The Broncos' 39-33 defeat to Indianapolis last night was undeniably gut-wrenching. But did it come from out of the blue? Not if you've been paying attention.
Over the past few weeks, Denver's been flirting with catastrophe on a regular basis, only to survive with their impressive regular-season winning streak intact. Now, given the first loss of the season, we've got to ask: Has Denver been overrated all along, with fans and prognosticators alike overlooking obvious flaws? Or was this simply a wake-up call?
As has been especially clear in wins over the Cowboys and the Jaguars, but pretty plain during prior weeks, too, Denver's defense is extremely vulnerable to a decent quarterback given the dearth of a consistent, effective pass rush -- and Indy's Andrew Luck certainly deserves that descriptor, despite his only adequate neckbeard. So after rushing three consecutive times on their opening possession without gaining ten yards, the Colts wisely concentrated on moving through the air from that point forward -- and move they did.
Granted, there didn't seem to be any reason to panic early -- not with the Broncos scoring a quick TD on a two-play, under-one-minute drive cashed in with a touchdown to Eric Decker.
But shortly thereafter, gifted fumble machine Trindon Holliday coughed up the ball on a kickoff return, leading to a recovery by Sergio Brown.
No, what initially seemed like a Brown touchdown was taken off the board. But the next play, Luck took advantage of Holliday's gift with a TD strike to Darrius Heyard-Bey.
Things only got worse from there -- and we're not only talking about the Robert Mathis sorta-sack that resulted in a safety:
After Luck hit tight end Coby Fleener....
...the score was 26-14 with only seconds to go until halftime, leaving Manning with nothing to do other than take a humiliating knee and head to the locker room down by a dozen.
The situation improved in the second half, but not quickly or completely enough.
Continue for more about the Broncos-Colts game, including additional photos and a video. Rather than roaring out of the box in the third quarter, the Broncos had several empty possessions owing to iffy play-calling and the Colts' ability to dominate Denver's injury depleted offensive line.
No such issues for Luck, who took advantage of a short-field to score using his legs....
...bringing the tally to 33-14.
At that point, the situation looked bleak, but the Broncos didn't fold, chipping away at the Indianapolis lead with a field goal that should have been a touchdown (the Eric Decker pylon touch and drop is certainly worth debating), an underthrown Peyton pass that Demaryius Thomas managed to grab in the end zone, a Knowshon Moreno score following a Trent Richardson turnover, and a brilliant drive that should have brought the score to 39-37 were it not for Ronnie Hillman doing what Ronnie Hillman does: fumble.
Shall we agree that Ronnie Hillman should not carry the ball again this season for the Broncos? No argument? Okay, let's move on.
Thanks to Hillman's gaffe, a comeback was pretty much impossible at that point, and while Denver managed to get a field goal to cut the lead to six, a bizarre series of penalties on Colts punts ate thirty badly needed seconds, and an onside kick failed. The result was defeat.
Does Peyton deserve the blame for choking in his much-ballyhooed return to Indianapolis -- the sort of big game gag to which Colts owner Jim Irsay alluded to earlier in the week? Not from my perspective. Give the Colts credit for designing an aggressive defensive scheme that relied on man-to-man coverage and a tough rush that kept Manning on his heels far too often, leading to a late-game interception among other problems.
As such, the trouble remains the defense. Champ Bailey was injured during the contest, but even before then, it was clear he's no longer the brilliant corner this surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer once was. Moreover, Von Miller proved to be merely okay after completing his six-game drug-violation suspension, as anyone without rose-colored glasses knew he would be: No one returns from that long a layoff to instantly achieve top form. Even with Miller, the pass rush was what it has been all along this season -- utterly inadequate. That, and those turovers, allowed Luck to take advantage, and he did so.
Can other Denver opponents follow this formula? Frankly, yes. The defensive inadequacies put tremendous pressure on Manning to put up huge numbers every week -- and since three touchdown passes, 386 yards through air and 33 points weren't enough this week, "huge" is no exaggeration.
What's next? Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio -- a very bright guy -- needs to come up with some new schemes to get more out of the personnel he's got, or the Broncos' Super Bowl dreams could turn into another early playoff exit.
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Look below to see Peyton Manning's post-game comments courtesy of 9News.
More from our Sports archive: "Photos: The ten best neckbeards in history versus Andrew Luck."