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Don't bury the Broncos yet

End Zone



As anyone who follows the Denver Broncos has realized by now, this 2009 season has reaffirmed that things are never as good, or as bad, as they seem.

That's been the case every month, as Denver's unpredictable ride has gone from 6-0 to 6-4 to 8-4 and now 8-6 with a chance of missing the playoffs. This week, fans and media alike are grousing in anger, unable to comprehend the Broncos' painful 20-19 home loss Sunday to the lowly Oakland Raiders.

They all seem to have forgotten that the Raiders, these Raiders, previously had beaten two division leaders — Philadelphia and Cincinnati — and also knocked off Pittsburgh, on the road, just two weeks earlier. They've been awful at other times, but any team that wins on the Steelers' turf in December has a chance at Invesco Field.

Something else that got lost in the euphoria of that 6-0 start: Denver hasn't been to the playoffs since 2005, and breaking the bad habits that led to Mike Shanahan's dismissal after last season has taken more time than many were thinking back in October. Shanahan's final three teams were notorious for running out of gas, physically and mentally, in the final month.

Think back to all the disastrous late losses — Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game of January 2006 (after that 2005 season), San Francisco in the 2006 finale, Oakland and Houston in December 2007, Buffalo and Carolina before the total collapse at San Diego in 2008.

What happened Sunday against Oakland wasn't worse than any of those others. It simply showed several of Denver's most glaring weaknesses at the worst possible moment, confirming again that the Broncos really were lucky in those first six weeks, when their defense was fresher and their opponents always were just a little off their best.

Now the Broncos suddenly are looking at finishing 9-7 (losing at Philadelphia, then beating Kansas City on the final weekend) and missing the postseason because of their earlier losses to Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Then again, the Steelers have to beat Baltimore at home and Miami on the road to reach 9-7, so don't be surprised if Denver still squeezes into the AFC's final wild-card spot, which would be a fitting outcome for head coach Josh McDaniels in his first season. In fact, McDaniels and his staff still have time to work on a few imperfections that have plagued the Broncos:

• Red-zone offense. All those threats, leading to all those field goals. Especially inside the 5-yard line, Denver simply hasn't called the right plays for its available personnel. You begin to wonder if opponents have too much of an idea now of what to expect. Looking to the future, McDaniels needs to find a bulldozer who can come in and get those final yards. In the meantime, a little more imagination wouldn't hurt in better using quarterback Kyle Orton, and rookie Knowshon Moreno's outside speed and moves. But the timing of Moreno adjusting to the longer NFL season and runner Correll Buckhalter being hurt (ankle) and not even playing against Oakland took away Denver's balance and depth.

• Run defense. Switching to the 3-4 alignment worked well for Denver in September and October, but now it's late December and the fatigue is showing. Oakland had fresh young runners, Michael Bush and Darren McFadden, to take advantage and shred the Broncos. But Philadelphia, with rookie LeSean McCoy and veteran Leonard Weaver, doesn't have that kind of ground-game punch, and neither does Kansas City. To have any chance against the Eagles, Denver has to be tougher against the run and also rediscover its non-blitzing, pass-rush pressure led by Elvis Dumervil.

Eddie Royal. Nothing about Denver this season has been more surprising, in a negative way, than Royal's second-year lack of productivity. After 980 receiving yards on 91 catches as a rookie, he has only 37 receptions for 345 yards in McDaniels' offense. Just as puzzling, Royal does not have a single touchdown catch in 14 games. (He had five last year.) Especially after Brandon Marshall re-emerged as the No. 1 guy, you had to figure that would open up more chances for Royal with defenses focusing on Marshall. It's not too late for Royal to come around.

Fix those three areas, and the Broncos might last a while into January.

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