Margin of error shrinks

The Denver Broncos claim not to be watching the San Diego Chargers these days. They want to wrap up the division championship themselves, but their margin of error shrunk in a dramatic way on Sunday.

As the Chargers were pulling off an improbable comeback at Kansas City, the Broncos were playing a listless game against the Panthers. Denver's offense stalled, the defense gave up some big plays and Carolina dominated them 30-10 to keep the AFC West race alive.

The Broncos have a two-game lead in the division and can win the division title with a win at Buffalo on Sunday. The Broncos and Chargers play in the final game of the season, which keeps San Diego's hopes alive. Denver was disappointed not to wrap it up with a win against Carolina.

"If we would have handled business tonight, it would have been a wrap," Broncos running back P.J. Pope said. "We have to go out next week and play better."

The nature of the Broncos' performance against the Panthers was much more concerning than the Chargers scoring twice in the final 1:19 to keep their season alive. Denver's offense looked one-dimensional. The Broncos have lost five tailbacks and didn't establish a run game against the Panthers. They gained 58 of their 121 rushing yards on the final drive to make the final numbers look better.

"We thought we could be a little more effective in the running game than we were," coach Mike Shanahan said. "We tried to establish the run and we couldn't. I think it's one of the reasons we weren't as effective as we normally are moving the football."

That let the Panthers tee off against Jay Cutler. They had three sacks against a Broncos team that had given up eight in their previous 13 games this season.

The defense came out wanting to take away the Panthers' run game and did for most of the time, although a 56-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams helped put the game away. What hurt Denver more was Carolina receiver Steve Smith. The Broncos stacked the box so the Panthers just beat them on the perimeter. Smith had nine catches for 165 yards.

Denver is 8-6 and still wins the division this week with either a win against Buffalo or a loss by the Chargers at Tampa Bay. The Broncos knew they had to quickly put the Panthers loss behind them.

"This is one of those games where it definitely hurts, but we have to remember to have a short memory and get Buffalo in our backyard," receiver Brandon Marshall said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You can't depend on somebody else." -- Broncos LB Jamie Winborn, on the Chargers winning late against Kansas City.

LINEUP WATCH: The Broncos promised to keep rookie linebacker Wesley Woodyard involved after he filled in so well for D.J. Williams during Williams' knee injury, and they did so by starting the game with Woodyard at strong safety. Woodyard played near the line of scrimmage during his plays at strong safety, giving the Broncos a 4-4 look. Denver didn't use Woodyard much at safety after Carolina passed the ball down the field for a score on its first drive, but Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said Woodyard could play some more strong safety in the future.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--CB Champ Bailey was inactive for a sixth straight game. He has a groin injury and the Broncos don't want to lose him for the playoffs by playing him too soon.

--RB Tatum Bell started the game at tailback but had only seven carries. He gained 43 yards, but 30 came on two carries during the final drive.

--RB P.J. Pope had a solid game against Carolina. He was the third option at tailback but finished with 51 yards on seven carries and had three catches, including a touchdown reception.

--RB Selvin Young didn't have a carry in the second half after fumbling in the final seconds of the first half, which gave Carolina a field goal. Young was returning to the lineup after being inactive seven times over an eight-game stretch because of a groin injury. He had 19 yards on six carries.

--S Josh Barrett started and played the entire game against Carolina at safety for the Broncos. He also gathered his first career interception in the third quarter.



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