ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The result last Thursday made it a night to forget. But the foibles of eventual champions in recent Decembers have demonstrated the potential value in a late-season loss, or two, or three -- or even four, as the Baltimore Ravens demonstrated last year.
That's why there was no sense of panic in the Broncos' locker room Friday and Monday. The cliche' "business as usual" would have been apt; there was little sense of alarm, even before the Patriots ceded the inside track on the No. 1 AFC playoff seed back to Denver.
Broncos Head Coach John Fox called Monday's practice a chance to "reboot a little bit," and this can only be a positive. It offers a chance to recuperate, reassess and understand what has worked for the Broncos, and how to avoid falling into the trap against San Diego.
It was a frustrating night for the Broncos' running game. Its season-low workload by both total and proportion (11 carries, 20.8 percent of the snaps). But much of this was situational in nature.
A clear turning point for the offense was when Chargers linebacker Reggie Walker blew through tight end Virgil Green to stop Montee Ball for a 6-yard-loss with 2:35 left in the first quarter. Prior to this play, the Broncos had rushed five times for 19 yards, running on five of their first 12 plays; the stop of Ball made it six of 13.
After that, the Broncos ran on just five of their next 40 plays, thanks to a variety of situational factors:
- Down and distance. The Broncos had second-and-16 after Ball's run, so they passed on consecutive plays.
- Lack of opportunities. The Broncos' next two series saw them go three-and-out, but they opened with runs on each possession, with Knowshon Moreno limited to two yards on two carries. A better outcome on intermediate passes on the second downs that followed likely would have led to longer drives that likely would have had the Broncos' typical season-long balance.
- Clock time: The Broncos' following series began with 58 seconds left in the first half, the football at their 23-yard-line and two timeouts remaining. This was a more pass-intensive situation; running might have been a viable option if the Broncos were at midfield, and still had two timeouts remaining.
- Deficit: By the time the Broncos saw the football again, they trailed by 14 points. Even with 26:05 left in the game, the Chargers' ability to grind up yards and clock put them in comeback mode; thus, their first second-half series saw four consecutive passes and three snaps out of the no-huddle.
It took a perfect storm, aided by the Chargers' consistent offense and the Broncos' inability to get it off the field -- through Rhilip Rivers' pinpoint accuracy self-inflicted wounds like penalties and a failure to contain Ryan Mathews on the stretch play -- to force the Broncos away from their typical patience with the run game.
Denver came into the game right in the middle of the pack when it came to run-pass balance, having run on 41.98 percent of their plays. That ranked 16th in the league, and was 0.49 percent above the league average. If the Broncos can get the flow of their next two games back to normal, expect the Broncos to resume their ground emphasis.
- Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton played a season-high 57 snaps (78 percent) against the Chargers. He has played 65.1 percent of the defensive plays in the last three games, all played without Kevin Vickerson. In Vickerson's 11 games, Knighton saw 51.1 percent of the snaps.
- Three of the Broncos' four longest plays (all over 20 yards) came on their first two possessions.
- Perhaps the most important play from a positive perspective for Denver's offense was the fourth-and-6 conversion that saw Peyton Manning hit Andre Caldwell for a 15-yard gain. It was Manning doing what he does best: reading the defense on the fly. In this case, he watched Walker pass off coverage responsibility to Shareece Wright. This left Caldwell underneath Wright, and Manning located a perfect strike.