The 2012 Denver Broncos had their season ended by the eventual AFC champion Baltimore Ravens a couple of weeks ago in a heartbreaking double-overtime loss at Mile High. The Broncos entered the game as 10-point favorites and there was little doubt that they would move on to the AFC Championship game.
And then the game actually happened.
The Broncos and Ravens were neck-and-neck throughout with the Broncos controlling the contest late. Denver was up 35-28 with a little over a minute remaining with the Ravens needing to drive 79 yards down the field to force overtime.
You know what happened after that.
In the most unlikely of scenarios, Joe Flacco completed a 70-yard-touchdown pass in a badly misplayed sequence by the Broncos defense.
The rest is history.
The Broncos enter the offseason wondering what could have been. Having wasted a 13-3 season and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the 2013 team needs to improve in a few areas if they want to make sure that the same result does not happen again next year.
Here are four areas Denver needs to improve upon entering next season.
Willis McGahee will be 32 years old this year, and although he was having a solid season up until his eventual season-ending injury in Week 11 versus the San Diego Chargers, the question remains, "Should the Broncos keep McGahee?"
Willis is under contract next season at a contract figure of $2.5 million. Knowshon Moreno—who took over the starting RB job after McGahee went down—is a free agent. Ronnie Hillman and Lance Ball are currently under contract for next season.
After McGahee went down, the Broncos' running attack was OK, but nothing spectacular. Moreno got the job done, even being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 15 after the Broncos' 34-17 victory over the Ravens which saw Knowshon run for 115 yards and a touchdown.
However, he averaged just 3.8 yards a carry overall in 2012.
Before suffering an injury which put him out of the divisional playoff game, Moreno had rushed for just 32 yards on 10 carries.
Expect Moreno to be re-signed for next season, and Hillman to be back in a slightly larger role as Denver's change-of-pace back. Ball won't be back and McGahee could be back depending upon his salary demands. If the Broncos can re-structure to a small cap figure on McGahee's contract, expect to see him in the Denver backfield next year.
The Broncos should re-sign Moreno, utilize Hillman as the change-of-pace back and select a running back in the 2013 NFL Draft to replace the soon-to-be 32-year-old McGahee.
The Broncos need more consistency out of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
It's odd that I'm making a statement about two receivers who both had 1,000-yard seasons in 2012 needing to show more consistency, but that is the case here.
Although Decker and Thomas improved upon their dropped passes woes as the season progressed, they still need to be seen in big games.
Yes, the Broncos had many problems in their playoff loss to Baltimore. Peyton Manning did not have a good game. Rahim Moore had one of the biggest blunders in NFL history on Jacoby Jones' touchdown catch. The pass rush was non-existent.
Lost in the entire "blame game," was the receiving core's lack of production.
When you look at the scoreboard and you see that Denver scored 35 points, you think to yourself, "man, the offense must have played pretty well that day."
Well, don't judge a book by it's cover.
Two of those touchdowns were scored by special teams player Trindon Holliday. The Broncos offense scored 21 points on the day, in comparison to the 31 points put up by the Flacco-led Ravens offense (one touchdown was scored by an INT return for a touchdown).
Decker had an OK game, with six receptions for 84 yards, but no touchdowns on the day. Thomas had three receptions for 37 yards and a touchdown.
More should be expected out of your 1,000-yard receivers in a playoff game.
The passing game was slowed down by Baltimore's defense, and whether it was due to Manning's inability to throw the deep ball, or Decker and Thomas's inability to get open, the Broncos had no big passing plays on the day—unlike Flacco and Baltimore's offense.
Manning needed 43 attempts to get to 290 yards. Flacco needed 34 attempts to get to 331 yards. You do the math.
The Broncos need more big-time production from their big-time receivers in big-time games.
The Broncos ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed, second in yards allowed and third in both rushing and passing yards allowed.
So why should the Broncos improve on defense because of one game? Why should the Broncos worry so much over a unit that was just as consistent as the No. 2 ranked offense throughout the 2012 season?
Because this defense always falters against big-time quarterbacks in big-time games.
There were many factors for this. The pass rush disappeared. Flacco had all of the time in the world, being sacked just once throughout the game. Von Miller was shut down. The defensive backfield could not keep up with Baltimore's receivers. Even the great Champ Bailey was burned twice in the first half by Torrey Smith for touchdowns.
But the main point still remains—this defense struggles against big-time quarterbacks in big-time games. Especially the playoffs.
Remember when Rodgers had six total touchdowns versus Denver's defense in 2011? Remember when Tom Brady had six passing touchdowns in Foxboro in the divisional playoffs with almost one full half remaining? Remember when Flacco outplayed Peyton Manning and completed a 70-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 35-35 with a little over 30 seconds remaining in regulation?
The personnel is good enough to get it done in the regular season against cupcake opponents.
However, this defense crumbles against elite quarterbacks when games matter.
Something needs to change.
Yeah, I realize that people are hesitant to blame Peyton Manning. I realize that he's largely immune from criticism for a variety of reasons. He's the greatest regular-season quarterback of all time. He's the only four-time NFL MVP in history. He made the Broncos into a legit contending team. He's a great actor. He's a down-to-earth guy.
However, the Broncos win as a team. The Broncos also lose as a team. This was never more evident than in the game against the Ravens because you couldn't just pinpoint one guy for the loss. It was the entire team that lost the game.
Having said that, Manning gets a lot of credit for the Broncos' success this year. And rightfully so. Pundits and fans like to give a large amount of the credit of a team's success to the quarterback. It's nothing new, it's been going on for years.
But if you're going to give a player credit for the team's success, you also have to give blame to said player when the team loses.
Let's be honest—Manning did not have a good game. He led the offense to three touchdowns, with the special teams scoring two touchdowns. He turned the ball over three times and had what ended up being the game-losing interception on an absolutely terrible throw that I've never seen Manning make throughout all of his years as an NFL quarterback.
He is 9-11 as a postseason quarterback, which is the most losses for a quarterback in postseason history.
You can continue to blame everyone else but Manning. The conservative coaching by John Fox (it was conservative), Rahim Moore badly misplaying the Jacoby Jones touchdown (he did), Champ Bailey being burned by Torrey Smith (he was) or the front seven not forcing any pressure whatsoever on Flacco (they didn't).
But Manning was one of the many reasons for the Broncos not winning this game. He couldn't throw the deep pass worth a lick. Even his completed pass to Brandon Stokley in overtime towards the sidelines was a lame duck pass saved by a great effort from Stokley.
Whatever the reason, Manning does not play nearly as well in the postseason as he does in the regular season. Three turnovers won't cut it in a playoff game against a playoff team.
The great quarterbacks rise to the occasion and improve their play in the postseason. It usually leads to championship success.
Peyton does not, and until he does, his teams will continue to fall short of the ultimate goal—a Super Bowl.