The Denver Broncos came to Chicago to play the Bears riding a wave of solid play and a two-game winning streak. Tied for first place in a mediocre division, the Broncos, some how, some way, controlled their own destiny. There seemed to be an aura of positivity that surrounded the team and fans alike. Jay Cutler was being lauded as "having arrived" and the Broncos seemed primed to go on a late season run bolstered by a weak remaining schedule. For 55 minutes on a cold, wet afternoon everything went as planned, that is, until the problems that have plagued the Broncos all season came back to haunt them. In that final 5 minutes, the Broncos not only lost a game, but very well might have lost a season.
We can look to lay blame all over the place. I direct it at two people - Todd Sauerbrun and Mike Shanahan. I'm sorry, but while I firmly believe the coaching staff(Shanny's ultimate responsibility) did a piss-poor job of managing a football game yesterday Sauerbrun can NOT get off without some liability. It started early in the week with his asinine comments about kicking the ball to Devin Hester. Does anything good ever come from a kicker opening his trap? Ask Mike Vanderjagt. Even after his verbal idiocy, Sauerbrun actually did a solid job in the first half, angling his kicks a dropping them short, trading some field position in order to avoid the big play. The result was a 13-6 lead at halftime, that seemed much larger due to the Bears' complete inability to move the ball on offense.
Something happened after halftime, however, that I am still trying to get my head around. Somewhere, the coaching staff scrapped the strategy used in the first half and not once, but twice, kicked the ball deep, right down the middle, to Hester. The result? What should have been a blow out Broncos victory became a game in doubt. The Bears, a team that looked beaten multiple times on Sunday, were repeatedly energized by the heroics of their Special Teams, and the complete breakdown of the Broncos' unit.
The play that really hurt, that really changed the complexion of the game, was the blocked punt, a play that I put squarely at the right foot of Todd Sauerbrun. The Bears had over-loaded the line to Sauerbrun's right, and the Broncos were not in a max-protect configuration, worried, of course about Hester, which means a man would come clean from the edge. Normally that isn't a huge deal, because it is the punter's job to locate that guy and kick away from him. Sauerbrun did the exact opposite and in his haste to make sure the punt was angled right kicked the ball right into the chest of Charles Tillman. That play gave the Bears offense the opportunity it needed and they cashed it in, scoring a touchdown on Adrian Peterson's 5 yard run that seemed to break the will of the Broncos defense. Peterson seemed to be stacked up at the line of scrimmage only to carry most of the Broncos defense into the end-zone, the type of sheer-will play a championship team makes and non-playoff teams do not.
There were solid signs, of course. Jay Cutler is rounding into a solid quarterback, but the offense still cannot score touchdown's in the red zone. While we will focus on the special teams mishaps, we can easily target two separate First and Goal opportunities that ended in 3 points instead of 7, 8 critical points that the Broncos could have used, don't you think? Red Zone miscues have been a calling card of the Broncos the past couple of seasons, and until the Broncos get better at scoring TD's they are going to lose close games no matter how the other team scores.
I know alot of you will hold on to the hope that the Broncos are simply one game out of the division lead. That is true, and I will hang on to that thread along with the rest of you. But numbers, though they can be twisted, don't lie. The Broncos have scored 221 points while giving up 295. Only the Browns have given up more points(311). Of course, the Browns have scored 315 points this season, so their offense can make up for some of that. The bigger number is the +/-. The Broncos are sitting at a -74. Only 6 teams are worse --
To be fair, three of those teams face the Patriots twice a year. The Bills have faced the Pats twice this season, the Dolphins and Jets each have a game left so you'd expect those numbers to be a bit out of whack. Add to that that each of the AFC East teams face the highest scoring team in the NFC as well, the Cowboys, and the numbers can get completely out of whack. The Broncos, on the other hand, don't play the Patriots or Cowboys this season, and only the Colts rank in the Top 5 in scoring.
The combined record of the 6 teams above? 15-50. Read it again, 15-50. That's with Buffalo sporting the same record - 5-6 - as the Broncos. yes, the offense has played better, scored more, than they were at the beginning of the season, but the Broncos are still giving up points in bunches, regardless of where the points are coming from.
Overall, the give Mike Shanahan alot of credit for having this team remotely in the playoff picture with a QB who just completed his first full season (16 games) as a starting QB, off the field issues galore, injuries to key personnel everywhere, and a pending drug suspension. He has done his best to disguise the weaknesses of a young team. Yesterday, however, Shanny and the rest of the coaching staff let the Broncos down. It is their job to put the players in the best position to win, and while most times it be the fault of the players for a lack of execution, yesterday that was not the case.
The Broncos will try to rebound on Sunday against Oakland, once again on the road. This game should not be considered a lock by any stretch. One thing going for us is the Raiders finally won a game in the AFC West, beating the Chiefs. It was a streak that had to end sometime. The Broncos had better be ready for 60 minutes of battle because a loss to the Raiders, no matter what the cause, would officially end the Broncos season, while leaving us with an entire year of bad taste in our mouths.