Last mid-December, in Week 15 of the 2012 NFL season, an American Football Conference team regarded as a Super Bowl candidate — but hampered by injuries in both lines and elsewhere on its depth chart — hit the wall in an embarrassing home loss to a hungry opponent led by a veteran quarterback.
That team, of course, was the Baltimore Ravens, who rebounded from that 34-17 home defeat to Denver and Peyton Manning, brought back most of their injured players, and eventually won the Super Bowl.
A year later, you could see a replica of that story developing before it unfolded in Week 15 of this season, as the Broncos limped into that Thursday night home game on Dec. 12 against San Diego and its much-loathed quarterback, Philip Rivers. Denver's defense was clearly depleted, its offense was missing receiver Wes Welker and had some linemen banged up, and the entire team was worn down from its rugged stretch since the bye week.
San Diego took advantage of all that, happily exposing all of the Broncos' trouble spots in that 27-20 upset, and suddenly Denver didn't look so much like a Super Bowl contender anymore. (Neither did Baltimore last December, you'll recall.)
So what's next after that wakeup call? The schedule gave Denver a break. First the extra three days off because of playing on Thursday, like a mini-bye week, giving the Broncos a chance to regroup psychologically while mending those lesser injuries. Then come the final two regular-season games, both on the road in more pleasant climates against opponents in disarray, Houston and Oakland.
Win those two, even if not impressively, and Denver will be back on track entering the playoffs as AFC West champion with a first-round bye and the AFC's No. 1 seed, made easier after New England's loss Sunday at Miami. And the Patriots (who do have a tiebreaker edge based on beating Denver earlier) still face Baltimore on the road before finishing at home against Buffalo.
Winning games won't cure the problems that San Diego magnified. It's hard to believe Denver was affected that much by not having Welker. (Backup Andre Caldwell scored two TDs.) Other receivers couldn't get open, and Manning didn't have time to find downfield targets, checking down to secondary options. And the running game that gashed holes in recent opponents suddenly was outnumbered.
Part of that had to be San Diego head coach Mike McCoy, who went to the Chargers last January from Denver's offensive staff. As thoroughly as McCoy knew Denver's playbook and personnel, he also had to know the tendencies and weaknesses on both sides of the ball, as well as Manning's thought processes.
The truth is, Denver was overdue for a true letdown game, and its injuries reached the critical mass where they made a difference, especially on defense. The unit needs lineman Derek Wolfe (who should return now after his seizure issue), cornerback Champ Bailey (who still can make a difference) and linebacker Wesley Woodyard (who has been dinged but also never has fully adjusted to playing inside instead of outside). Losing tackle Kevin Vickerson (hip) also has been a bigger deal than anyone would admit, and he won't be back until next year.
Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has to put the pieces back together, but with this extra break, two easier opponents and then another off week before the playoff run, time is on his side.
The NFL history book is filled with stories comparable to Denver's — and some of those tales have the Broncos in the starring role. In 1997, they lost a 34-17 Monday night stinker at San Francisco in mid-December and went on to win the franchise's first Super Bowl. The next season, Denver started 14-0, lost in ugly fashion to the New York Giants and Miami, then dominated in the playoffs.
Yes, the Broncos have to heal physically, not just mentally. But the schedule should become their ally now.