Struggling Broncos Still Sit Atop AFC West

By: AP
By: AP

The Denver Broncos are mired in an ugly epidemic of injuries, interceptions and inconsistency. In this bizarre season, though, they're also sitting pretty atop the woeful AFC West.

At 6-5, they're two games ahead of scuffling San Diego and are on pace to do something they've never done in their history: maintain sole possession of their division from wire to wire.

So, in coach Mike Shanahan's eyes, the glass is definitely half-full despite a difficult home stretch and a plethora of problems that include a minus-12 turnover differential.

"Offensively, we're doing some good things," he said. "Any time you're averaging fifth in yards per pass and fifth in yards per rush, you're doing some good things. But you can't turn the football over, which we've talked about. Anytime you're 31st in the league in turnovers, you're lucky to be 6-5."

If the Broncos hold on to their lead, they'll have at least one home playoff game, even if their wild-card opponent has a better record - which is quite likely.

"We've been through this for a lot of years. We've been 13-3 and the second seed. Sometimes things like this happen. You just have to keep on fighting and you play your best football once you get to the playoffs. Hopefully, we can keep improving and get there," Shanahan said.

"Hey, believe me, we don't have to make any excuses for the AFC West over the years, I can guarantee that. But I have felt this way about other teams sometimes. When you do have that record and a team is 8-8 or 9-7, and you're saying, 'Gosh, here we are 13-3 and we've got to go on the road.' So, it's not perfect, but I'm liking it more this year than in years past."

Despite five losses in eight games, the Broncos aren't totally in the dumps following their loss to archrival Oakland on Sunday because the Chargers (4-7), the trendy Super Bowl pick not that long ago, lost to Indianapolis and are in even worse shape.

And that brings relief to Dove Valley.

"Oh, without a question," Shanahan said. "You're playing for something."

Denver hasn't been to the postseason since losing the AFC championship to Pittsburgh three years ago.

The Broncos have plenty of room for improvement in all areas, as evidenced by their 31-10 loss to Oakland on Sunday, when they killed a promising opening drive when quarterback Jay Cutler forgot the play and fumbled the handoff to Peyton Hillis at the Oakland 7 instead of pitching it to Tatum Bell.

The rookie-laden Broncos hung their heads and unraveled, missing 21 passes and two field goals, giving up an 88-yard punt return for a touchdown and allowing Oakland's offense, which hadn't scored in 206 plays and 15 quarters, to reach the end zone three times in a span of 18 plays.

"I'm not going to say they outplayed us, I'm not," cornerback Dre' Bly said. "We outplayed ourselves."

Which is Bly's way of saying the Broncos once again have themselves to blame.

Maybe they shouldn't be so hard on themselves considering:

--They're down to their fifth starting tailback, the most in the 14-year Shanahan era;

--They have backups playing all three linebacker positions;

--Their secondary has been an ongoing experiment ever since Hamza Abdullah and John Lynch failed to make it out of training camp;

-- They've had to rely on a dozen rookies to make immediate contributions.

So it's easy to see why the Broncos are so maddeningly inconsistent. How they hand the Falcons their first loss at home one week, then get routed at home by a 2-8 Raiders team. And how they can beat Tampa Bay, but are the only team to lose to Kansas City this season.

For a while, special teams was the only saving grace for the Broncos. Matt Prater made 13 of his first 14 field goal attempts and nobody was fretting over Jason Elam's offseason departure to Atlanta.

But Prater has even fallen into the funk, missing five of his last nine attempts over the last four games, prompting Shanahan to suggest he's lost his confidence.

Shanahan never had to deal with kicking issues in Denver before because Elam was money for 15 seasons. So, just how can he and his staff help a kicker iron out issues that are mental, not mechanical?

"You bring in another kicker," Shanahan cracked. "That's what you call tough love."

Not that Shanahan has any kickers coming in for tryouts just yet.

"No. No. No, it's just, you know, the guy feels like he's got the weight of the world on his shoulders," Shanahan said. "And he's just got to work through it."


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