Over the past week, I've been telling every Broncos loyalist within the sound of my voice that Denver wouldn't cover the 28-point spread over Jacksonville -- reportedly the largest margin ever in the NFL. But I thought the reason would be boredom: Peyton Manning and company would jump out to a hefty lead, then take the foot off the gas, allowing the woeful Jags to pick up cheap, garbage-time points while everyone waited for the clock to finally, blessedly expire. But that's not the way thing worked out.
The game began with Jacksonville looking even sadder and more desperate than expected: After failing to make a first down on three tries, the squad faked a punt from deep in their own end of the field. The result was a gift-wrapped touchdown to Julius Thomas. And then, after the Jaguars bogged down on their next possession, Manning marched the squad down field with alacrity, paying off the drive with a twenty-yard strike to Wes Welker.
At that point, pretty much every citizen in Broncos Nation and beyond figured the laugher was on -- but the Jags didn't cooperate.
Last week against the Dallas Cowboys, the Broncos defense, marked by an astonishingly anemic pass rush that regularly hung corners and safeties out to dry, made QB Tony Romo look like a surefire Hall of Famer -- and while Jacksonville quarterback Chad Henne didn't quite manage the same transformation, he was able to move the ball through the air on Denver with disgusting ease, thanks to a major assist from receiver Justin Blackmon, who finished with fourteen receptions and 190 yards.
By the way, Sports Illustrated's Michael Beller published a post before the game suggesting that fantasy players start Blackmon. Clearly, he was right -- and you can bet fantasy experts will make similar suggestions about the best receiver on every Broncos opponent the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, Manning was being harassed and put on the ground regularly....
...leading to understandable frustration and startling judgement lapses epitomized by a pick six to one Paul Posluszky:
Due to gaffes like this one, the Jags only trailed the Broncos 14-12 at halftime. And while the Broncos began the second half in the usual fashion, with a touchdown (cashed in by Knowshon Moreno, who found the end zone three times), they subsequently kept Jacksonville in the game via poor pass defense and offensive mistakes like a poor Manny Ramirez snap that led to a Jags fumble recovery inside Denver's ten:
Folks who'd bet Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler would wind up playing more than Manning were wrong. Peyton had to stick around for the entire game, and while the score suggests the Broncos won comfortably, it sure as hell didn't feel like it.
Post-game, the optimistic spin involved the Broncos being understandably flat against a far inferior opponent but getting the stinker everyone knew was coming out of their system and earning a "W" in the process. Besides, Von Miller is coming back next week after his six-game suspension, surely revitalizing the pass rush in the process.
But that viewpoint doesn't pass the eyeball test. Given his extended stretch on the shelf, Miller is unlikely to come back in top form; it'll take a few weeks for that to happen. Moreover, after the Dallas and Jacksonville games, other teams now know the way to attack Denver is to pass, pass, pass, knowing their quarterback will have all the time in the world to find his target. And given that the next opponent is the Indianapolis Colts, whose Andrew Luck is having an excellent season, that's a flat-out terrifying scenario.
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A couple of weeks ago, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's name was being bandied about as the likely next head coach for college powerhouse USC, his alma mater. We're not hearing that now, however, and there's a reason for that: His squad blows. And with tougher Broncos challenges on the way -- not just the Colts, but the New England Patriots and the still-undefeated Kansas City Chiefs (twice) -- he needs a new scheme to prevent the Broncos great start from being severely dented.
Here's a CBS4 interview with Champ Bailey, who returned from injury to suffer through what happened at Mile High Stadium yesterday.
More from our Sports archive following the Cowboys game last week: "Top twenty meanest tweets about Comcast outage during Broncos game."