Broncos Update Inside Slant - November 5

Prime time in Week 9 proved just as devastating this year as a year ago. Then, a 34-10 loss to Oakland turned a once-promising season into an unfulfilled one. Unless the Broncos can stop the bleeding after the bye, 2003 may follow the same trend.

After a 4-0 start, Denver finds itself at 5-4, having lost three straight. They are 3 1/2 games behind AFC West leading Kansas City, which means their best route to the playoffs likely will be via the wild-card. Having lost the tiebreaker with New England now, they need to hope the Patriots win the AFC East and that Miami or Tennessee stumble down the stretch.

Last year, Denver finished 9-7 and in a three-way tie for the wild-card, but lost out on the tiebreaker. If the playoffs were to start today, the Broncos once again would be on the outside looking in. The good news is that they have a relatively easy stretch coming up after the bye, with three straight games against teams with miserable records.

They also should get three, possibly four starters back with quarterback Jake Plummer, left tackle Ephraim Salaam and wide receiver Ed McCaffrey expected to return. If linebacker John Mobley is cleared to play again, he likely will be back after the bye.

"It's tough," Danny Kanell said of Denver's heartbreaking last-minute loss to New England. "But we have to regroup and come back fighting."

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--QB Jake Plummer had an X-ray Monday on his left foot and it showed the broken metatarsal bone is healing properly. That said, he vowed to be ready after the bye.

--LB Donnie Spragan sprained his ankle while covering punts Monday, and his status won't be known until sometime next week because of the bye. Sykes already was starting because of John Mobley's injury, and on Monday the Broncos were forced to go with rookie Terry Pierce at strong-side linebacker.

--CB Deltha O'Neal can expect to be back in Mike Shanahan's doghouse despite his 57-yard punt return for a touchdown. He gave up the game-winning TD pass with 30 seconds left, but worse yet he failed to field New England's free kick, losing 25-30 yards in field position.

--WR Ed McCaffrey was inactive as expected Monday night, as coaches decided to give him two weeks to rest his irritated quadriceps tendon. McCaffrey, who has only eight catches on the season but is a valuable part of the Broncos' run blocking, expects to return after the bye.

--PK Jason Elam strained his groin on a second-quarter field goal, and his status won't be known until sometime next week. He couldn't finish the game, which is not a good sign, but the bye week comes at a good time for him. If he won't be ready for the Nov. 16 game, the Broncos will have to bring in another kicker.

REPORT CARD VS. PATRIOTS

PASSING OFFENSE: C -- Danny Kanell played smarter in his second Broncos start, throwing the ball away when needed and not forcing things. And he probably played well enough in the first half to win had he gotten more help from the defense. But this game was decided down the stretch, and then he completed only 3 of 13 passes for 23 yards and couldn't convert a third-down pass in the second half. The Broncos had a few more drops, but give the Patriots credit, too.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Clinton Portis did his part against the NFL's fourth-ranked run defense, cracking the 100-yard mark (26 for 111) against one of only three teams that hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all year. But when the Broncos needed a key first down down the stretch, they couldn't get one.

PASS DEFENSE: D -- The Patriots' top receiver was slowed by a bum leg, but it didn't matter as Tom Brady lit up Denver's defense for 350 yards. Kelly Herndon gave up a 66-yard TD pass, and nickel corner Deltha O'Neal was beaten one-on-one for the game-winning TD pass. While Denver had Brady on the run a few times, it failed to sack him. The pass rush was always just a tad too late. Linebacker Jashon Sykes, filling in for Ian Gold, was exposed in his pass coverage, particularly on the winning drive.

RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus -- The Broncos probably couldn't do much better here, limiting New England to 69 yards on 26 carries for a 2.7-yard average.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D -- Give punter Micah Knorr credit for pulling double duty after Jason Elam pulled his groin. Knorr made both extra-point attempts. But there's no denying the Broncos were hamstrung by Elam's injury as they bypassed a couple of field goals that probably would have been in his range. The Broncos thought they had won the game on Deltha O'Neal's 57-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the third quarter. But O'Neal blew it in the fourth, failing to field a free kick until it rolled all the way to the Denver 15. The blunder cost Denver probably 30 yards in field position. The Broncos also allowed a 63-yard kickoff return by rookie Bethel Johnson.

COACHING: C-minus -- Mike Shanahan was hamstrung because of Jason Elam's injury, and that explained his decision to pass up a few long field-goal attempts. And coaches did a good job with the offensive game plan, getting Kanell to play smarter than he did a week ago, and sprinting him out to buy some time. But Bill Belichick won the battle of so-called masterminds, with better second-half adjustments as Kanell went just 3 of 13 down the stretch and failed to convert a third down.

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