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Broncos on brink of colossal collapse

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[December 24, 2008]  ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -- A dismal December has the Denver Broncos on the brink of a colossal collapse. Not since division play began in 1967 has a team held a three-game lead with three weeks to go and failed to make the playoffs.

InsuranceThe Broncos (8-7) have led the woeful AFC West by themselves for four months, but they will miss the postseason party altogether with a loss Sunday night at San Diego, which began the month 4-8.

Now it's the Broncos who are reeling and the Chargers rolling -- and they're still a tad ticked off by referee Ed Hochuli's blown call that negated a fumble and cost them a win in Denver in Week 2.

A win Sunday -- Hochuli won't be there -- and the Broncos would become just the fifth team in NFL history to have sole possession of first place in their division after every game in a season. The Tennessee Titans also accomplished the feat when they clinched the AFC South three weeks ago.

These bumbling Broncos are nothing like those terrific Titans.

A better bet is Denver will miss the playoffs for a third straight year for the first time since 1982.

Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing for this bruised and battered bunch that saw its sixth and seventh tailbacks placed on injured reserve this week.

Imagine, say, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts visiting Invesco Field, where the Broncos have lost to three non-playoff teams this season -- four, if Miami fails to clinch a spot.


Would getting pummeled in the playoffs really be a step in the right direction for Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, third-year stars and first-time Pro Bowl selections who have never felt an ounce of postseason pressure?

Of course anything can happen on any given Sunday, yada yada yada. As coach Mike Shanahan is fond of saying, you want to play your best football in December so that once you get to the playoffs you can actually do something.

What about the cold weather? The Broncos can't hang their helmets on that, either, not after losing to Buffalo on Sunday in the second-coldest game in franchise history. Shanahan's strategic gaffe reversed momentum and may ultimately cost his team its first playoff appearance since 2005.

The Broncos will head into their most important game in years with a starting running back who has just 163 yards and no touchdowns on 36 carries this season. Tatum Bell was hawking cell phones and wireless plans at a kiosk at the Aurora Mall last month, figuring he'd seen his last days inside an NFL locker room after being caught on security cameras taking his replacement's bags with him when he was waived by the Detroit Lions.

The Broncos' broken backfield gave him a second chance and an opportunity to put his 9-5 job on hold.

His backups -- or maybe one of them will leapfrog him in keeping with the season-long theme of throwing new faces into the starting lineup -- are Alex Haynes, who was cut by the Broncos last month, and Cory Boyd, cut by Denver last week. Haynes has three career carries, Boyd none.

"America's Most Dangerous Jobs" has nothing on the Broncos' backfield, which has lost P.J. Pope (hamstring), Selvin Young (back), Ryan Torain (knee), Michael Pittman (spine), Anthony Alridge (leg), Peyton Hillis (hamstring) and Andre Hall (hand) for the season.

Despite giving new meaning to the term "empty backfield," the Broncos pin their hopes on offense, where Cutler has had a breakout season. Cutler has set franchise records with 351 completions for 4,120 yards, a testament to the great protection he's received from a line led by rookie left tackle Ryan Clady.

Marshall is about to become the second wide receiver in franchise history with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and rookie Eddie Royal is on the cusp of 1,000 yards himself. Cover them and tight ends Tony Scheffler and Daniel Graham can have big games.

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That's about where the good news ends for Denver.

The Broncos have more than a dozen players on injured reserve and missed captains D.J. Williams for five weeks and Champ Bailey for seven. Both remain hobbled.

They've started six different free safeties, six different linebackers and six different tailbacks.

Injuries can't explain away everything. There's been some strategic blunders, too.

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Two weeks ago, the Broncos trailed by seven in the waning seconds of the first half at Carolina. Instead of taking a knee, Shanahan called for a run and Young fumbled. The Panthers kicked a short field goal and then steamrolled Denver in the second half.

A bigger gaffe came Sunday with the Broncos leading 13-3 with 2 minutes left in the first half against Buffalo. Shanahan decided to go for a 54-yard field goal instead of pinning the Bills deep with a punt. Kicker Matt Prater's limit going north in the pregame warmups was 52 yards.

The kick came up 2 yards shy of the crossbar.

Buffalo capitalized on the miscalculation and the short field for a touchdown just before halftime, then scored the first four times it had the ball in the second half in upsetting the crestfallen Broncos 30-23.

"Obviously, it didn't turn out to be the right decision," Shanahan said.

Neither was the Broncos' resolution to have Prater try a series of squibs and pooches on kickoffs that continually backfired when the Bills kept getting great field position: their average start was their 38. The Broncos never adjusted their approach or their coverage.

"He didn't have one of his best games kicking off," Shanahan said.

And Shanahan and his staff didn't have one of their best days coaching.

The Broncos lost to the Bills despite outgaining them 532 yards to 275.

"I feel like if you hold a team under 300 yards, they shouldn't get 30 points," Bailey said. "So, obviously, the hidden yardage is in the kicking game. We've got to pick it up."

Not just on special teams, where the Broncos miss Jason Elam (two misses this year to Prater's nine). But on defense, which has been dismal all season with no pass rush to speak of, and offense, where they're too predictable and can't capitalize in the red zone.

While owner Pat Bowlen has basically anointed Shanahan coach for life, the fan base is getting restless. The Broncos have won just one playoff game since John Elway hung up his cleats after winning two Super Bowls in the late 1990s.

Shanahan decided to blow up the team and rebuild following a loss to Pittsburgh in the 2005 AFC championship. He handed the ball to Cutler with five games to go in the 2006 season and the playoffs still a possibility. They fell short that year, losing at home to San Francisco when a win would have clinched a playoff berth. That night, cornerback Darrent Williams was slain in a drive-by shooting, a tragedy that hung over the team all last season, when the Broncos went 7-9.

Burned by the likes of Todd Sauerbrun and Travis Henry, the Broncos made a concerted effort to go after high-character players in the offseason. Their work paid off with a dozen rookies -- eight draft picks and four free agents -- who have stepped in and played significant roles, some by merit, others by necessity.

That bodes well for the future, but maybe not so much for this weekend.

Bruised and battered, the Broncos cling to hope.

"We can still win the AFC West," Shanahan said.

This time, though, Hochuli won't be around to save them from themselves.

[Associated Press; By ARNIE STAPLETON]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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