The Denver Broncos suffered their third loss of the season in Week 15.
The San Diego Chargers came to Sports Authority Field at Mile High and beat the Broncos by a score of 27-20.
The Chargers dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for nearly 40 minutes. They were able to hang onto the ball that long because of a strong ground game.
Running back Ryan Mathews became the first player in 2013 to have over 100 yards rushing against the Broncos. The Chargers played great defense against Peyton Manning and the high-powered offense by keeping them on the sidelines.
With Manning spending most of his time off the field, the Broncos offense was unable to get into a rhythm. This season they have been slow to jump start the offense. They essentially never got a chance to get going against the Chargers because they didn’t have the ball that much.
When they did have the ball, the Broncos had little success running the ball.
Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball just couldn’t get on the right track. The team totaled 11 carries for 18 yards.
The Broncos were playing without Wes Welker, and he certainly was missed.
Without Welker, the team decided to use Eric Decker in the slot with Andre Caldwell on the outside. Decker and Demaryius Thomas didn’t do much. However, Caldwell finished the game as the team’s leading receiver with six catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns.
Broncos head coach John Fox talked after the game about how the team responded without Welker in the lineup. “I’m not going to make excuses. We’ve dealt with injuries all year, fortunately I think we’re 11-3, so we did better 11 of the times than three of the times. That’s what it is. We’ll learn from it and move on.”
Tight end Julius Thomas had a decent night, but did let a critical third-down pass hit the ground incomplete. These types of plays are especially critical when the team doesn’t get to possess the ball much.
The Broncos made several mistakes on Thursday night, most on the defensive side of the ball.
On a key fourth down, linebacker Nate Irving jumped offsides, and the penalty gave the Chargers a first down. The Broncos were also flagged for 12 men on the field not once, but twice!
The communication problems were out of character for this defense.
Rookie Kayvon Webster was responsible for several big plays by the Chargers offense.
He talked after the game about getting flagged for one of the 12 men on the field penalties. “What happened was I was trying to go substitute for [CB] Quentin Jammer and I got caught on the field. (I just need) to learn from my mistakes.”
Playing as the team’s third cornerback, Webster was picked on by quarterback Philip Rivers most of the night.
Starting cornerback Chris Harris commented on the defensive breakdowns in the secondary. “We know teams and how they’re going to try to attack us. They’re not really going to mess with me and [CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie] ‘Jit’ all the time. We know that whoever that third corner is they’ve got to hold up. That’s something that I’ll continue to be in [CB Kayvon Webster] ‘K-Webb’s’ ear to be able to lift him up and give him confidence so we can continue to get better.”
Even with the loss on Thursday night, the Broncos still control their playoff destiny.
With that pick, the Texans should take a franchise quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville). Their current quarterback Case Keenum is just trying to play out the season and show his value as a reserve player.
This looks like an easy win for the Broncos.
However, things are never that simple in the NFL. The Broncos got their wake up call against the Chargers. It’s doubtful they fall asleep at the wheel again this week.
Even though they are tied with the Chiefs with an 11-3 record, the Broncos are still sitting atop the AFC West. They’ve beaten the Chiefs twice this year, so the chances of losing their hold on the division are slim.
The Chiefs were able to absolutely hammer the Raiders 56-31 in Week 15. The engine of their offense was once again running back Jamaal Charles. The dynamic back finished the game against the Raiders with 195 yards receiving and five touchdowns.
Coming up next for the Chiefs are the Indianapolis Colts.
The two will likely face each other in the first week of the playoffs. They may not want to show their hand much this week either offensively or defensively.
The Chargers moved to a .500 record with their victory against the Broncos. They have two more home games left this season, and both opponents are from the division.
This week the Chargers get their turn to take out the Raiders. They should be able to score in bunches against the weak Oakland defense.
The Raiders now have double-digit losses this year.
Reports have now surfaced that head coach Dennis Allen may be on the hot seat. There’s a chance the team could choose to move on from Allen after the season is over.
This team is in turmoil, and they have to rebuild the rebuilding process that was already in place.
The Broncos need some time to get healthy.
They have a few key injuries this week, and there’s no clarity on when certain players will be ready to get back on the football field.
Last Friday, Fox spoke about their injury situation. “Long after I met with you guys last night there was a development injury-wise on [CB] Kayvon Webster. He fractured his right thumb. It’s not season-ending, he’s actually have surgery this afternoon. It’s actually very similar to the [LB] Von Miller injury a couple of years ago. So he will be day-to-day once he recoups from surgery. Really no update on [WR] Wes [Welker], he’s still working through the [concussion] protocol. Obviously his health is No. 1 in our concerns. He has not been cleared yet; we’ll keep you updated on that.”
Welker did not practice on Monday, and he will have to pass the NFL’s protocol for dealing with concussions before he’s cleared to play. The team will be cautious with Welker as he comes back from his second concussion of the year.
The Broncos want Welker available for the playoffs.
They won’t rush him back until he’s ready to go. If he can practice Friday, then perhaps Welker could get eased back in the lineup against the Texans in Week 16.
The team is still going to be without Derek Wolfe as he deals with this mysterious illness. There’s no real update to provide because information on his condition is sparse.
Webster is going to miss at least this week due to thumb surgery that he had last Friday. The rookie’s surgery is not season-ending, but he may not be available to play until the playoffs.
What Must Improve
The blemishes are quite clear for the Broncos right now. Before their first playoff game, they must work hard to clean up these problems.
The defense has to clean up their mistakes.
They can’t have stupid penalties that extend an opponents’ drive. The Broncos need to regain their composure and start playing with increased discipline.
The run defense has to start playing better.
They began the season as a tough run defense, but a few cracks have emerged in recent weeks. The loss of defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson is felt in a big way every week. The team is soft up the middle, and they need to change that.
The pressure is now on rookie first-round pick Sylvester Williams.
He has to use his limited experience and film study to start playing better. He has the work ethic, functional strength and hustle to be a quality pro. Williams will need to call on this natural ability and starting playing better.
The Broncos also need to figure out the linebacker situation quickly. Wesley Woodyard hasn’t looked the same since a neck stinger he suffered in Week 5 against the Dallas Cowboys.
The team has used Paris Lenon more over the last few games to no avail.
Lenon is out of position, slow and late to most plays. The Broncos need Woodyard to regain his full strength so he can start playing at his normal level again.
The linebackers still struggle in coverage.
This problem will be fully accentuated when (if) the team plays an opponent with an elite tight end.
Since the Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski, the Broncos may not face a player of that caliber during the postseason. This doesn’t mean that the Broncos are in the clear. Coverage is an ongoing puzzle for the linebackers, and the Broncos need to do their best to improve that area.
The secondary has to play better as well, specifically in nickel or dime packages. If the team could get Champ Bailey back near full strength that would greatly improve what they do defensively.
Without Webster in the lineup, perhaps we’ll see more from veteran Tony Carter.
He’s a gambler who likes to take chances in coverage. Carter can get burned, but he can also make impact plays that Webster just wasn’t making. He also has the confidence that Webster has lost.
As you can see, most of the Broncos' problems are on the defensive side of the ball. However, there is one issue the team could clean up offensively.
The Broncos need to get into a rhythm quicker on offense. If opponents try to slow down the game and keep Manning on the sidelines, then Denver will have to be more precise with every opportunity.
They had about 40 fewer offensive snaps against the Chargers than they did against the Titans just four days prior. The Broncos need to put pressure on opponents by scoring their average of 38.2 points per game.
This scoring pressure will cause an opponent to become one-dimensional on offense.
This in turn will help the Broncos defense tremendously. Opponents will have to abandon the ground game when they are down by around 10 points. This means the Broncos defense can go after the quarterback and take more chances defensively to get pressure.
The Broncos are far from perfect, but they are arguably still the best team in the game today.
The Broncos have to shake off the loss to the Chargers. Despite their losing effort, the team is still in control of their playoff destiny.
So long as they win their final two regular season games, they will win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
If the Broncos want to get past these next two inferior opponents, they must play with more discipline. Stupid penalties and mental mistakes are not acceptable for a team with Super Bowl hopes.
The Broncos need to get back to running the football effectively. Establishing the run will help set up play-action passing, and it will boost the entire offense.
Defensively, the team needs to get back to stopping the run effectively.
The Texans, and any future opponent, will try the game plan the Chargers used to near perfection in Week 15. The defense must stop opponents quickly to get the ball back to their high-powered offense.
The Broncos should be able to get back on the winning track against the Texans in Week 16.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.