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13 January, 2013

The Agony of Defeat, Broncos Style

The Shock   
The ball hung in the air, twisting toward it's stationary target, and the realization that a magical season was coming to a cruel and premature conclusion sunk over me, slowly, agonizingly and helplessly.
   Carlos Beltran didn't swing the bat and the Mets 2006 season was over. They had the best record in their league, they played a team in the playoffs that had spent much of their season playing below expectations (in part due to injured key players but were finally healthy), and they were dramatically upset in the post-season. Sound familiar?
   As Justin Tucker's 47-yard field goal spun it's way through the uprights, ending the Broncos season, I sat motionless on my couch wondering if what I had just sat through for four hours actually happened.
    In the grand scheme of things, the Broncos loss to the Ravens wasn't shocking. Leading up to the game I presented reasons to be concerned. This is a playoff tested team that was healthier than when Denver beat them in week 15. But how the Broncos lost wasn't just shocking, it was stupefyingly stunning. Regardless of what took place prior to getting to the position they were in, the Broncos were in the position of having a 7-point lead with their opponent on their own 30 yard line, no time outs and forty-one seconds to play. According to ESPN's Stats and Information Win Probability model, Denver had a 97.2% chance of winning the game at that moment. Shocking doesn't begin to describe it. 

Worse than '96?

   Is this loss worse than the playoff loss to Jacksonville that ended the '96 season? That's a question many Broncos fans are asking themselves. For me the answer is yes and no. That Jaguars team was 9-7, had barely qualified for the playoffs and were in just their second season in the NFL. But they had talented players in Mark Brunell, Natrone Means, Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. On that they day, they outplayed the Broncos. Big picture - shocking. Day of - a frustrating and depressing day when they got beat.    

   This Ravens loss? The game was in the bag. Denver had the ball and a 7-point lead as the two-minute warning approached. Two first downs were going to win the game. And again, even are punting the ball away, a small miracle was required for the Ravens to win. In that regard, this loss was more shocking and more painful. Broncos fans had one and a half feet in the AFC title game. I never felt that  confident during the Jacksonville game. (Denver did lead 12-0 but a questionable decision to go for two instead of going up 13-0 raised my eyebrows and allowed doubt to creep in.) Trying to compare the two losses is like being asked "would you rather be kicked in the crotch or poked in the eye?" 

3rd and 7   

   That brings me to the 3rd and 7 call. I didn't first guess it so I'm not going to second guess it, I'll just tell you what I was thinking in the moment. Because the 2:00 warning provided ample time to think it over, I said to my son, "I don't think they'll pass it here, but it would be great if they did." It's hard to argue with logic that put your team in a position where they had a 97.2% chance of winning. But what about this? If I told you before the season started Denver needed Peyton Manning to complete a pass on 3rd and 7 for a first down in order for the Broncos to go to the AFC title game, Broncos fans would feel pretty good about that.
   After the fact all I could think of was the 1997 AFC title game. Denver lead the Steelers 24-21 at the 2:00 warning. They were facing a 3rd and 5 from their own 15. They had Terrell Davis and his 130+ yard rushing day in their backfield. They could have given T.D. the ball, run some clock, punted and trusted their defense. Instead, they asked their Hall of Fame quarterback to make a play. Elway fired a laser to Shannon Sharpe for 18 yards and the game was over. So here were the Broncos, a 7-yard completion away from the AFC title game, and they opted to run. Again, John Fox put his team in incredibly good position to win, I just think most Broncos fans would have liked to see their team go for the kill right then and there. By the way, the Broncos lost to the Steelers in week 15 of the regular season in '97 and got their revenge in the playoffs. Sound familiar? 
    I went through the play-by-play of all the Broncos games this year to see what they had done on 3rd and 7s. Granted, the context is different, but the Broncos passed 15 out of 18 times they had a 3rd down and 7. The three runs consisted of Brock Osweiler taking a knee against New Orleans when the game was over and two Ronnie Hillman runs in the waning moments of the Cleveland and Ravens games to set up field goals when they were already up by 20 or more points. So basically anytime Denver needed to convert a 3rd and 7 this season, they passed the ball. It's fair to say Denver needed to convert that 3rd and 7 against Baltimore and instead of asking their Hall of Fame quarterback to make a play, they ran it. I have to wonder what John Elway was thinking as he watched from his sky box.
   Just for yucks, lets also mention a 3rd and 5 call. Denver was up 28-21 early in the third quarter, had just recovered a fumble and had the ball on their 47. Uncle Mo was dying to throw on his Broncos jersey. Manning audibled to a run to Hester up the middle. The play gained 2 yards and Denver punted. It was one of the possessions where Denver had a lead and was looking to go up that allusive two scores. It just seemed like an odd call at the time. I don't have any official stats on it, but the number of times Manning audibled to a run this season and it gained big yardage were pretty minimal. If Denver was going for the kill, they were doing the Roberta Flack and trying to kill them softly.  

The Pass 
   Joe Flacco's improbable heave was thrown at 8pm eastern time. How do I know that? Because I have parental locking on my TV. Whatever TV show was scheduled for 8pm Sunday night on CBS must have a rating of TV-14 or higher because at 8pm, just as Joe Flacco was stepping up in the pocket on that fateful 3rd and 3, my TV screen went from showing me the game to the blue screen that says "This program has been locked." As I frantically grabbed the remote and unlocked the channel my son says "I think we sacked him...." I entered the code and the game returned on my TV in time to see the Ravens jumping up and down with the word "TOUCHDOWN" emblazoned across the screen.  What the #@$%????? 
   Maybe my TV knew that if I saw the play live I would have yelled something my son shouldn't hear and it was providing some kind of metaphysical parental locking. 

Conservative like a Fox
   When Manning took a knee at the Broncos 20 with :31 left in regulation, the crowd booed their disgust at Denver for not trying to win the game. Just like the run on 3rd and 7, it was a concession.
   If John Fox was watching the Falcons game today, he saw just what could be done with limited time and a few timeouts. Or he could look no further than his own teams game against the Texans this year when the Broncos had the ball on their 37 with :22 left in the half. Manning completed two passes to Decker and Prater hit a 53-yard field goal.     
   Last season when the Broncos were pulling out miracle win after miracle win, coach Fox's strategy was to play it as close to the vest as possible. When Tebow tied the Miami game and got it to overtime, Denver had two possessions in the extra period. The first went run-run-sack-punt. The second followed a Miami turnover at their own 36. Denver went run-run-run and settled for a 52-yard field goal. In their OT win against the Chargers their OT plays were 8 runs and 3 passes. In their OT win against Chicago they had the ball 1st and 10 on Chicago's 40. They went McGahee run, Tebow scramble, Tebow run and settled for a 51-yard field goal. 
   John Fox is a defensive-minded coach. He wasn't a gun-slinging QB who converted crucial 4th downs and pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. So maybe, even with Peyton Manning as his QB, Fox just feels better playing it safe. Against the Ravens, safe made everyone in Denver sorry. 

The Cold

   A lot was made of Manning being 0-3 in playoff games played at 30 degrees or colder. I didn't think too much of it. Two of those losses were on the road against really good Patriots teams. But as the game went on, it was evident to me that the cold had some kind of an effect. Many of Manning's throws lacked the zip that had grown with the season. Sure, he put some mustard on some and threw beauties to Stokley and Moreno for TDs, but consider this, Manning only threw one pass more than 20 yards the entire game. The man threw 43 passes in this game, and only one went more than 20 yards? With wideouts like Decker and Thomas, in a game where the refs were throwing flags like Pacman Jones throws $100s, you would expect them to take a few shots down the field. It didn't happen and I think the cold was the primary reason why. Glove and all, I'm just not sure Peyton felt like he had a lot of pop on his passes and didn't want to risk it. Maybe that's why coach Fox played it safe at the end of regulation. Obviously this doesn't bode well over the next few years if Denver has more cold-weather playoff games. By the way, because I like to torture myself, I looked to see that next Sunday's forecast for Denver is sunny and a high near 50. 

The Pain 

   The only part of this game I found enjoyable was the Holliday punt return. Everything else was just agonizing, excruciating pain. There were three or four possessions where Denver had the lead and the ball, but couldn't manage to take a two-score lead. None worse than the possession at the end of the first half when they could have gone up ten or fourteen and were getting the ball to start the second half. A Prater shank, a Champ misplay and suddenly it was tied at the half. Ulcers were growing to softball size in my gut. 

   The game was also played at an incredibly slow pace. It was only mid-second quarter and the game was an hour and a half old. The refs were taking forever to sort out penalties and reviews. Players were getting hurt. It was just dragging on and on. I was squirming in my seat like I was getting wisdom teeth yanked without the benefit of Novocaine. (memo to self: next year get some Novocaine before any Broncos playoff games). 

   The Broncos had two almost-picks (a deflected pass that landed in front of a charging Moore and a Mike Adams diving attempt he got both hands on) that could have sealed things. The pass interference on the Ravens second possession that allowed them to avoid punting from their own end zone and lead to a TD two plays later. The long completion to Pitta from their own end zone that changed field position in overtime and set up the Ravens field position on the ensuing Manning pick. All agonizing. Ronnie Hillman looked dangerously close to breaking a few long runs that could have been game-changing, but his protect-the-ball-at-all-costs style (which was the proper thing) seemed to prevent him from turning on the jets full blast and tearing away. Agonizing. I have often said I enjoy the angst of important games and I'd rather watch a good, close game and lose then to have it be over in the first quarter, but not like that. Not when the game is 97.2% won. This game just sucked the life out of me, play-by-play, minute-by-minute. 
The Aftermath
   This one is going to take a while to get over. Maybe the 11-game win streak was fool's gold. The teams Denver beat during that streak proved not to be as formidable as their preseason expectations suggested. The running game can be improved. While I still believe Champ Bailey is among the best DBs in the league, he gave plenty of reason for doubt on Saturday. If Joe Mays is not the answer at middle linebacker, a 38-year old Keith Brooking wont be either. They'll need to find someone to man the middle. (Maybe they put DJ Williams back there). And Manning will be another year older. 
   In 2006, while discouraged by their loss to the Cardinals, I still thought the Mets time was just beginning. Wright, Reyes, Beltran, Delgado, Santana. There was plenty of reason for optimism. I was wrong. That was the Mets shot and they blew it.
   After losing to the Jaguars in '96, the Broncos rebounded to win back-to-back Super Bowls. This Denver team is a talented bunch and should still be a contender next year. It's just that when this year hands you home field advantage and you blow it, it's a real kick to the crotch. Or poke to the eye. Whichever.    

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