The Broncos' 31-25 loss to the Texans yesterday followed a pattern familiar to viewers of last week's defeat to the Falcons -- fall behind due to persistent offensive ineptitude, then make a furious fourth quarter comeback that makes the final score respectable but still falls short. However, it was also a fascinating psychological study of Peyton Manning and the team as a whole -- one that turns on a weird blend of insecurity and ego.
The reasons for onetime gunslinger Manning to feel iffy about himself may not be clear from the turnover stat line. After all, he had no interceptions during the contest, as compared to three in the first quarter last week. But Sunday's clean marks were more about luck than a sudden increase in precision. Just as Peyton's receivers dropped a number of very catchable balls, so, too, did the Texans fail to haul in several shoulda-been picks.
Indeed, questions about Manning's hurling ability go well beyond the number of times his onetime tight spiral was replaced by the wobbles. He not only missed plenty of targets throughout the course of the game, but he did so badly -- by yards, not feet. Granted, a number of other tosses were impressive and on-point, but he remains erratic and unpredictable by his standards. He keeps telling folks he's not all the way back to his performance peak, and it's time to believe him.
As a result, the Broncos offense spent much of Sunday afternoon looking as if the players were more concerned with not making mistakes than about scoring points. Moreover, the braintrust is unwilling to commit more fully to the no-huddle, even though this format is clearly the one in which Manning and company have been most effective, as seen late in the game, when the Broncos finally found the end zone not once but twice. Why? From comments Manning has made, he seems to regard this approach as a crutch, and so he appears determined to show he doesn't need it to succeed. But to paraphrase Herm Edwards, the object is to win the game, not do it in the most macho, shove-it-in-their-faces way.
Something similar is going on with the Broncos defense. Despite an Elvis Dumervil sack of Matt Schaub in the end zone on the Texans' first offensive play, Denver was unable to persistently pressure the Houston QB during the first half, leading to one big play after another, and a hole that ultimately proved to large to escape. The situation didn't improve until the second half, when defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio finally acquiesced and began blitzing in a variety of aggressive ways -- one of which ended with linebacker Joe Mays nearly removing Schaub's head. That's macho of a different sort -- an insistence that the Broncos generate heat with the standard rush package even if it's not working. And it wasn't.
Yes, the Denver squad once again showed resilience and a never-say-die attitude. But there are no Brownie points in the NFL. This team has got to do what it takes to win -- and that means being willing to switch tactics if earlier approaches don't work. Had the Broncos done so earlier in the past two games, they might be sitting at 3-0. Instead, they're 1-2 going into a game against Oakland that won't be the cakewalk some Denver fans seem to believe -- especially if Manning and the defense continue to be tentative for the first three quarters of the game.
Look below to see a clip of Mays' hit on Schaub, as well as an ESPN analysis.
More from our Sports archive: "Videos: Bronco Peyton Manning's march to Super Bowl intercepted by Falcons."