Early in the fourth quarter Sunday at Invesco Field, the Denver Broncos finally appeared to have awakened from their dangerous October slumber.
They had spent most of the day sleepwalking, as sometimes can happen to a team coming off its bye week. They had looked soft on defense, lackluster on offense and generally emotionless all around.
But finally the Broncos had come around in the fourth quarter, scoring a touchdown that cut Miami's lead to 19-17 with 11:10 remaining in regulation. Absolutely no need to panic. No serious pressure on the defense, like three-and-out or else. Just don't let the Dolphins score, get the ball back and let Jay Cutler save the day. Surely Miami would be wearing down at the end, drained by the altitude.
Instead, Denver's defense went into the tank. Couldn't stop a third-and-13. Couldn't stop a fourth-and-1. Couldn't stop the short pass. Couldn't stop the run. Couldn't stop anything. And when Miami's Ronnie Brown strutted into the end zone with 3:08 to play, after a 15-play, 80-yard drive that consumed a full eight minutes (plus two seconds), the Broncos were done. In more ways than one.
Once again, given a chance to build a two-game lead over San Diego in the AFC West, Denver blew it. Once again, with every reason to be motivated, Denver wasn't. Once again, facing an average opponent (lest we forget, Miami was 1-15 last year) that should have wilted in the Mile High atmosphere, instead it was Denver that wilted.
And as the Broncos faced a quick turnaround for their Thursday night (Nov. 6) game at Cleveland, they showed every sign of falling apart. You even have to wonder if the coaching staff, starting with head man Mike Shanahan, already has lost this team. You wonder if the final two months, with five road games and only three more at home, might become a horror movie, worse with each passing week.
Sure, there have been some injuries on defense, most notably that of cornerback Champ Bailey. But not enough to excuse giving up that fourth-quarter drive.
Cutler, it must be said, now looks like a lethargic shell of the budding star he was in September. You even have to wonder if his diabetes might be draining him again, as was the case last year. He even tried to say that throwing an interception on his first pass made it tougher as if he had to get off to a fast, confidence-building start, or else. That's a rookie alibi, not what any established NFL quarterback should say.
All else aside, though, let's talk about the worst sign about Sunday for Denver. It was right there on the final statistical sheet: 12 rushes, 14 yards, 1.2 yards per rush.
That's sick. No, that's disastrous. Especially when, on KOA radio Tuesday morning, injured tight end Tony Scheffler went into detail about how Denver's game plan had been built around "establishing the run first, and then that would open up the pass." In other words, the coaches believed the Broncos could move the ball on the ground, despite the fact all four available running backs (Michael Pittman, Selvin Young, Andre Hall and Ryan Torain) were uncertain enough to be listed as "questionable" on the injury report. Now, Pittman and Hall are gone for the year.
It's even more alarming that the staff made that judgment, counting on the offensive line for a dominating performance, when the line hadn't appeared capable of anything close to that. In fact, if you're looking for Denver's biggest problem at the moment, start with the offensive line's total lack of consistency. Everyone seems to forget that longtime center Tom Nalen meant so much to the offense for so long, making all the last-second adjustment calls just before each snap to keep the blockers on the right page.
When Nalen couldn't come back from his knee problems, Denver banked on veteran Casey Wiegmann, another aging veteran (35) who had started 111 games in a row for Kansas City until the Chiefs gave up on him last offseason, which surely happened for good reason. Whether it's one culprit or many, the center spot has always been vital to Denver's offensive success (or lack of it).
Regardless, the line hasn't had a leader. In fact, neither has the team.
And if the Broncos couldn't beat Miami, at home, in a game that really did matter, it's hard to see them winning many more in the season's second half.