— How ‘bout them Broncos? With no game this week and a one-game lead in the AFC West, they’re assured of first place when they head into November.
That, quite frankly, is a bit mind-boggling. Of the 10 teams that own at least a piece of first place in the NFL’s eight divisions, the Broncos are the weakest leader — and that’s not a knee-jerk assessment based on their 41-7 stinker in New England. The Monday night massacre only confirmed a feeling that had been building for weeks:
Despite a 4-3 record, the Broncos just aren’t that good.
They got to where they are because of Ed Hochuli, Martin Gramatica, a go-for-broke decision by Mike Shanahan and The Three Stooges — a.k.a. the rest of the teams in the AFC West.
The Broncos can’t stop the run, they can’t tackle and they can’t hold on to the ball. They committed five turnovers against the Patriots, making their season turnover margin a big, fat, ugly minus-9. First place teams don’t have a minus-9. Heck, there are a lot of mediocre teams that don’t have a minus-9.
If there’s a team in the NFL that embodies the Peter Principle, it’s the Broncos, who have dropped three of their last four to ruin a 3-0 start — a start that fueled false hope.
After being schooled by the Patriots on national television, an utterly pathetic performance in which the Broncos offered about as much resistance as a blocking sled, Shanahan looked into the mirror and couldn’t say what he saw. He was asked to describe his team’s identity after seven games.
“I think it was pretty obvious today that there’s a question mark,” he said after the game.
You could call the Broncos an enigma, but that would be an insult to the other enigmas around the league. If a couple of breaks had gone the other way, the Broncos would be 2-5.
In Week 2, they edged the Chargers, 39-38, benefiting from the biggest officiating gaffe of the season, a fumble by quarterback Jay Cutler that was ruled an incomplete pass by Hochuli. That set up the winning touchdown, which was punctuated by Shanahan’s daring — and successful — decision to go for the two-point conversion.
In Week 3, the Broncos were on the verge of losing to the Saints, but they escaped with a 34-32 win because Gramatica missed a 43-yard field goal with under two minutes remaining.
Gramatica and Hochuli have done more for the Broncos than Andre (Butter Fingers) Hall and Dewayne Robertson, the nose tackle who keeps getting punched in the nose. But, hey, this is the NFL, where even a team that loses to the Chiefs still can dream about the playoffs. The Broncos did that in Week 4; shame on them.
The Broncos have exciting skill players on offense, with Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royals, but their defense is a patchwork group, comprised mostly of rejects and second-chance guys. Shanahan the GM has burdened Shanahan the coach with a defense that doesn’t stand up to anyone.
Take a look around the league. Can you find a more suspect division leader?
The Bills are the new old Patriots, circa 2001, which is to say they’re a nothing-flashy, smart team that plays complementary, team football. The Titans are tough, nasty and undefeated. The Steelers are playing that old, familiar style on defense, and they’ll be tough to beat if they can find a way to keep Ben Roethlisberger in one piece.
In the NFC, the Giants are defending champs, showing no signs of being fat cats. The Bears and Packers aren’t great, but at least they’re exciting, scoring lots of points with Kyle Orton and Aaron Rodgers, respectively, at quarterback. The Bucs and Panthers have warts, but both teams can win with defense. The upstart Cardinals are doing some nice things, but let’s keep it real: They play in the worst division.
Second worst? That would be the AFC West, where the Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs have allowed the Broncos to take the early lead. Clearly, the Chargers have the talent to make a serious run, but their inconsistency is maddening. The Raiders are playing for next year and the Chiefs are playing for jobs.
Which brings us back to the Broncos, where they still have hope — albeit faint.
“A coach like Mike, I’m sure he’s not going to let us go down the drain,” said defensive end Elvis Dumervil, adding, “We’re still in control of the AFC West.”
Usually, the cream rises. In this case, it’s sour milk.