By Rich Kurtzman
The special season that had a chance to be spectacular came to a bitter end Saturday night.
Denver was supposed to beat Baltimore, at home, with elite quarterback Peyton Manning at the helm all while coming off the bye. But the Broncos’ entire team committed blunders and the team was beaten in double overtime. There’s no way to pin the loss on one player, as nearly everyone on the field had a hand in the poorest play we’ve seen out of the team from the Mile High City all season long.
Way back when the replacements were still reffing the games, Denver actually started the year 2-3. Those losses, to arguably the best three teams in football – Atlanta, Houston and New England – were supposed to harden the team, while teaching them lessons.
Manning’s three interceptions – along with a Knowshon Moreno fumble – buried the Broncos in a hole too deep to dig out of versus the Falcons. Against the Texans, Denver’s defensive backfield was burned repeatedly and gave up a season-high 284 passing yards. And in New England a couple weeks later, they allowed the Patriots to run for 251 yards and three touchdowns – each were season-highs against the Broncos.
The game in San Diego will go down as one of the most memorable in Broncos history, as they proceeded to come back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to score 35 straight points and win 35-24. Everything came together in that game. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil were devastating, hitting Philip Rivers repeatedly, forcing fumbles and interceptions – six turnovers by San Diego in the contest. Second-year cornerbacks Tony Carter and Chris Harris each scored defensive touchdowns, while Manning threw three of his own.
A few things became clear on that Monday Night in Week Six, just before the Broncos bye; Manning had earned his teammates’ respect and taught them his offense in a quick way, and maybe most importantly, the defense could be dominant.
For the next 10 straight weeks, Denver won by at least seven points with Manning’s marvelous passing and the defense not only slowing down opponents’ run games, but attacking the quarterback for a league leading 52 sacks. They won in many different ways, but mostly, buy having the most complete team in the NFL with a top-five offense and defense in terms of both scoring and yards.
On Saturday, it seemed as though all those lessons, all those wins – 11 straight to end the season and 13 overall – were all for naught as the Broncos just weren’t themselves in the Divisional Round playoff game against the Ravens.
Manning and the offense weren’t awesome, he turned the ball over three times – just like in Atlanta – and every turnover led to points for Baltimore. Champ Bailey was burned twice by Torrey Smith in the first half, allowing Baltimore to tie the game up at 21 before the break. Rahim Moore’s jaw-droppingly bad coverage of Jacoby Jones near the end of the fourth quarter will live on in infamy for any Broncos fan that was subject to it, while John Fox’s decisions to run on third and seven and then kneel with 31 seconds on the clock and two timeouts were far too conservative to win in the postseason. And for a team that executed well all year long, Denver racked up 10 total penalties for 87 yards.
The final play of Denver’s season was a microcosm of their final loss; Manning dropped back, was rushed and rolled to his right, only to make a rookie mistake and throw across his body into tight coverage for the interception that basically ended the year.
All season long, the Broncos made the right plays at the right times, capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes to humiliate them in blowouts.
But Denver couldn’t win when it mattered most, despite the home field advantage and first round bye; now they’re left wondering what could have been.
It was the most disappointing end to a season since 1996, when the 13-3 Broncos lost to Jacksonville in Mile High Stadium. Of course, if these Broncos can win the next two Super Bowls, 2012 will be forgotten and forgiven.
For more Local Football Bloggers and the latest Broncos news, see CBS Sports Denver.
Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Find more of Rich’s Denver Broncos pieces on Examiner.com.