Sometimes the sports takes are so hot, they burn.
Following a 27-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers, most are left searching for answers. The Denver Broncos were (are?) the team to beat in the AFC—if not the entire NFL. Quarterback Peyton Manning had (has?) the inside track on the MVP award. The team had overcome adversity, shut up a lot of detractors and had reached the month of December on top of the world.
Things went south on Thursday Night Football.
Defensive Sloppiness and Special Teams Ineptitude Puts Too Much Pressure on the Offense
Throughout much of the early part of the season, the Broncos defense was considered a plucky and unheralded unit. Especially during the suspension of linebacker Von Miller, anything the Broncos defense was able to accomplish was considered a positive.
Now, the only positive is if they bend and break but just don't shatter into a thousand pieces.
In many ways, it's almost as if the Broncos simply didn't take this matchup with San Diego as seriously as it now looks like they should have. Head coach John Fox seemed to say that in his postgame presser: "They treated this like a playoff game and we didn't."
Last week against the Tennessee Titans—the Tennessee Titans!—the Broncos gave up 28 points before their own offense was able to pull away. Similarly, against the high-powered scoring attack that is quarterback Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs, 28 points were again allowed. The New England Patriots scored 34, but that seems much more palatable.
In short, the offense has to score at least 30 points if they want to win a ballgame.
It gets worse...
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers only threw the ball 20 times Thursday night en route to becoming one of only two quarterbacks to beat both Peyton and Eli Manning in the same season. For Rivers, long a rival of both, it has to taste that much sweeter. Rivers completed 12 of those passes (60 percent), for a 8.3 yards/att., two touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 120.0 passer rating.
In many ways, it looked a lot like a poor man's Manning stat line.
Rivers made big throws when he had to, and his receivers—most notably Keenan Allen, Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown—came up with big catches when they were most needed. It wasn't the high-flying passing game that Chargers fans historically are used to, but it was efficient. More importantly, it was exactly what the Chargers needed to win.
If there's one thing that the Broncos defense has hung their hat on, however, it's been stopping the run. Entering this week, the Broncos were ranked seventh in the league, allowing under 100 yards per game. But 178 Chargers rushing yards later, one can assume that ranking might shift around a bit.
It wasn't even a tremendous effort, per se. No, the Chargers kept running a handful of running plays—heavily including, but not limited to, the inside and outside zone—and running back Ryan Mathews just plowed through normally adept rush defenders.
Then again, it isn't as if the defense didn't get any stops. When they did, though, the Broncos special teams let the team down yet again.
Following an Allen touchdown in the second quarter, returner Trindon Holliday returned the ball to the Denver 10-yard line. On the next possession, the Broncos picked up a stop and Holliday fair caught the ball on the 6-yard line.
Holliday almost single-handedly handed field position and scoring opportunities to the Chargers.
Mistakes like that, to go along with defensive lapses, penalties and miscues are going to deep-six anytime—no matter who is at quarterback.
Offensive Line Woes Taking a Toll on Offensive Rhythm
OK, let's turn our focus to the offense.
As much as many people will want to focus on the defense following the Broncos' loss, the offense took a serious step back as well. In context—against a terrible Chargers defense, and allowing that the Chargers offense has been pretty solid this season—it's more than reasonable to put the greater onus on a Broncos offense that is supposed to look far more explosive than the fizzle we saw on Thursday.
We talked Rivers, we talked Mathews, we talked Allen (and rightfully so). However, there is probably no one who had a bigger impact on the game than Chargers defensive tackle Corey Liuget.
Although Luiget was only credited for one tackle in the win, he continually provided pressure up the middle of a Broncos offensive line that has shuffled and reshuffled with injuries all year long. It's a credit to Luiget that he was able to do what the Kansas City Chiefs vaunted defense could not—make Manning look uncomfortable.
This was actually predicted by Bleacher Report featured columnist, Cian Fahey: "The San Diego Chargers' Liuget...has enough talent to come up big in prime time. Manning will be working without Wes Welker, so he may feel pressured into holding the ball longer than he normally does."
To combat top defenses in the past, the Broncos went to insanely quick passes. With the loss this week of wide receiver Wes Welker to a concussion, it wasn't that easy. Yet, every time Manning tried to set up and go down the field, it seemed as if he was almost immediately on the run.
Manning on the run is not ideal.
Remember that Holliday fair catch? On the following drive, Liuget crashed through the line on 3rd-and-2, forcing Manning on the move, where he was immediately sacked by cornerback Marcus Gilchrist. Nothing Liuget did showed up on the stat sheet for that play, but it was almost entirely to his credit that the Broncos were forced to punt from the shadow of their own goalposts.
Later, it would be Luiget pressuring and hitting Manning as the embattled quarterback threw his only interception of the night.
The ultra-quick passing game works, and it's probably something the Broncos should've gone to sooner. Still, it isn't beyond the pale to expect one's offensive line to, you know, sustain a block for a few seconds.
The story of this game is not—I repeat, not—just that the Broncos defense let Peyton Manning down. The offensive line let him down just as much.
Peyton Manning Has to Be At His Best, Broncos Will Lose When He's Not
Sorry MVP, you're not getting away unscathed.
It's a little weird to even have something to criticize Manning about, as he's been so singularly good this season. Before this game, we were wondering if he could use his matchup against the Chargers' defense to break some records. Instead, he looked like a broken record, skipping on a song about heartbreak and incomplete passes.
Manning was 27-of-41 (66 percent) for 289 yards, but was down below Rivers at 7.0 yards per attempt. That's not exactly dink-and-dunk, but it's hardly working without a net either. Blame the offensive line (I do) or the absence of Welker (because, duh), but the buck has to stop with the elite quarterback.
Ask Patriots quarterback Tom Brady about how much he'd love to be "missing" Welker but still have weapons like Demaryius Thomas (five targets), Eric Decker (five targets) and Julius Thomas (eight targets).
Andre Caldwell, meanwhile, had 10 targets in a pseudo Welker role, which might indicate that the Broncos did little to scheme their best players open, simply relying on the poor man's (really poor man's) Welker instead. That's just lazy football.
It was Manning's aforementioned and backbreaking interception, though, which will send people over to the message boards to remind everyone of Manning's December struggles.
Seriously, though, just don't.
There was just over five-and-a-half minutes left on the clock, and Manning had just completed a dump-off to running back Montee Ball for a 11-yard completion. On the fateful play, Manning was pressured, tried to do too much, and missed his target. The ball landed in the hands of Chargers linebacker Thomas Keiser.
Game over, right? Manning always chokes in big games.
Well, not really. Manning then led a scoring drive just minutes later and the game was only iced on a ridiculously bad onside kick which didn't allow him to take a few final shots toward the end zone.
The point, here, is that Manning isn't solely to blame. Did he play more poorly than usual? Yeah, so he is to blame. It's entirely possible to make that (factual) assertion without being a hater. Heck, it seems at times as if announcers and commentators hate to call out Manning, because the preordained assumption almost always has to be that he was perfect and someone else messed something up.
Was Manning's less-than-stellar play due to colder Denver temperatures which dipped below freezing toward the end of the game? He certainly doesn't want you to think so, but he's not exactly in a position to tell anyone to "shove it" this week.
Rather than subjectively speculate what could have caused it, or even try to draw the lines of blame to exactly where we think they should be, perhaps it is more reasonable to simply and objectively say that Peyton Manning wasn't at his best, and he needed to be. He may not need to be again this season on the road at Houston or Oakland, but when it's playoff time, that will change.
The Broncos' loss gives New England control of their own destiny for home-field advantage in the playoffs and at least opens the door for the Cincinnati Bengals—two very good home teams. Almost anyone the Broncos play in the playoffs will be better defensively than the Chargers, and most will be at least in the ballpark of the Chargers offensively.
In short, if the Broncos play like they played, at home, against San Diego, they don't stand much of a chance in the playoffs. That's a weird statement to make about a team that has looked, at times, so dominant this season.
It's clear, then, that the Broncos are their own worst enemy at this point. At their best, no one can beat them. Through errors and poor play, it could be the Broncos—including Manning himself—that sink Manning's chances at picking up another Super Bowl at the end of this season.