By Andrew Mason
DETROIT -- The Broncos came into Ford Field battered. They left it beaten and with their starting quarterback facing an MRI examination Monday to determine the extent of a fibula contusion.
Denver fell 44-7 to the Detroit Lions during an afternoon in which injury and insult piled upon the team in equal doses, with six players being treated on the field for injuries, a backup quarterback being forced into his most extensive game action in two years and a litany of missed opportunities that left the team sprinting for a late touchdown that averted what would have been its first shutout in nearly 15 years.
"We had some opportunities early in the first quarter to keep some drives going and we didn't do that," Head Coach Mike Shanahan said. "You play on the road, you play at the level we played at, you get embarrassed and that's what we did."
"When you play like that, the results are always going to be like this," said cornerback Champ Bailey. "This is the NFL. You slip up once or twice here and there, they're going to take advantage of it."
The Broncos had a chance to tie the game in the first quarter after Jordan Beck recovered an on-side kickoff at the Detroit 46, but Jason Elam missed a 48-yard field goal attempt off the left upright after the Broncos gained a first down. Denver wouldn't cross midfield again until nearly halfway through the third quarter, by which time the Lions led 23-0.
"It starts with me. I didn't get these guys ready to play," Shanahan said. "Obviously we didn't get it done. I thought we were ready to play, but we had too many mistakes."
The Broncos lost three fumbles and had one interception. Two of the turnovers were directly returned for second-half scores -- a 3-yard fumble return by Dwayne White and a 66-yard interception return by Shaun Rogers -- that turned the game into a rout.
"There's no way to explain it," cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "You look back and there's so many plays that you look back and you feel like if they had gone a different way you can turn the tide, so it's tough to deal with."
Added fellow cornerback Dre' Bly, who returned to Ford Field for the first time since his March trade from Detroit: "We've got to look in the mirror and see if you're doing your job. We've got to play hard and execute. Football is about one-on-one, winning individually and just competing every snap. I don't know if we're doing that as a whole.
"Apparently we didn't do it today because we got beat bad. We just have to evaluate ourselves and look in the mirror."
The loss dropped the Broncos to 3-5. Detroit, which improved to 6-2 with the win, defeated the Broncos for the first time since Thanksgiving Day 1990, when the Lions handed the Broncos a 40-27 loss at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Denver barely managed to avert its first shutout since Nov. 22, 1992 when substitute quarterback Patrick Ramsey found Brandon Stokley for a 2-yard touchdown connection with 2:31 left in the contest. However, the seven points scored meant that the Broncos scored fewer than 20 points for the fifth time in eight games this season.
The Broncos had another chance at a touchdown with 15 seconds remaining, but Brian Clark fumbled the football into the end zone while stretching out in an attempt to score his first NFL touchdown. Idrees Bashir recovered for the Colts, and after an instant-replay delay, the Lions ran out the remaining seconds.
Meanwhile, Cutler remained sidelined, consigned to watching in team-issue sweats from the bench area. He finished his day with three completions in four attempts for 20 yards.
Cutler's X-rays revealed no fractures in the fibula, but he faces an MRI on Monday and acknowledged that he was "a little nervous" about what it could reveal.
"It hurts to put weight on it," Cutler said. "It hurt to run. We'll see (Monday).
"I'm happy it's not broken, but we'll see. There could be a hairline (fracture) in there. Hopefully it's just bruised and I'll be able to go next week."
And next week can't come soon enough for the Broncos, who have lost four of their last five games and have allowed 83 more points than they've scored so far this season -- a per-game discrepancy of 10.4 points. Yet the AFC West's two first-place teams remain just one game clear of the Broncos; both the Kansas City Chiefa and San Diego Chargers lost on Sunday, placing them square at .500 halfway through the season while the Broncos are 3-5.
The Broncos may be struggling, but their placement in the standings and the forthcoming games on the schedule -- four against AFC West opponents in the next seven weeks, including two against Kansas City and one at San Diego -- leaves the Broncos an opportunity to reclaim control of the division if they can remedy their issues posthaste.
"We're still one game out," Shanahan said. " I look at it that eight or nine guys are playing together, and we've got to get the other two on the same page. We do that, then we've got a chance to move the football like we did earlier.
"My mindset has never been to play for next year, and it never will be. Do we have some young guys that have to grow up and eliminate mistakes? Yeah."
Whether the Broncos can do that will determine the ultimate fate of their 48th season.
INJURIES TAKE TOLL
The Broncos came into the game wounded. Three players on their 53-man roster were scratched for their infirmities -- John Lynch with a pinched nerve, Jarvis Moss because of the fractured fibula and torn ankle ligaments he suffered three days earlier in practice, and Javon Walker, who underwent knee surgery on Oct. 19. They joined a parade of starters and contributors who had already gone on injured reserve or had been ruled out for the season -- wide receiver Rod Smith, tight ends Nate Jackson and Stephen Alexander, guard Ben Hamilton, center Tom Nalen and defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban.
When Cutler hit the ground early in the second quarter, the arrival of team medical personnel on the field ensured that the seemingly ceaseless plague of injuries would continue. It did, as running back Travis Henry, left tackle Matt Lepsis, linebacker D.J. Williams and wide receiver Brandon Marshall were all treated by doctors and trainers on the field, although Lepsis, Williams and Marshall returned to the action shortly after leaving.
Even in the game's final moments, the specter of infirmity loomed when Glenn Martinez absorbed a crunching shot and fell to the turf with 57 seconds remaining, taking several moments before he could rise and walk back to the sidelines.
"It's not just 'Not again,' it's, 'What's next?' Birds are going to start falling out of the sky?" an exasperated Ferguson vented in the locker room. "It's been one of those days and one of those months where you just try to find answers and ask yourself, 'Why is this going on? How long is this going to continue?' But I guess if you ask yourself those two questions, all the answers lie within us."
Henry fell to the ground midway through the third quarter after a 22-yard dash that moved the Broncos to the Detroit 5-yard-line -- their deepest foray into Detroit territory to that point. He attempted to rise and walk back to the huddle, but then fell to the ground, diagnosed with a left knee injury.
"The way I hit it, I was awkward," Henry said.
The seventh-year running back -- who ended the day with 31 yards on nine carries -- felt as though he could have come back if needed. He posted just one carry the rest of the game, going for no gain on the next possession. The Broncos ended the game with 21 passes on 24 fourth-quarter snaps, including 15 consecutive passes to close the game.
- After being listed as questionable throughout the last week with a pinched nerve, John Lynch was inactive for Sunday's game. His participation in the Thursday and Friday practice had been limited due to the injury. Joining him among the game-day inactives were fullback/running back Mike Bell, wide receiver Javon Walker, tight end Chad Mustard, guard Isaac Snell, defensive tackle Amon Gordon, defensive end Jarvis Moss and safety Curome Cox.
- Andre Hall averaged 29.0 yards on his four kickoff returns.
- Detroit outgained the Broncos 219 yards to 69 in the first half and had a 15-3 advantage in first downs.
- The Broncos opened the game in a two-tight end formation, with Daniel Graham and Tony Scheffler starting.
- Alvin McKinley started for Marcus Thomas at defensive tackle, although the rookie did play Sunday. Domonique Foxworth drew the start in place of John Lynch at free safety.
- Sunday's game was the Broncos' first regular-season contest at Ford Field.
- Todd Sauerbrun logged a net punting average of 41.7 yards. His gross average was 45.0 yards.
- The Broncos have now lost five consecutive games to NFC North opponents dating back to 2003.