BUFFALO, New York (CBS4)- The Broncos long-shot hopes of a playoff berth were all but finished by Sunday’s 27-23 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. For Vic Fangio’s squad, the game followed an eerily familiar script that has played out all season. Get out to a lead, lose steam on offense, and consequently, lose the game once the defense appears too tired to slow the opposing offense. Rinse, lather, repeat.
In their seven losses this season, the Broncos have held a second-half lead in four of them. Against the Bears, they allowed a late Mitch Trubisky drive into field goal territory and subsequently saw the winning kick booted through the uprights. Against the Jaguars, they managed just seven second-half points after taking a 17-6 lead into the break. In Indianapolis, it was a 13-3 lead with 11:38 to go in the third quarter that evaporated into a 15-13 loss. And finally, this past Sunday, a 20-0 half-time advantage saw the Broncos score just three points the rest of the way while allowing 27.
There are plenty of reasons to excuse the losses to be sure. The team is now playing with a backup quarterback that had never thrown a regular season pass prior to two weeks ago. They traded their top wide receiver, Emmanuel Sanders, prior to the deadline. But, overall, even with those issues and injuries on the offensive side of the ball, the second half disappearing act by the offense is concerning.
“When you think about losing leads in the second half, teams make half-time adjustments and you know that, but one of the problems that Denver has is they don’t score enough points on offense and the defense tends to be on the field for long periods of time,” said NFL On CBS analyst London Fletcher. “It’s a new coaching staff, you’re starting a young quarterback now but the main problem is they’re not scoring enough points and in the second half in particular they’re not producing enough points. The defense is then getting worn down a little bit and giving up a big play here and there.”
The team is averaging just seven points in the second half of games this season, and if you take out the early comeback attempts against the Raiders and Bears, that number drops to 5.1. For whatever reason, those half-time adjustments haven’t clicked for Denver in either wins or losses to this point. Now, as the team looks to affect the playoff picture from the outside, they head to Buffalo to face the 7-3 Bills.
Buffalo’s defense has been one of the league’s best, allowing just 17 points and 304 yards per game. Not an ideal matchup for a floundering offense. But, the good news is, there has been a weakness exposed in that Bills front, one that could play to the Broncos favor.
“I want to see if they’re going to commit to running the football. You look at Buffalo, and teams have been able to run the ball against them lately,” said Fletcher.
Aside from last week’s throttling of Kalen Ballage and the stagnant Dolphins running game (23 yards on 13 carries), the Bills had given up over 100 yards rushing to each of their last five opponents. That includes the similarly dreadful Washington Redskins, who saw 34-year-old Adrian Peterson carry the ball 18 times for 108 yards.
The Broncos running game, with backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman combining for 1,056 yards and seven touchdowns, has been solid, ranking right in the middle of the pack in yards per game (113.1). For Fletcher, the key to pulling off an upset in Buffalo will be the success of the running game.
“If you want to give Denver their best chance of keeping the game close and possibly going in there and coming out with an upset, they are going to have to be able to run the football,” said Fletcher. “Give Phillip Lindsay some more carries. He is an explosive back, and he can make plays as not only a runner but as a receiver. Find ways to get him the football to give yourself an opportunity.”
That is particularly important against a Buffalo defense that is stingy in the passing game, allowing opposing QBs to complete just 63 percent of their passes for an average of 197.8 yards per game. Oddsmakers are giving the Broncos a chance in this one, with the Bills entering as just four-point favorites at home. Controlling the game on the ground looks to be even more important Sunday with a weather forecast currently calling for some light snow.
The Broncos and Bills kick off from New Era Field in Buffalo, NY at 11:00 a.m. Mountain Time on CBS.