ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The usually even-tempered Champ Bailey admonished his team after an aggravating performance against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
His rebuke was out of frustration and maybe a twinge of fear.
After all, Bailey certainly doesn’t want to experience yet another late-season collapse.
The Denver Broncos are not only chasing their first playoff spot in six seasons, but also fighting recent history.
For the third time in four years, the team has taken an 8-5 record into the final three weeks of the season. Twice before, the Broncos failed to make the postseason.
In 2008, the flop cost Mike Shanahan his job.
And in 2009, it rendered then-coach Josh McDaniels’ team a footnote in NFL history — one of just a handful of squads to start 6-0 and fail to make the playoffs.
Now, the Broncos (8-6) are trying to avoid another December nosedive after a 41-23 loss to the Patriots on Sunday. They’re just a game up on the Oakland Raiders and the suddenly surging San Diego Chargers in the AFC West.
There’s little margin for error anymore.
That’s why Bailey, who’s been around for both downfalls, exhorted his team after Brady carved up a patchwork secondary that was missing the leadership of Brian Dawkins.
“We need to concentrate on getting better. We showed today that we’re not ready to go to the playoffs and make a push,” Bailey said Sunday. “We’ve got to get better and we only have two or three weeks to do it.
“If we don’t, then we’ll be sitting home in the playoffs.”
The task ahead won’t be easy for the Broncos as they travel to Buffalo on short rest before closing out the season against the Kansas City Chiefs and Kyle Orton, who’s eager to keep his former team from the playoffs after they benched him in favor of Tim Tebow and then released him.
“We have to play a whole lot better if we want to win,” said cornerback Andre’ Goodman, who was back in the lineup Sunday after suffering a concussion the week before. “We haven’t played our best football yet, but I think we feel good about the position we’re in, in terms of the division race and right now that’s the only thing we can focus on.”
Denver has been in this position before, only to fall short when a playoff spot looked almost certain.
Under Shanahan in 2008, the Broncos were outscored 112-54 over the final three weeks to finish at 8-8 and miss the postseason. Soon after, Shanahan was fired.
In came McDaniels, who had the team off to a sensational start.
Only they couldn’t sustain the momentum, losing their last four games to become just the third team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to go unbeaten through six games and miss the playoffs, joining the ’78 Redskins and the ’03 Vikings.
However, this version of the Broncos isn’t paying any attention to the past.
“At the end of the day, don’t give up, and just go out there and continue to believe,” linebacker Wesley Woodyard recently said. “That’s something that we have this year. We believe in each other.”
After an impressive six-week winning streak that included four fourth-quarter comebacks, the Broncos fell apart Sunday, exposing weaknesses that hadn’t shown up since October.
— They were a solid ball control offense, turning it over just five times in six games. But they coughed up the ball three times in the second quarter, leading to 13 New England points and costing them the chance to keep up with the prolific Patriots.
— Their defense, so reliable this season, was shredded by Brady & Co., giving up 451 total yards.
— Their special teams faltered as returner Quan Cosby had a critical mistake just before halftime, muffing a punt and setting up a 21-yard field goal by New England. The usually sure-handed Lonie Paxton also had a bad snap on a botched extra point.
“It’s very frustrating. But at the end of the day, it’s just one game,” Goodman said. “I think that’s what we have to take out of it. It’s one game and we’re still in a good position in terms of the division race, and we’re just going to have to learn from this, but be able to move on quickly from an emotional standpoint.”
Overshadowed by the breakdowns and mistakes was this: Tebow turned in one of his finest games. He was solid and steady all afternoon, even staking the team to a quick 16-7 lead. Scoring early has been the Broncos’ Achilles’ heel lately.
Then, the turnovers hit. Lance Ball fumbled. Tebow fumbled. Cosby couldn’t hold onto a punt he never should have tried to catch.
As is his nature, Tebow kept a rosy outlook after the game.
“I definitely feel like we’re all right,” said Tebow, who ran for 93 yards and threw for another 194. “We’re excited about where we’re at, and we’re going to continue to be positive and stay motivated and just try to improve.”
With Dawkins out because of a neck injury, the Broncos had to rely on rookies Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore. That simply opened the door for Brady, who exploited the secondary as he threw for 320 yards and two scores.
“Mentally, we just didn’t play smart enough to win,” Carter said. “Got to play smarter. Can’t make those mistakes.”
Notes: Broncos coach John Fox said Monday there was no update on RB Willis McGahee, who was hampered by a left leg injury against the Patriots. … Asked if Cosby was still his returner, Fox said: “Yeah. I haven’t seen him since the game.”
By PAT GRAHAM, Associated Press
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