The Denver Broncos were lambasted on Monday Night Football against the Cincinnati Bengals, losing 27-38 in a game that saw Denver's run defense disappear, its quarterback struggle mightily, and its special teams unit cave in on itself. In short, it was a three-phase loss.
"They made better plays than us in all phases of the field," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "I mean, their defense picked the ball off four times, they had great field position on special teams, and then we allowed explosive plays in the run game. It's just something we're not accustomed to."
What 2nd-ranked run defense?
First, the run defense wasn't what it has been for most of the year. The Broncos allowed 207 yards on the ground, the most they've allowed this year by a wide margin, and that 85-yard run by Jeremy Hill in the first quarter wasn't an anomaly as much as it was a sign of things to come (Hill would finish with 147 yards and ESPN's game ball).
The Broncos showed that their depth was stretched too thin without Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall and Nate Irving at linebacker - Todd Davis was dreadfully out of place at times, and Steven Johnson is no Trevathan in coverage. T.J. Ward's neck injury bears careful watching, as he appears to be the last effective gap-filling tackler the Broncos have.
"We can't make any excuse about injuries," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "I mean, you could clearly see that we missed Brandon today, and that continuity at the linebacker position, but the guys, they had to step up."
Somehow, despite the terrible performance, the Broncos are still the 2nd-ranked rushing defense in the league, allowing 80.6 rushing yards per game (their yards per carry allowed did drop to 5th at 3.7). But Jeremy Hill and the Cincinnati Bengals gave other teams a blueprint on how to beat the Broncos defense: attacking weaknesses at linebacker with the running and screen game.
Peyton Manning and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day
Second, those who subscribe to the "Manning is hurt/old/struggling" theory have all the ammo they need after Manning's four-pick, anti-clutch performance in Week 16. Ty Schalter writes, it's time to start worrying about Peyton Manning.
Manning, at age 38, doesn't have the same deep ball he had at 28—nor can he put the same old zip on many of the shorter routes. Mentally, though, his game has been airtight. Nobody prepares more fanatically than Manning, and typically no one is better under pressure. Instead, Manning was unsettled and shaky from the word go. He threw to covered receivers, missed open receivers and sank the Broncos' chances of clinching the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
No throw was worse than his pick-six to Dre Kirkpatrick.
Despite Demaryius Thomas trying to take some of the blame for Kirkpatrick's pick-six, Manning's night was bad overall. You could argue Manning's second interception was just as bad a throw, and Manning would still throw another interception as the Broncos drove to try and overcome a two-score difference late in the game.
"Obviously the fourth quarter though, I made some bad throws and that really put us in a bind," said Manning.
This is not a Peyton Manning eulogy. But it is a sign of how reliant the Broncos remain on Peyton, for better or for worse. On Monday night, it was for worse.
Failures in coverage
Third, those special teams, man. Man oh man, those special teams. We need to have a serious talk about those special teams, meaning John Fox needs to have a serious talk with S/T Coordinator Jeff Rodgers about those special teams.
"The kicking game, as far as our coverage units, kind of broke down some," Head Coach John Fox said after the game. "They had nearly 200 yards in the return game yardage. That didn’t help our cause as far as field position."
To be exact, the Bengals had 72 punt return yards, including a 49-yarder from Brandon Tate, to go with 134 kickoff return yards from Adam Jones, including an 80-yarder, demonstrating a complete collapse in coverage. The Bengals started five drives inside Denver territory Monday night. The Broncos only had one drive start beyond the 50-yard line.
Where we go from here
While the Bengals are rightly celebrating - a loss in three phases by the Broncos means the Bengals played well in all areas - this was an identity-shaking loss for the Denver Broncos, just as the playoffs come into play.
"We have to play better next week and beat Oakland," Demaryius Thomas said. "If we get the second seed and the bye, whatever we did to this point will be behind us. It's all about playoffs from there."
Teams have bounced back from bad December losses. In 2012, the Baltimore Ravens lost two of three down the regular season stretch before finding their mojo in January and making a Super Bowl run. In 2013. the Seattle Seahawks lost to their division rival Arizona Cardinals in Week 16 before closing the door on everyone in the playoffs.
Peaking in December isn't the goal. Peaking in January and February is.
And hey, at least the Broncos won't be 13-3.
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