Well, it turns out the Broncos are much better than many people thought, but not nearly as good as some had hoped for. After beating a group of pretty good teams (NE, SD, DAL, CIN) and two not-so-good teams (CLE, OAK), Denver lost to two pretty good teams (BAL, PIT) and lost to a not-so-good team (WAS).
All in all, the team is still 6-3, tops the AFC West, and has the tie break over SD. So far, so good. Now comes the bad news. SD is a team that is starting to surge, while Denver has dropped three straight. QB Kyle Orton is hurt and may not play. If Kyle can play, he may not be 100%. While Denver has home field, we have to bear in mind that SD has the "advantage of first loss", which is the concept in coaching that a team learns more from losing to an opponent than winning. In the NFL, it is hard to beat a team twice in one season.
Frankly, Denver has a tough battle in front of them this week, and I'm glad that the new format for the MHR staff picks won't force me to pick this game.
Still, I think the future overall looks bright. Really.
I was unable to watch the entire game against WAS because of my day job. I was able to catch a few things worth passing on:
First, I like that Denver challenged the Redskins deep. I saw both throws downfield that Orton made for long TDs. I've always said that Orton can throw long, he just isn't schemed that way. Did the WAS coverage break down and make mistakes? Absolutely. But that's not the point. The passes were long and on target. More so, the errors happened because the Redskins didn't respect the deep pass, and other teams may do the same.
Second, I've always been a fan of the officials, and always come to their defense. This week is no exception. I saw three terrible calls by the officials, but none changed the face of the game. I also believe that none of them were "purposeful", as some folks like to claim when they see a bad call. They were mistakes, and anyone could make them. So I continue to love the officials, and can't blame the game's outcome on them. However, the errors I saw were bad enough that I would imagine the League sent an acknowledgment to the Broncos earlier this week. Here's what I saw (on nearly three back-to-back plays).
First, Brandon Stokley catches a ball with both feet well over a foot in bounds. The catch is ruled out of bounds. Denver doesn't challenge, since it was third down and the catch was short of the marker. Any official could mess up this call, and I know I couldn't do a better job than these guys. No problem.
But then, Denver punts the ball and an opposing player knocks the punter to the ground. It seemed to me that the opposing player didn't even make an effort to slow down. Combining the 15-yard penalty with the inbounds catch that Stokley made previously, this would have given Denver a first down. Now I'm not going to begrudge the officials the first down for a couple of reasons. First, Denver could have challenged the reception, but didn't. Second, perhaps the official might have called it "running into the kicker" instead of "roughing the kicker", and the penalty wouldn't have made a difference. Still no problem. Except for one thing...
C'mon guys! How do you miss a guy flying into the punter and driving him into the ground? In Stokley's case, and in the case of Mitch Berger, neither player tried to be theatrical to get the call. A good referee ignores theatrics, and only pays attention to what his eyes tell him. Fine. But why wasn't the assigned official watching the punter (as he is supposed to do)? The only excuse I can think of is that the hit was so late after the punt that the official had shifted his focus downfield. While this is understandable, it just tends to show how inexcusable the offending player's action really was.
At this point, even the announcers were siding with Denver, having noted both calls. Had enough?
Soon after, the WAS QB fumbles the ball and Denver recovers. Nope. The official says something about forward progress and the whistle. The announcers look at the replay. The ball comes loose, the player hits the ground, Denver's player reaches for the ball, AND NOW the whistle blows. The play should have been reviewed, WAS reviewable after all, and Denver clearly got the ball back. Does it change the game? I don't believe so. Here again though, the announcers were stunned. So was I.
The officials have the toughest job on the field. Not only are they nitpicked by guys like me, but they have seconds to see the entire field and try to get a call right. They have to memorize a tricky rulebook, and they get second-guessed by every fan with replay and slow-motion abilities. So why am I bringing up these mistakes? I've written a million times that I respect these guys, and will never blame them for a lost game. Like the weather, illness, family tragedies, etc, the refs are a part of the game that players have to contend with. The difference is that the refs are trying to do the right thing. So here's a game with some pretty awful calls, and a game that we lost. Are you hearing me griping? I hope not. I don't fault the refs for this game, or any game. I'm thankful for the work that they put in, and the effort that they extend in trying to get as many calls right as possible. I tip my hat to them.
So what happened to Denver? For what it is worth, I think the loss of Orton in the second half was the critical factor. We still need to work on some issues, but Chris Simms wasn't able to carry the load on Sunday, and Orton was missed. Simms completed 3 out of 13 passes and had an INT.
The team IS working on those other issues, though. Orton was allowed to make a couple of deep throws, and they scored. I saw some more zone blocking than it seems we have been doing lately, and I hope this continues. Our team has beaten a lot of good teams this year, and really only lost to one team that I would have expected them to beat with confidence.
SD has won every game since the last Denver game, including wins against the Eagles and the Giants. When Denver played SD a few weeks ago, the star players of SD (including Antonio Gates, Darren Sproles and LaDainian Tomlinson) were inconsistent. They seem to have shaken off the fog, and are now playing in good form.
Without Orton, I have to give the edge to SD for this game. With Orton playing, but not at 100%, I have to give the edge to SD as well. If Orton is 100%, we have the home field. Now the concern goes to other injuries.
Here is a list of the notable (starter) SD injuries:
- Jeromey Clary - RT
- Ogemdi Nwagbuo - NT
- Nick Hardwick - OC
- Shaun Phillips - OLB - limited in practice.
Both teams have key injuries all over the field, but no injury is as difficult to adjust for as the QB. The edge goes to SD. If Orton can play, and can play at or very near 100%, Denver has a decent chance. Much of the playcalling for both teams may be focused on sizing up and taking advantage of the opposing injury replacements.
Denver's keys to the game -
- If Orton is out, go full tilt with the run game. Even against a 3-4, the wide runs may be possible if Phillips is out.
- Stop Sproles in the screen game. Consider assigning a LB to him.
- If Simms struggles as badly as last week, consider giving Tom Brandstater a try.
San Diego's keys to the game -
- Take away the run. If Orton is in, pressure him into running on that ankle. If not, take away the run and dare Simms to beat you.
- If Marshall is out, DON'T double Royal. Denver has excellent depth at WR, as well as several TE receiver options. Instead, take away the deep game. Denver's throws are likely to be short passes, and the biggest danger is yards after the catch.
- Watch out for Royal on returns. SD has an excellent chance to win this game on both sides of the ball, but can't afford to give up points or field position on STs.
If Denver loses this game, Denver is tied with SD in head-to-head games, and needs to win more games than SD from here on out. If Denver wins this game, they get to keep a lead on SD, AND win the head-to-head tie break. DEN has some tough games left, so there is little room for error.
This is the most important game of the season so far for the Broncos, so we'll see how well prepared they are.