As this new year began, even many entrenched optimists had to be wondering how long it might take for the Denver Broncos to escape their ongoing mediocrity. After losing eight of their final 10 games this season, Denver seemed even further removed from legitimate Super Bowl hopes than a year ago when Mike Shanahan rode into the sunset,
Then came Sunday afternoon, and the final game of the NFL playoffs' divisional round, as a different script unfolded on the manicured green grass of San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. (To me it's still Jack Murphy Stadium, named for a revered sportswriter there, before history lost out to corporate sponsorship.)
To the surprise of many, the underdog New York Jets methodically chopped down San Diego, 17-14, ending the 11-game win streak that had many believing the Chargers would make it to the Super Bowl. Instead, San Diego was stifled and exposed, as the Jets controlled both lines of scrimmage and ran the ball with relentless success. They didn't have to lean very much on rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, though he still came through with a handful of clutch throws.
So where are we going with all this? Simple. If you watched any of that upset Sunday, and appreciated how legitimate New York's victory truly was, you also should have noticed something very familiar.
That's because what the Jets did, and how they pulled it off, looked like an inspired replica of what Denver did in handing San Diego its last loss — 34-23, also at Jack Murphy Stadium (yes, I'm stubborn) on Oct. 19.
In retrospect, that was easily the Broncos' best moment of the year. In the final three quarters, they held the Chargers' offense to just two field goals (aside from a kickoff return for a touchdown). They pressured San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers all night, sacking him five times. They allowed the Chargers to convert just 2 of 11 third downs, none in the second half. And they were swarming in the fourth quarter, as the Jets were.
At the same time, Denver's offensive line had the upper hand on San Diego. Runners Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter combined for a decent 90 yards, and quarterback Kyle Orton enjoyed enough time in the pocket to have an excellent game.
Of course, the Broncos didn't maintain that kind of dominance. After whipping San Diego to go 6-0, they took an off week and lost their edge. Meanwhile, the Jets, after struggling to a 4-6 start, found their rhythm and surged to 9-7, followed by playoff road wins at Cincinnati and San Diego.
So perhaps the most important task now for Denver head coach Josh McDaniels is not turning the roster upside-down, but instead figuring out how to turn the Broncos into a fast-finishing team. For some reason, that appears to be the toughest characteristic for McDaniels and his staff to change from Shanahan's final years.
Apparently, McDaniels thinks one essential step is revamping his staff. He allowed longtime, much-respected Denver assistants Bobby Turner and Rick Dennison to leave for Washington and Houston, respectively. And then, after a meeting Monday with McDaniels, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan cleaned out his desk. He's likely to be replaced by former New England coordinator Dean Pees.
Coaching changes aside, don't be surprised to see Denver modeling itself after the Jets. It might show in what kind of trade unfolds for wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who easily could bring an established linebacker or offensive lineman (if not another receiver).
But the guess here is that McDaniels will think defense first in the draft, followed by offensive line. With the 11th pick in the first round, Denver could grab a potential star in Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain or one of two Florida Gators, cornerback Joe Haden or linebacker Brandon Spikes. If the top priority is being more physical on offense, watch for tackles like Trent Williams of Oklahoma or Anthony Davis of Rutgers.
Meanwhile, let's see how much longer the Jets can hold up. If they win Sunday at Indianapolis, Denver might not be the only imitator.