Too little, too late for Broncos 

If you're among the incurable diehards still clinging to hope for the Denver Broncos this season, especially after that 41-7 blowout of Kansas City, here's a piece of advice.

Give it up. Now.

There's nothing for the Broncos to feel good about, sitting at 6-7, two games behind San Diego in the AFC Worst with three weeks to go, and remembering the ones that got away:

Green Bay, the Monday night overtime loss at home to Brett Favre. Chicago, blowing that 14-point lead in the final minutes, then losing in OT to ... Rex Grossman. Oakland, coming out flat and losing 34-20 (to Josh McCown?) in a game that still really mattered.

Turn around two of those three failures, and today Denver would be 8-5, sharing the division lead with the Chargers, still in the wild-card hunt as a backup plan.

Regardless, the Broncos have little reason to expect much in their final three games: Thursday night at Houston, which just pounded NFC South leader Tampa Bay; Christmas Eve (Monday night, Dec. 24) at San Diego, which thumped the Broncos 41-3 earlier at Denver; and the final Sunday, Dec. 30, at home against resurgent Minnesota, which likely will end up as an NFC wild-card entrant.

That looks like 8-8 at the absolute best, more likely 7-9. And don't be surprised at 6-10.

Not good enough. Not even close. Not for a franchise that was one game from the Super Bowl just two years ago, and should have made the playoffs in 2006 until that awful season-ending swan dive against San Francisco.

So there's no sense in waiting until the bitter end to start asking (and answering) questions, or passing judgment on the Broncos looking ahead to 2008.

What went wrong? Start with the defense and injuries to key team leaders.

The defense was suspect from the start, even in preseason. As early as mid-August, you read here that the linebacker corps looked woefully inadequate, with D.J. Williams not a good enough leader or star to replace Al Wilson in the middle. Then came the slow and poor adjustment to new defensive coordinator Jim Bates' system, and several disappointments among the down linemen (Ebenezer Ekuban's season-ending injury, and the insufficient play of Gerard Warren, Simeon Rice and Sam Adams).

Add to that the persistent injuries to receiver Rod Smith and safety John Lynch, the team's best on-field leaders; losing Pro Bowl center Tom Nalen, as well as Ekuban, for the season; and not having top receiver Javon Walker for a long stretch.

That was enough to make the Broncos exasperatingly inconsistent, and incapable of finishing off several games they badly needed to win (Green Bay and Chicago, in particular).

How much blame will fall on Jay Cutler? Probably more than he deserves.

Obviously, head coach Mike Shanahan had high expectations for his second-year quarterback, but not based on this scenario. Cutler had to come through as the quarterback, but realistically he wasn't ready to assume an Elway-esque leadership role in the offensive huddle. That was for others such as Smith, Nalen and Walker, nurturing Cutler along the way.

Unfortunately for Denver, Cutler hasn't been the hoped-for steady playmaker, and he couldn't shoulder the extra load caused by others' absence. But it's too early to say he's blown his big chance. Obviously, Shanahan rolled the dice in many ways this season, and the gambles didn't pay off. Cutler will have another shot next year, with more maturity and a much better idea of what to expect.

After all, lest we forget, John Elway didn't take Denver to the Super Bowl until his fourth NFL season.

Jay Cutler deserves at least that long.

Bits and pieces: Bad news for Air Force football fans Navy wasted no time replacing head coach Paul Johnson, who left for Georgia Tech. The new head man for the Middies, Ken Niumatalolo, has spent years running and believing in the same offense that Navy has run so successfully in recent years. Also, Niumatalolo won't have to worry about finding a quarterback, with Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada returning for his senior season in 2008. Niumatalolo will coach the Middies in their bowl game Dec. 20 at San Diego against Utah, which looks to be one of the better postseason matchups. ... Navy will play at Air Force next October.

Don't fret much over the Colorado Rockies losing relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins to free agency. As much as the Rockies leaned on their bullpen from mid-September through the World Series, many of those arms probably won't be as dependable in 2008, anyway. ... Good news for the Rockies, successfully bringing back starting pitcher Aaron Cook, who will be 29 next season. Cook's return from a strained side muscle to pitch Game 4 against Boston (six innings, three runs) helped his stock immensely.

Don't plan on watching any live college hockey around Colorado Springs until Jan. 11-12. Air Force, which has the next three weeks off, won't play again at home until that weekend against RIT. Colorado College plays at St. Cloud on Friday-Saturday before its two-week break, but also won't have another home series until Jan. 11-12 against Alaska-Anchorage.


Hear the news? St. Louis shortstop David Eckstein talking to Colorado, might move to second base.
Vick's future Will Michael Vick play football again? Absolutely. Perfect fit for Oakland.
Early optimism Pro Bowl is Feb. 10, but AFC already is an 11-point favorite over NFC.
People's choice Sports Illustrated online poll says Southern Cal should play Oklahoma for national title.

Until the college bowls come in earnest, here are some NFL guesses:
Upset specials
Miami (taking 3) vs. Baltimore
Buffalo (taking 5) at Cleveland
St. Louis (taking 9) vs. Green Bay
Against the spread
New York Jets (taking 24) at New England
Houston (giving 1) vs. Denver
Indianapolis (giving 10) at Oakland
San Diego (giving 10) vs. Detroit
Jacksonville (taking 4) at Pittsburgh


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