Last Jan. 3, Denver had playoff implications on the line hosting KC at Invesco Field at Mile High in the final regular-season game. Jamal Charles rambled for 259 of the Chiefs' 317 rushing yards and scored 34 second-half points to forcibly end Denver's season.
The Chiefs returned this season with new players and experienced coaches who were further enveloped in New England's model of doing business. That foundation appears even stronger as KC preps for a return visit to Denver on Nov. 14 with a winning record.
Surely, this is a different Denver squad, which is hoping that past performance isn't necessarily an indicator of future results. The Broncos entered the 2009 bye week at 6-0 and a near-lock for the playoffs. Four straight losses coming out of the off-week sent the franchise into a downward spiral from which it never recovered. At various points, coach Josh McDaniels has spoken about how the players reacted too high to the successes and overanalyzed poor performances to the point of becoming detrimental in ensuing games. The coach this year is hoping that a little relaxation will do the Broncos good, with clear minds and a sense of purpose moving forward. Since returning from the London trip, the only team-mandated activity were a full squad meeting, followed by four days off, light conditioning Sunday and perhaps another off-day Monday before embarking on preparations for their AFC West rival.
It could be a springboard for Denver with five division games remaining.
It also could be the just the beginning of the end.
QB Kyle Orton, despite increased pressure from opposing pass rushes in recent weeks and virtually no help from the running game, is effectively spreading the ball to his receivers and generally staying out of trouble, with just five interceptions.
WR Brandon Lloyd is having a Pro Bowl season, or at the very least put himself in contention for Comeback Player of the Year. After sitting out 14 games last season, he joins Jerry Rice and Webster Slaughter as the only two receivers in NFL history with 800 yards after eight game with at least 20.0 yards per catch.
CB Champ Bailey has only a single interception but his coverage skills haven't seemed to diminish.
The rushing offense is mired in last place in the NFL rankings and the rush defense is not far behind. Those are core areas in gauging the toughness and physicality in the trenches, along with discipline to execute one's own assignments. All have been lacking.
Offensive tackle Ryan Clady, coming off his first All Pro season, is not moving as fluidly despite gutting it out coming off a torn patellar tendon. His counterpart at right tackle, Ryan Harris, lost his job, whether due to health, performance or future financial considerations.
Elvis Dumervil, the 2009 sack leader is on IR, and can't provide reinforcements.
--The Broncos have had poor starts, inconsistent red-zone performances, third-down issues, trouble stopping the run and running the ball, spotty pressure on the quarterback and a lack of takeaways through eight games.
But their inability to finish has been as big or bigger than any of those issues.
It started in the opener, when, trailing 17-14 entering the fourth quarter, Denver scored just a field goal over the final 15 minutes. Since a comeback victory at Tennessee in Week 4, the Broncos have either tied or led in the final period three times but couldn't close vs. the New York Jets and San Francisco.
Overall, Denver has been outscored 70-42 in fourth quarters.
"You can look at our season in a lot of different ways, but the fact of the matter is we've won two so far, and all of the other games are losses," safety Brian Dawkins said. "That's the reality of it, and we have to make sure the second half of the season doesn't mirror the first half."
--Demaryius Thomas, Denver's first of two No. 1 picks last April, has continued to run back kicks but with Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd and Eddie Royal entrenched in three-wide sets, the first-year player has had only limited snaps offensively.
"However much Demaryius plays is up to him, like everyone else who makes his own role on the team," QB Kyle Orton said recently. "(But) he's done a good job when he's been in to get open and make big catches for us."
Thomas is averaging 13.4 yards on 14 receptions with two scores. He's one of four NFL players to record at least one TD, reception, rushing attempt, kick return and special-teams tackle this season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 91 -- Passing plays on third down out of 112 opportunities this season for Denver. That lack of balance offensively reflects the long-yardage situations the team has faced, with two yards or fewer to go just 18 times as compared to 3-5 yards to go (32), 6-10 yards to go (39) and 11 or more yards to go (23). The Broncos, the worst rushing team in the league, have run the ball just twice compared to 30 dropbacks on third-and-3, third-and-4 and third-and-5, a marked departure for a team that not long ago was heralded for its premier ground game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've got some guys missing, some guys coming back for the first time that we don't feel are 100 percent. That's not an excuse, but we'll take the opportunity to heal up and understand that we still have an opportunity to win our division and, right now, we're the only people that believe inside the locker room. That's the way we've got to handle it." -- LB Mario Haggan, on using the bye as a springboard rather than an opportunity to lament lost opportunities.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Broncos are getting a chance to heal both mentally and physically at the bye after a long trip home from London.
McDaniels gathered the team for a mandatory full-squad meeting Tuesday but then excused the players until Sunday, when they'll do some conditioning work.
The Broncos won't be on the field for practice until Nov. 8.
In the meantime, the coaching staff will undergo a quick evaluation of the defensive and offensive schemes and see if any short-term tweaks can be made.
"We're halfway through the season, so this isn't something we can sit here and talk about maybe developing things over the course of months and months, because we've only got eight weeks left," McDaniels said after the 49ers loss.
"So we've got to try to do that in a hurry and try to fix something where there's not going to be a laundry list of things ... (but) find the ones that may make the biggest difference."
It's difficult to predict what those items will be.
Denver already has used a combination of a heavy 4-3 front and a 3-4 as base defensive alignments. On offense, the team has employed both a man-to-man power-based run scheme along with zone-blocking principles. And there aren't many reinforcements from a personnel standpoint, with nearly all the key reserves having already played extensively.
One area to watch may be the offensive line where the Broncos have tried various combinations before settling on Russ Hochstein at left guard and rookie Zane Beadles at right tackle. Denver could conceivably move Beadles back to left guard, where he played during the preseason, and re-insert Ryan Harris into the lineup.
But Harris seems to be on the outs, despite entering the year as one of the team's top core players.
Denver may also tweak the nickel personnel, potentially inserting rookie Perrish Cox as the fifth defensive back over Nate Jones.
--QB Kyle Orton entered last weekend tied with San Diego's Philip Rivers with 28 completions of 25-plus yards.
--WR Jabar Gaffney caught 14 passes for 213 yards in the last meeting with KC on Jan. 3
--LB D.J. Williams in the only player in the NFL to lead his team in tackles (72) and sacks (3.5), according to press box statistics.
--CB Perrish Cox, CB Cassius Vaughn and CB Syd'Quan Thompson have had a hand in five of Denver's nine takeaways this season. Thomspon and Cox have interceptions. Vaughn has to two fumble recoveries, Cox has forced a fumble.
INJURY IMPACT: Denver left five players at home for its pre-bye London excursion -- linebackers Robert Ayers (foot) and Wesley Woodyard (hamstring), safety Darcel McBath (ankle), defensive end Kevin Vickerson (groin) and cornerback Perrish Cox (concussion).
McDaniels isn't particularly forthcoming with issues relating to player health, but indications are that McBath is the most seriously hurt of the group and that Ayers could be back in relatively short order -- "soon" and not on injured reserve, as the coach recently described it.
Woodyard and Vickerson have tried to play through their injuries and the extended time off should help their prospects for a quick return.
Cox hadn't been cleared by doctors as of late last week after suffering memory loss in the Oakland game. But the cornerback did say it was his first head injury, so his prospects to play vs. Kansas City on Nov. 14, barring a setback, appear decent.
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