ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Three observations from the Broncos’ 40-14 defeat to the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium here on Saturday afternoon:
1. IT’S STILL IN THEIR HANDS.
The Raiders’ 16-13 overtime win over the Chiefs meant that the Broncos could not have clinched the division Saturday. The Chargers’ 38-10 loss to the Lions as Christmas Eve turned to night meant that the Broncos can still win the division without beating the Chiefs next week — as long as the Raiders lose to San Diego.
If the Broncos win or the Raiders lose, then these two blowout losses in the last six days become teachable moments. The first lesson? You can’t keep turning over the football. The second? You can’t keep digging mutli-score holes and expect to escape from them every week.
When the Broncos came back in previous games, there was no magic beyond a little good luck in the form of mistakes such as Marion Barber’s traipse out of bounds for the Bears two weeks ago.
“The reason we came back is because we executed on offense, defense and special teams,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “It’s not because we wanted it — it’s because we executed the calls.
“”I know what we’re capable of. We’ve just got to execute.”
2. SECONDARY STRUGGLES.
The fact that Brian Dawkins departed in the first half because of a neck strain wasn’t a surprise, given that he’s been grappling with the injury for the last two weeks and missed the Patriots game in Week 16 because of it. But when Quinton Carter succumbed to a hamstring injury, that only exacerbated the Broncos’ issues in the secondary, forcing them to use David Bruton and Rahim Moore as the safety combination.
Matters got worse in the fourth quarter when cornerback Chris Harris suffered a pinched nerve in his neck, leaving the Broncos without 60 percent of their nickel secondary complement.
Buffalo didn’t test the defensive backfield as New England did last week, and miscommunication wasn’t the issue that it was in that game, Bailey said. What did hurt, though, was whiffing on so many attempts to bring down C.J. Spiller and the Bills’ skill players.
“I think it boiled down to tackling. We missed so many tackles,” Bailey said. “We know that if you’re going to be a good defense, you’ve got to be the best tackling defense in the league. That’s all we’ve got to do: shore up our tackling, mental mistakes, stuff like that, and we’ll be fine.”
3. TEBOW’S TURNOVERS.
His four interceptions can be viewed through two perspectives.
The first is the kinder one, that none of Sunday’s giveaways came when the Broncos were ahead or within a touchdown, and thus, the turnovers were the product of holding the football too long waiting for a receiver to flash open downfield or taking chances on deep passes that are effectively punts if intercepted.
The second is that the giveaways represented Tebow’s shortcomings as a passer coming home to roost, that the most productive aspect of the Broncos’ passing game are the heave-and-hope tosses that, if successful, stretch a defense.
As always, reality is somewhere in between the two extremes.
“He locked onto guys,” Bills safety Jairus Byrd said. “But their running game was so effective that you kind of got sucked up, so they did a lot of precise throws.”
The precision vanished in a disastrous second half in which he threw twice as many interceptions as he did in his previous nine starts. One actually appeared to be a fumble; if that is the case, it would take his streak of consecutive games with a lost fumble to four.
Tebow’s second interception effectively ended all hope of a comeback, when he looked deep downfield for Eric Decker, only to see Jairus Byrd step in front of the pass and return it 37 yards for a touchdown that put the Broncos behind three scores.
“I was watching him,” Byrd said. “Kind of stared him down, knew where he wanted to go.”
That happens with many young quarterbacks, so it’s not endemic to Tebow alone. The question is whether Tebow and the Broncos can correct it — and end this spate of giveaways, which now stands at eight in the last four games — in time to save their playoff hopes.