

Remote required Four appealing TV college games, all at 1:30 p.m., Saturday: Tennessee at Florida, CBS; Ohio State at Washington, ESPN; Notre Dame at Michigan, ABC; Texas at Central Florida, ESPN2.

Skipping church Colorado Avalanche's Burgundy-White intrasquad game 11 a.m., Sunday at Air Force's Cadet Ice Arena.

Something different Pro World Racquetball Championship, Wednesday through Sunday at Lynmar Racquet and Health Club, 2660 Vickers Drive.

Ralph's picks

One upset, Air Force at Utah, came through last week, and we saw a 3-2 mark against the spread. Here's the Week 3 batch:

Upset specials

Boston College, 7-point underdog at Georgia Tech

Colorado taking 4 at home against Florida State

Pittsburgh taking 9 at Michigan State

Against the spread

Tennessee (taking 8) at Florida

Notre Dame (taking 8) at Michigan

Wyoming (taking 13) at Boise State

Louisville (giving 7) at Kentucky

Ohio State (giving 4) at Washington


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