Broncos’ playoff berth slips away |

Broncos’ playoff berth slips away

Lee Rasizer
Rocky Mountain News
Aspen, CO Colorado
Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler (6) runs for a short gain as Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcus Stroud (99) pursues in the first quarter of an NFL football game in Denver on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER ” Jay Cutler swung open the metal door connecting the 50-yard-line on-field escape route to the tunnel adjoining Denver’s locker room so forcefully Sunday evening as frustrated Broncos players exited the bitter cold of Invesco Field that it caromed hard off the wall behind it.

The question now becomes whether a door’s been slammed shut on the team’s season ” or whether the Broncos have some bounce-back in them, too.

It’s one game vs. the Chargers on Sunday in San Diego to decide the AFC West in prime time (6:15 MST, Channel 9).

It didn’t have to be this way, with Denver (8-7) needing just one victory or a San Diego loss over the last three weeks of the season to advance.

But, at least in the Broncos’ eyes, the unthinkable has occurred, with two straight losses along with the Chargers’ consecutive victories.

“That’s the reality,” Cutler said.

There figures to be plenty of discussion in the coming days of the Ed Hochuli call that helped give the Broncos a controversial victory in Week 2; about Cutler and his “buddy,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers; and how San Diego coach Norv Turner might have saved his job with a miracle finish in Kansas City followed by Sunday’s pummeling of the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay that made Denver’s game against Buffalo a must win.

There will be just as many questions about how Denver allowed itself to get to this point.

Losing at Carolina to one of the NFL’s hottest teams was one thing, as the Broncos did in Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 14.

Carving up a Bills defense to the tune of 214 first-quarter yards and 532 overall yet still scoring 23 points and losing, while playing at home, to a team that had dropped seven of eight games is another matter all together.

“Mentally, nothing has changed,” Broncos defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban insisted. “Three, four weeks ago, we just needed one game to get in. And irrespective of this being the last game or an AFC West foe, we still have to win one game to get in. It’s just magnified by 100 right now because it’s do or die.”

Denver and Buffalo played the second half as if that was exactly the case, trading scores on five straight possessions until Denver finally blinked, down 30-23 in the fourth quarter on a Cutler interception near the Bills goal line.

Still, Denver was given the ball back with just under 31/2 minutes with which to work by their beleaguered defense, which started fast but allowed 30-plus points for the third time in four games.

Again, Denver reached the 15. But on third-and-five, Brandon Stokley was open in the end zone but Cutler overthrew him.

The Broncos tried it again the next play. The high throw placed slightly too much inside hit Stokley in both hands at the apex of his leap, then was stripped away by Bills defender Reggie Corner’s right hand.

The Chargers, 4-8 on Nov. 30, were suddenly alive.

“They’re a tough team and it was only a matter of time before they put it together,” Broncos right guard Chris Kuper said. “They’re very talented. They’ve got a good offense, a good defense. And our end, we need to finish games and close it out. We had two games to get one win and couldn’t do it. We need to come in there and battle that last game.”

The first meeting with the Chargers was one of the signature games of the NFL season. The Broncos fell behind 38-31 on a 66-yard Darren Sproles reception. But Denver roared back.

A Cutler fumble was blown dead on the field and ruled an incomplete pass when it was clearly a fumble, an error a remorseful Hochuli came out publicly and admitted under harsh criticism.

Cutler shook off that play by hitting Eddie Royal with a 4-yard TD pass and two-point conversion on consecutive throws for an improbable 39-38 win.

It has helped propel the Broncos to a wire-to-wire lead in their division that’s now seriously in jeopardy.

“They’re hungry,” Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams said of the Chargers. “Everybody doubted them and talked bad about them this year. Now they have a chance to throw everybody’s words back in their face with a victory.”

San Diego would win the AFC West by beating Denver based on a better division record ” 5-1 vs. 3-3, if the Broncos fall Sunday.

“We’ve got to dig deep,” Broncos running back Tatum Bell said. “Everybody knows what’s on the line.”

Guard Ben Hamilton claimed once Denver watches film today, the youthful Broncos will put this disappointment behind.

“It is that easy,” Hamilton said, when met with some skepticism about the simplicity of his statement.

“It is that easy,” he repeated for emphasis. “That’s what we’ve had to do all year. We want to finish this year right and go to the playoffs. And we’ll be ready.”

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