On January 16th 2005, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts scored three points in the AFC Divisional Game against the New England Patriots. This past Sunday, and for the first time since then, the five-time NFL MVP led an offense to less than ten points in a game, which serves as a suggestion that times are a-changing in the NFL, and the pre-season Super Bowl favourite Denver Broncos can no longer carry that moniker.
Their defeat to the St Louis Rams is by far their most shocking since Peyton came to town, and in this, his third season in the Mile High City, it is something that has taken players, fans, and pundits alike by surprise. Nobody in their right mind would have predicted this powerhouse offense would have been held to such a small total, especially in a dome that is known to around the league as having perhaps the softest reception for travelling teams.
Only a week beforehand, the Broncos had racked up 41 points against the, albeit hapless, Raiders, and had only scored less than 30 points three teams in 2014. However, the loss of two key receivers played a major role.
Whilst the inability of Wes Welker to make an impact of the offense may have garnered some early season headlines, injuries to Emmanuel Sanders (concussion) and Julius Thomas (ankle) could have greater repercussions on an offense that has, so far, failed to live up to its 2013 incarnation.
Thomas made a touchdown catch in each of his first six games in 2014, and Sunday marked only the third time all season he hasn’t hauled one in, but his early departure seemed to have the Denver offense on the ropes. Not only had Manning lost a go-to receiver, but the Denver offensive line looked in trouble early on.
The Rams played a brand of aggressive defense the Broncos just aren’t used to seeing, with star defensive linemen Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald combining for game clinching plays late on. However, it was the play made by TJ Macdonald that caused Sanders’ concussion in the third quarter that stood out.
The former Steeler, who didn’t make his first TD grab for the team until Week Seven, now leads the wide receiver corps with seven scores, and his team will be eager to see him pass the post-concussion protocol with flying colours, as his loss, combined with that of Thomas, could severely handicap the Broncos down the stretch.
That said, this is a team that has consistently bounced back from the loss of key players in recent times, and boast a defense that is testament to just that. After 2013 breakout star Danny Trevathan hit the IR in the pre-season, OLB Brandon Marshall has come from nowhere to make a huge impression, and on the other side of the ball, it is second year RB CJ Anderson who is seeing the most carries due to the injury to Montee Ball.
With that roster flexibility in mind, it may not be the clash against Miami that the Broncos’ coaching staff will have in mind for the return of their injured receiving stars, more so that of their Week 13 prime time tilt with AFC West rivals Kansas City.
Kansas crunch time
A trip to KC always proves tough, given their much vaunted defensive front and the fearsome reception all opposition teams face at Arrowhead, but this match-up has even more on the line. Given the Chiefs’ brilliant form of late, they are well and truly in the hunt for the division crown, but to even come close, they must win to split the season series with Denver after a Week Two defeat, otherwise face a mountain to climb having lost the all-important tie-breaker.
The Week Nine loss to the Patriots in Massachusetts was certainly a setback for the Broncos, but not a shocking one, given the same result only a year ago. However, Sunday’s defeat in St Louis is just that, and the Broncos must now show grit and character with a tough run of games ahead of them. Should they survive their trip to Kansas City in Week Twelve unscathed, they will be back on track. That however, is easier said than done, and the coming week is likely to prove crucial for not only the outcome of Denver’s season, but that of the AFC.