It has been a sad 72-hour period for the old Houston Oilers family. Iconic head coach, Bum Phillips and owner Bud Adams have each passed away at the age of 90: Phillips on Friday, 10/18 and Adams on 10/21. I dedicate this piece to their memory and contributions to professional football.
So I had this nightmare last night; it was October 31, 1988 in the Hoosier Dome and the Denver Broncos were playing the Indianapolis Colts. In this nightmare I dreamt that the Broncos defense could not stop Eric Dickerson, Chris “Crystal Chandelier” Chandler, and the Colts from running all over them. Also, the offense could not get untracked and keep the Colts defense off of its hall-of-fame quarterback. Improbably, Indy decimated Denver 55-23. Then I woke up and realized that it was almost déjà vu’ all over again.
The 2013 version of the Broncos went into the new dome in town, Lucas Oil Field and got punched in the mouth similarly to 1988. This time, the antagonists of the game were Andrew Luck, Robert Mathis and Donald Brown. The score of 39-33 gives the illusion that the game was closer than it was…at least until about halfway through the third quarter when I got fed up and went to bed. I heard that the orange and blue woke up around the time I went to sleep. The effort (for lack of a better term) put forth by the Broncos was so lousy that I changed the usual title of my weekly wrap-up articles and removed “The Good”. Now before I berate our horses, I must give theirs proper acknowledgement. The Colts handled this primetime tilt as if they were the team led by a 16-year veteran. Their coaching staff implemented a solid, effective game plan and outcoached their Denver counterparts. So even though I do believe that if the Broncos played their game, they’d be 7-0, the Colts deserve a ton of credit for playing their manes off. That said, let’s get to it.
The Bad: The offensive line was horrendous. Peyton Manning was under duress on 1/3 of the offensive snaps. That was highlighted by a sack of Manning by Mathis at 9:33 of the second quarter in which Chris Clark got his hat handed to him. PFM was blind-sided and fumbled the ball out of the endzone for a safety. Although it goes in the books as a safety and not a turnover, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s anything but a turnover. I will address the continuing lack of ball security a little later. I am not sure if the game plan was to hit on short routes and quick-hitters or if that was as a result of Peyton having to get rid of the ball sooner than desired. I am hedging my bets toward the latter. Aside from the second drive of the game when Manning hit Eric Decker on two consecutive passes which went a total of 55 yards in 46 seconds, it wasn’t until late in the third quarter when the offense established any real rhythm. Peyton actually finished with 29/49, 386 yds, 3 TDs and 1 INT in his return to the house that he built (well not actually built with his own two hands, rather with the success he brought….ah, never mind). Those stats by Peyton were spread out fairly judiciously amongst his various weapons. Frankly, it was just enough to get me a win in my fantasy league. However I am so disgusted with last night’s performance that the only fantasy in which I’m interested involves Kate Upton.
In case somebody wants to blame the officials for what Chris Collinsworth last night called a “grabby” secondary by the Colts. I don’t blame officials. Teams with championship mettle overcome any potentially questionable calls and find a way to win.
The defense was much worse than the offense. At least the offense eventually got rolling and had an opportunity to take the lead late before yet another fumble by RB, Ronnie Hillman (again, I’ll get to turnovers a little later). The defense gave up 131 yards rushing on 31 carries and a TD by Luck. The Colts did not exactly light up the scoreboard through the air, but were very efficient. Luck was 21/38 for 228 yds and 3 TDs. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s four total TDs by Luck. Do you think he felt that he had something to prove last night? Speaking bluntly, Von Miller did not exactly make an impact in his return from his six week chronic suspension. He was completely incapable of weeding through the blocking schemes of the Indy offensive line last night. There was an opportunity to make a big play in the first half where Luck tucked the ball and ran when he could not find an open receiver down field. Miller was one of two defenders there who could have stopped him at a 9 or 10 yard gain on third-and-11. However, instead of making a fundamentally sound tackle, Miller tried to lay the big hit on Luck with his shoulder and drove him forward for the extra yard or two that was needed to continue the drive. Before we critically judge Miller, we have to give him another couple of weeks in order to really evaluate his effectiveness with that additional 16 lbs of muscle on his frame and to shake the rust off. The secondary did not have a great game either. Aside from a good red zone stand on the second Colts’ drive of the game to hold them to a field goal, they were beaten in the game often. In fact, there were a few throws that Luck missed down the field to a couple of targets that got a few steps behind Broncos’ defenders. If he connects on them, it probably becomes a numeric impossibility for Denver to come back and make it as close as they did.
The Ugly: As bad as the defense was, it was the third phase of the game that might have actually contributed the most to the loss. Where to start? I know, how about Trindon Holliday’s fumble on a punt return late in the first quarter at the Broncos 11 yard line. I give credit to the little guy. He plays with a lot of heart and bigger than his 5’5”, 170 lb frame would dictate. At times he is the most electric player in the league. However, there are times to play the game with some honesty and understanding. Holliday has to bear in mind that he is as small as he is and there are guys 50-100 lbs bigger than him looking to lay the wood to him because they can. He is also small enough to have the ball stripped relatively easily, as was the case last night. Special teams coordinator, Jeff Rodgers has got to drill it into his head that protecting the rock is the most important thing that Holliday can do and when he gets into traffic, wrap both hands around the ball. Holliday was involved in another ugly moment on special teams when he got absolutely rocked on a 56 yard kick return by Pat McAfee…the freaking punter/kicker! OK, in all fairness, McAfee does have 63 lbs on the diminutive Holliday.
TURNOVERS, TURNOVERS, TURNOVERS!!!! I have been sounding this alarm all year and it finally came back to bite the Broncos where the jockeys whip em. Once again, Denver lost the TO battle. Officially, they lost two fumbles and Manning threw one interception. However what doesn’t go down as a lost fumble was the aforementioned safety on the Mathis sack of Manning. That one is on left tackle, Chris Harris. Harris was beaten by Mathis like he stole pom pom’s from the Indy cheerleaders. So realistically, Denver turned it over four times. In fact, 16 of the first 19 points the Colts scored were off of turnovers. In addition the Broncos put the ball on the ground two other times, but were able to recover. I have to believe that this lack of ball security is a cultural thing in the Broncos locker room. This is self-evident by a Demaryius Thomas’ near fumble late in the first half. After a reception, Thomas decided that holding the football like the proverbial loaf of bread was an acceptable practice in the open field. The good news is that the ball was not lost before DT was ruled down. Now, I turn my attention to…Ronnie Hillman!!! This young man should not see the field of play again until somebody teaches him how to hold onto the dadgum ball! What makes this so frustrating is that he is a very gifted athlete and if he holds onto the ball, I believe that he can become one of the premier running backs in the league. Until ball security is taken more seriously, I have my doubts about how far Denver can advance in the post season (assuming they make it…which I am).
The Silver Linings: I believe that there are some positives to take from this. For starters, the Broncos played their worst game of the year on Sunday and were still in a position to win. Denver just has to make sure that with this understanding of their ability to come back that they don’t take it for granted. Sunday’s game has proven that it doesn’t, and won’t always work out. Once again, Knowshon Moreno found the end zone and is becoming a real asset down by the goal line. “Orange” Julius Thomas made a really pretty TD catch in the first quarter. Manning floated one in between the cover two. Thomas went up, got it, juggled it for a moment, and got control while tip-toe-ing his feet in bounds. Lastly, Britton Colquitt got in some much needed work (is there enough sarcasm dripping from that last sentence?).
Intangibly, I don’t see this as a bad loss. It’s easy to have a feeling of invincibility when you’re undefeated and everything is going your way. Even though we fans see it differently than the guys who actually take the field, there has to be a bit of complacency that sets in. I know from different posts around social media that Broncos’ fans felt like our guys couldn’t lose. If there was any feeling of complacency in the locker room, this loss should recalibrate the players’ perspective. Finally, there will be no albatross of an undefeated season hanging around the necks of the players and coaches late in the year when the team needs to honing their collective focus on the post season.
Next Up: A familiar face comes back home as former Broncos head coach, Mike Shanahan brings in Robert Griffin III and the rest of the Washington REDSKINS to face the orange and blue in Denver’s last game before the bye week. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:25 PM EST, which (of course) is 2:25 PM Elway Standard Time. Fox will have the broadcast. I am uncertain which tandem will have the call. However, in looking at the other Fox games this Sunday, it only makes sense that their ‘A’ team will call this game. That will be Troy Aikman and whomever will likely be filling in for Joe Buck, whose calling the World Series. By the by, what kind of pre-game celebration are the Broncos putting on the Jumbotron for Shanny’s return? Just askin’.