DENVER -- Champions have been exactly where the Broncos sit today after Thursday's 27-20 defeat to the Chargers: humbled and faced with more questions than answers.
Champions like the Baltimore Ravens last year, who in Week 15 were humbled by the Broncos, nine games into an 11-game winning streak. Or the New York Giants the year before, who in Week 15 were smashed at home by a Washington team that had clinched nothing but a New Year's locker cleanout. Or the 2010 Packers. And the 2009 Saints, who saw an unbeaten season go up in smoke.
They all lost in Week 15. So did the 2007 Giants. The 2008 Steelers and 2006 Colts won in this week -- and then dropped a game the week after that.
All late-season losers. All applied the lessons of a chastening result to rebound for a world-championship run. For some, defeat opened their eyes to their strengths and weaknesses, forcing a lineup switch or an altered emphasis.
If the Broncos are to apply this loss properly, it starts with refocusing on the details. There were plenty of reasons why the Chargers won, and all three phases were culpable.
The offense struggled to just two first downs, 31 yards and an average of 1.94 yards a play in the second and third quarters. The defense allowed San Diego to convert six of its first nine third downs. The special teams squandered one of those three third-down stops in that span with a costly neutral-zone infraction against Nate Irving that turned fourth-and-4 into first-and-10, and allowed the Chargers to bleed another 6:47 from the clock.
"We made the careless mistakes and when you do that, that is when you usually lose," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
A lack of energy also seemed obvious to some.
"I don't know what was going on, I just feel like we were a little bit too lax out there," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "They played with more intensity than us."
Added linebacker Danny Trevathan: "I think we played ball, but we kind of gave them a little bit too much."
But mental mistakes and energy are fixable problems. Like every team since the 1972 Dolphins, the 2013 Broncos have flaws, and the Chargers struck at what they perceived to be Denver's weak points -- a defensive interior rocked by injuries and a secondary that has seen rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster and safety Omar Bolden, a cornerback for his football life until late August, pressed into extensive service.
But this is a team with far fewer flaws than most. Peyton Manning is still on pace for a league record in touchdown passes. The team remains on pace to break the league's single-season scoring record; it has averaged 38.2 points per game and needs to average 27.0 the next two weeks to tie the mark.
It's a team that had a lousy day down the stretch, like the champions of past years. They turned their defeats into something grand. Can this loss be turned into a positive?
"Oh, yeah," said Harris. "I mean, we're (11-3), man. We still have a good team. I mean, it's not the end of the world. You're going to take losses.
"I think it's good to be able to learn from this game, learn from not trying to beat ourselves. It kind of keeps everybody hungry. When you take a loss like this, it kind of wakes everybody up to step their game up another level. We'll definitely bounce back."
This is the test that champions pass. The next few weeks will determine whether the Broncos have that same timber.