ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – The commemorative T-shirts and caps proclaiming the Denver Broncos 2011 AFC West champions sat mostly untouched in the team’s locker room Monday.
After watching replays of their 7-3 loss to Kansas City, the Broncos still weren’t in any mood to celebrate their return to the playoffs after a six-year absence.
“Nah, we’re not excited about that, man,” linebacker Joe Mays said. “It’s like we got the championship by default. You know, you want to be in control of your own destiny, and we don’t feel like we played good enough to actually own up to being division champs.
“We feel we should have at least played good enough to earn being a champion.”
The keepsakes were handed out Monday at the team’s headquarters rather than at the stadium Sunday night after the Broncos backed their way into the postseason party when Oakland lost to San Diego.
“I wasn’t expecting our locker room yesterday to be jubilant by any stretch of the imagination,” coach John Fox said. “I wouldn’t expect it to be any different because they had to watch it over again.
“We’ll have time to get them in the right frame of mind.”
The Broncos (8-8) host the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) next Sunday.
A day after losing to former teammate Kyle Orton and the Chiefs, Tim Tebow walked through the quiet locker room Monday with a big ice pack on his right shoulder and guard Chris Kuper hobbled in on a broken left leg that landed him on injured reserve.
“He’s a real big loss,” rookie right tackle Orlando Franklin said. “He definitely was the bus driver on my side. He was making all the calls, and whatnot. Russ (Hochstein) stepped in and did a good job yesterday.”
The Broncos fortified their line Monday by signing tackle Ryan Harris, who was a three-year starter in Denver from 2007-10. He hurt his back last summer in Philadelphia and reached an injury settlement with the Eagles.
At the film session, captain Brian Dawkins, who’s been sidelined by a neck injury, addressed his teammates with a rare speech.
“The primary message coming from that meeting was that the Kansas City game, it’s gone,” tight end Dante Rosario said. “We watched the tape. We studied it. We need to correct our mistakes in that game to make sure it doesn’t happen this week.”
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard said Dawkins addressed the entire team one other time, when the Broncos stumbled to a 1-4 start and made the switch from Orton to Tebow.
Dawkins’ admonition might be the only way he can contribute in these playoffs. He sat out Sunday and his status for the game this weekend is uncertain.
The Broncos have lots of flaws that require a quick fix. Among them: a stagnant offense led by turnover-prone Tebow and a stalled pass rush stymied by Von Miller‘s injured right thumb.
Tebow, the author of a six-game winning streak and five fourth-quarter comebacks this season, has regressed over the last month. He’s completed 30 of 74 passes (40.5 percent) for 439 yards and one touchdown with four interceptions, three lost fumbles and nine sacks in losses to the Patriots, Bills and Chiefs.
After the first four-turnover game of his career at Buffalo on Christmas Eve, Tebow looked timid Sunday, unwilling to throw in tight spaces. Afterward, he looked shaken over his 6-for-22 passing performance that produced a season-low 60 yards.
“He’s doing the best to help us win and we had a little bit of a struggle yesterday throwing the ball,” Fox said. “That happens sometimes. Credit to the Kansas City Chiefs. They have a pretty good defense.”
Not as good as Pittsburgh’s.
“It’s going to be tough sledding for sure,” Fox said. “They are the No. 1 defense over the regular season in many critical areas, so there won’t be anything easy against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense.”
The Broncos’ strength is their ground game – they led the NFL in rushing and set the franchise single-season rushing mark with 2,632 yards, led by Willis McGahee‘s 1,199 yards and Tebow’s 660.
The Steelers are stout against the run, and with Rashard Mendenhall out and Ben Roethlisberger dealing with a bum left ankle, points are likely going to be at a premium much like they were Sunday, when the Broncos fell to 86-3 when allowing seven or fewer points.
Informed that fans are asking why the Broncos don’t try more short passes and screens, Fox said, “Their frustrations are probably similar to mine.”
As boss, though, Fox could call more of those screens and short passes.
“We do run short passes,” Fox retorted. “They just didn’t go so well. We called long ones, and they didn’t go very well, either.”
When pressed whether that was Tebow’s fault, Fox said there were “a lot of moving parts in the passing game,” and added, “the buck stops here, so you guys can blame me.”
Fox also sidestepped a question whether he’d consider benching Tebow for backup Brady Quinn if the Broncos fall behind Sunday.
“I don’t do well with hypotheticals,” Fox replied. “I anticipate we will play very well this Sunday.”
Fox wouldn’t talk about Tebow’s ailing shoulder, either.
“There are a lot of guys with ice,” Fox said. “That’s what happens when you play a physical football game for three hours.”
“Crazy things can happen, big things can happen for an underdog,” safety David Bruton said. “We saw the Packers do it last year when they were the underdog. So, we could definitely turn the tide and ride a wave through the playoffs.”
Notes: Fox implored Broncos season ticket holders not to sell their playoff tickets to Steelers fans so the home stadium doesn’t turn into a sea of black and gold. … The Broncos’ leading WR was Eric Decker with just 44 catches for 612 yards. Not since the strike-shortened `82 season did a receiver lead the team with fewer yards.
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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