INDIANAPOLIS –As long as Peyton Manning is upright, the Broncos are on a road that could lead in the direction of a Super Bowl.
That's been the single most dominant truth all year, and it did not change with Sunday's 39-33 loss to the Colts in Manning's first game in Indianapolis since that team released him 19 months ago. Only one team has a better record than the Broncos, and they have a chance to overturn that on their own in a head-to-head series next month.
But reaching the Super Bowl is no longer as simple as letting Manning take a shotgun snap, wait for the receivers to make their breaks, and throw. Not with injuries mounting faster than points, and two games in which the Jaguars and Colts successfully contained the Denver offense just enough to prevent a re-rerun of the team's half-century outbursts of Weeks 4 and 5.
There is a blueprint now, and in the last two weeks, it has kept the Broncos from pinball score totals: aggressive coverage near the line of scrimmage from cornerbacks, deep coverage from safeties and pressure from the front four. Given the nature of the NFL's lofty competition level, it was inevitable that someone would craft a defensive game plan that slowed the Broncos' sprint. It's not a plan that everyone can execute, but it's enough to force the Broncos to do something that seemed impossible in their first five games: to tinker, fix and improve.
"We're nearing the midway point here and we have some things to get better at," said tight end Jacob Tamme. "We've been saying that even though we've been winning games but now it's pretty clear we can get better as some things.
"Some of you guys didn't believe us, but we can get a lot better -- and we have to find a way to do that."
It might have already begun in the fourth quarter, when the offense consistently capitalized. .Manning settled in and began picking apart the Colts' secondary on deep passes; he had six completions of at least 20 yards in the fourth quarter alone, more than he had in any game from Week 2-5 and as many as he had in all of Week 6. But the protection broke down three times in the final eight minutes; Erik Walden's pressure past Julius Thomas led to an interception, and the protection collapsed on a pair of other plays that ended in sacks.
Those were the mistakes the offense couldn't afford late; it needed to be perfect to overcome a mid-game stretch of seven possessions that included one kneeldown, one first down, one fumble and five punts. Including penalties, the Broncos netted just 23 yards on the 22 plays they ran during this mid-game run; in the same span, the Colts netted 179 yards on 29 plays. Most importantly, Indianapolis scored 23 consecutive points.
"(We) hit a little rut there with some three-and-outs," said Manning. "Give their defense a lot of credit and then our execution just wasn't as sharp. We were kind of going first down, second down, third down and couldn't find much of a rhythm."
But that was only part of the Broncos' problems. Self-inflicted wounds like penalties and Ronnie Hillman's fourth-quarter, goal-to-go fumble hurt.
"We probably made more mistakes tonight than all season long, put together," said cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. "We beat ourselves. We can't have this many mistakes."
But there's one thing the Broncos can't fix: injuries.
Champ Bailey's re-injured foot was the latest twist of painful fate to befall the Broncos in a year where the injury report has been required reading, going all the way back to the offseason, when more than half of the starting offensive line was recovering from one surgery or another.
But Bailey's injury didn't define the game in the way that the losses of offensive tackles Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin in the past month did. The resulting shuffling left the Broncos prone to attack from the outside, and the Colts made them pay, with Robert Mathis beating left tackle Chris Clark for a pair of sacks, one of which resulted in a safety – and led to a possession off a free kick that ended in an Indianapolis touchdown.
"Injuries are a part of it. You have to be able to overcome those things. Certainly we had some guys playing in some different spots tonight," said Manning. "That's never easy, playing on the road in a loud stadium against a good pass rush. But, we'll learn from it and try to be better the next time."
It also didn't have the same impact that the continued absence of Wesley Woodyard to a neck injury did. With Woodyard watching, the Broncos were unable to contain Andrew Luck when he escaped the pocket, and he gained 30 yards on his three scrambles, including a 10-yard touchdown run that pushed the Colts' lead to 33-14 with 20 minutes left in the game.
On the positive side, the Broncos cleaned up plenty of issues late. Indianapolis' only first downs on their final five possessions came via Broncos penalties. The passing game found its rhythm.
These are the inevitable crevices in a road that is rarely smooth. Whether they are potholes or sinkholes depends entirely on the weeks to come.
"You know you're going to go through difficulties. That's part of the things you have to go through to become a champion," said Harris, Jr. "This team is going to come together and not lose sight of what the goal is."
The goal of a Super Bowl remains well within view. But just getting to the point where it can be seen with binocluars has already required a few detours – and it's likely there are more to come.