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Broncos go from NFL darlings to disaster

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DENVER – When a football team's identity disintegrates more abruptly than a Rocky Mountain landslide, the fallout is seldom pretty, and the scenes that played out Sunday afternoon at Invesco Field were predictably tumultuous.

From Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels' pregame trash-talking to the San Diego Chargers' linebackers, to a conspicuous sideline spat between wideout Brandon Marshall(notes) and rookie halfback Knowshon Moreno(notes), the home team displayed all the symptoms of collapse.

Things got so bad early in the fourth quarter of a 32-3 defeat to the Chargers that in the Broncos' defensive huddle, veteran defensive end Vonnie Holliday(notes) felt compelled to call out the quitters in his midst.

"Listen," Holliday said, "we're gonna watch this film [Monday], and we're gonna see who lay down and who stepped up. The eye in the sky doesn't lie. And then we'll know who we can go to war with to fight our way out of this."

Three weeks into a calamitous month that has seen them go from the NFL's most stunning Super Bowl contender to a train wreck in the making, the Broncos have lost that loving feeling, perhaps on a permanent basis.

On Oct. 19, when Denver rolled to a 34-23 Monday night victory over the Chargers in San Diego to improve to 6-0, McDaniels' team was heralded as the epitome of selflessness, a collection of role players who didn't care who got the credit.

Now, as Holliday's warning demonstrated, the Broncos are preoccupied with whom to blame for their dramatic freefall.

Following its fourth consecutive defeat on Sunday, Denver (6-4) fell out of first place in the AFC West, a development that a month ago seemed about as probable as Lou Dobbs running for president.

After the two rivals' first meeting, the Chargers trailed the Broncos by three-and-a-half games, and their three-year hold on the division appeared to be over. On Sunday, San Diego (7-3) won its fifth consecutive game in such convincing fashion that coach Norv Turner can be excused if he's already pondering potential playoff matchups. Though the Broncos trail by just one game, it's hard to imagine that they won't be carved up on Thanksgiving night by the New York Giants, who broke their own four-game losing streak on Sunday.

If so, a turnaround would become even less likely. Scarily, with the Chiefs (3-7) and Raiders (3-7) coming off huge upset victories, it's not totally far-fetched that Denver could end up in last place.

"Right now we're in a bad place," Holliday conceded after Sunday's game. "This is an ugly situation for us."

The ugliness began during pregame warmups when McDaniels, the Bill Belichick protege who does not want for self-confidence, engaged in some brash banter with San Diego's linebackers. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, McDaniels said, "We own you" as he passed the San Diego players on the field.

"I'm not surprised," Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips(notes) told the Union-Tribune after the game. "He's a little cocky [expletive]. It's all good, all fun and games. We didn't look too much into it. As a coach, I hope he has that mindset. But to say he owns us? I mean, you beat us one time. What has he really done in this league? He had a team 6-0 and now he's looking up at us from second place."

Ouch.

Phillips provided his rebuttal four minutes into Sunday's game, after the Broncos had driven to the San Diego 17-yard line. Quarterback Chris Simms(notes), making his first start in three years because of Kyle Orton's(notes) ankle injury, dropped back to attempt his first pass, and Phillips swept in and forced a fumble that was recovered by safety Steve Gregory(notes). A little more than a quarter later, with 4:19 left in the first half, the Chargers led 13-0 and Orton had been summoned to replace the ineffective Simms, high ankle sprain be damned.

As he walked to his car after the game, McDaniels told the Union-Tribune that the San Diego players "talked to me first" and added, "I'm not making a story about this. If I did, I'd be able to tell you some things that aren't for papers."

Perhaps, but it doesn't really matter. McDaniels is a coach, and a different standard of professionalism and decorum is supposed to apply.

Three months after the ex-Patriots offensive coordinator was hired to replace longtime Denver coach Mike Shanahan, the then-32-year-old McDaniels became a polarizing figure, thanks largely to a personality clash with franchise quarterback Jay Cutler(notes), who was ultimately traded to the Chicago Bears.

For that and other reasons many people – myself included – expected the Broncos to struggle mightily in McDaniels' rookie season. Denver's early run, however, created the impression that the young man had all the answers.

As early as Week 4 of the '09 season, I was composing what amounted to a public mea culpa while reacting to the unlikely spectacle of McDaniels and Marshall – the temperamental receiver he had suspended in training camp – hugging like Jerry Maguire and Rod Tidwell.

So much for that: Right now McDaniels looks very much like someone who has never done this before. His offense is operating with the efficiency of a staff meeting at the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin. His players are committing stupid penalties – nine in all on Sunday (to San Diego's one), including a pair of unsportsmanlike-conduct infractions after successful Nate Kaeding(notes) kicks and consecutive offsides calls late in the third quarter on a Chargers scoring drive.

McDaniels' budding bro-mance with Marshall appears tenuous, too. After Orton replaced Simms and immediately hooked up with the wideout on a pair of passes and drove Denver to the San Diego 4, it looked like the Broncos were on the verge of cutting their deficit to 13-7 and making it a game. On the next play Moreno burst up the middle and lunged toward the goal line, but he fumbled after guard Russ Hochstein(notes) appeared to slip and dislodge the ball with his knee, and Gregory recovered for a gut-wrenching touchback.

Marshall, who would finish with just three receptions for 26 yards, angrily got in the rookie's face on the sidelines, and Moreno responded with a two-handed shove.

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Gregory picks up a loose ball in the first quarter.
( David Zalubowski /AP Photo)

"This is probably the most frustrating game I've ever been a part of," Marshall said afterward. "I approached it like it was a playoff game, and I'm frustrated because we lost."

Speaking specifically about the confrontation with Moreno, Marshall said, "Those are the plays that kind of kill drives. We've just got to punch it in next time."

Later, he added: "I don't regret anything. This is a playoff game. If there were guys on the sideline that weren't angry, who didn't have a lot of emotion, they need to look themselves in the mirror. This is a game where you've got to have it. None of us can make any terrible plays."

Said one former teammate of Marshall's: "He will explode at some point."

Of course, it's possible the Broncos will pull themselves out of their stupor and surprise us once more, beginning Thursday against the Giants and continuing through a reasonably tough closing schedule (at the Kansas City Chiefs, at Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, at Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City).

If they don't, and the downward spiral continues, there'll be plenty of time to dissect what went wrong. That process began last Friday when several Broncos players told Foxsports.com's Alex Marvez that beginning with the bye week that followed their October victory over the Chargers, they and their teammates started to buy into their own hype.

"We didn't come back with that same fire and attention to detail," Holliday told Marvez. "You hate to say it, but you know the old saying, 'You drink the Kool-Aid'? We got full of it."

In a subdued, mostly cleared-out Broncos locker room on Sunday, I asked Holliday about that quote.

"The Kool-Aid's all gone now," he said. "So we don't have to worry about that. It's more like stale, black coffee now."

Yes, and it's getting colder by the minute.

I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …

We're long past the point of conceding that Brett Favre's(notes) signing with the Minnesota Vikings, for all of the high-maintenance alarms it sounded, was a great thing for the quarterback and for the franchise. Coach Brad Childress' shameless pandering was totally worth it – last week he signed a four-year contract extension reportedly worth between $16 million and $20 million – and Favre got his revenge against Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy. After another brilliant performance by the 40-year-old wonder on Sunday, he is very much a candidate for an unprecedented fourth MVP award, and it's not hard to envision him achieving the honor he wants most: a first Super Bowl MVP trophy. In a 35-9 thrashing of the Seattle Seahawks that ran Minnesota's record to 9-1, Favre completed 22 of 25 passes (a career-best 88-percent clip) for 213 yards and four touchdowns – to four different receivers. For the season, he has thrown 21 TDs and three interceptions and is very much in the thick of an intriguing three-man MVP race, along with Peyton Manning(notes) (the only player other than Favre to have won three previous MVPs) and Drew Brees(notes). "He definitely has the stats," Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiance, who had eight catches for 78 yards and a TD against Seattle, wrote via text message. "And he's definitely the nucleus." He is also the reason that, incredibly, Adrian Peterson has become the Vikes' second-most-important offensive player. Yep, I said it, and I'll continue to say it – all day.

Though the struggling Eagles had lost consecutive games to fall to 5-4, it wasn't hard to predict that Donovan McNabb(notes) would respond with a strong performance in his hometown of Chicago. Facing a desperate Bears team, McNabb completed 23 of 32 passes for 244 yards and a pair of touchdowns and led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter as Philly scored a 24-20 victory. But the coolest thing McNabb did was embrace his struggling Bears counterpart, Jay Cutler, on the field at game's end and give him an extended pep talk before heading to the locker room. And if you think McNabb was merely grandstanding for the cameras, you'd be dead wrong, because Cutler (who threw a late interception to increase his league-high total to 18 and extinguish the Bears' hopes) completely appreciated the gesture. "He's a great dude," Cutler wrote later via text. "He has handled himself well through all the b.s." McNabb routinely gets ripped by random critics, but there's a reason he's one of the NFL's most popular players among his peers: He genuinely respects and cares for his fellow competitors.

One nice thing about the NFL is that really bad teams can sometimes get their acts together late in the season and put together a string of promising performances that, if all goes well, can carry over to the following season. On Sunday, six struggling teams provided their fans with at least a sliver of excitement, most notably the Raiders, Chiefs, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. Trailing the Cincinnati Bengals 17-10 in the final minutes, Oakland rallied behind new starting quarterback Bruce Gradkowski(notes) and scored a stunning 20-17 upset. Kansas City won for the second consecutive week, shocking the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 in overtime. And the Lions and Browns waged one of the more entertaining shootouts of the season, complete with a thrilling finish. The Browns (1-9) raced out to a 24-3 lead and ended up scoring one fewer offensive TDs (four) than they had in their previous 15 games combined. (Think about that!) The Lions (2-8) rallied for a 38-37 victory in dramatic fashion, with quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) throwing his fifth touchdown pass – to fellow rookie Brandon Pettigrew(notes) – with no time remaining. Detroit's last-gasp drive had been extended by a pass-interference penalty on Cleveland's Hank Poteat(notes) after time expired and a timeout by coach Eric Mangini that allowed Stafford – who'd hit the turf with a left shoulder injury after being knocked down on the throw – to return for the final, unclocked play. I'm not saying that any of these teams (or the Washington Redskins or Buffalo Bills, who suffered narrow defeats) is about to parlay this week's relative success into a season-ending rampage, but at least their fans can dream.

… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT

Remember a month ago when Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was being talked up as a potential head-coaching candidate, his dubious performance with the 49ers from 2005-08 notwithstanding? Today – not so much. I don't mean to dump on Nolan, who should still be commended for the job he has done with Denver's D, but I'll always remember the smug press conference he gave after the 49ers drafted Alex Smith No. 1 overall in 2005, defying expectations that Aaron Rodgers(notes) would be the selection. Nolan made a big show of asking reporters how many of them had predicted Smith would be the team's pick, as if the coach (who was the team's de facto GM at the time) were smarter than the pundits who viewed Rodgers as the superior choice. On Sunday at Lambeau Field, we were vividly reminded of what we've long since discovered: Rodgers, who slipped all the way to 24th before the Packers picked him as Favre's successor-in-waiting, would have been the far better selection by the San Francisco franchise he grew up worshipping. In putting the Packers (6-4) into the thick of the wild-card race, Rodgers completed 32 of 45 passes for 344 yards and two TDs; Smith went 16 of 33 for 227 yards and three TDs for the fading Niners (4-6). It turned out to be a lousy day in Green Bay, though – defensive stalwarts Al Harris(notes) and Aaron Kampman(notes) went down with knee injuries that are believed to be serious, which effectively puts even more pressure on Rodgers to carry the team. "Yeah, it sucks," Rodgers wrote via text. "It's gonna hurt us bad."

Speaking of bad, it's pretty brutal when the aforementioned Browns are the best thing about the AFC North on a given Sunday. On this one, the Steelers (6-4) blew a lead and lost to the Chiefs while the Baltimore Ravens (5-5) missed a golden opportunity to knock off the undefeated Colts and boost their playoff hopes, instead succumbing at home by a 17-15 score. That meant the Bengals, 7-2 going into their game in Oakland, could take another big step toward a division title. Instead, Cincy tripped. One question I have: With workhorse halfback Cedric Benson(notes) sidelined by a hip injury, why not lean harder on wideout Chad Ochocinco(notes) (four catches, 67 yards)? Ochocinco was targeted only cinco times on the afternoon, one less than fellow wideout Andre Caldwell(notes). He needs to get the ball more – and the Bengals need to get on the ball and learn how to close out the bad teams if they want to become a legitimate NFL power.

One reason I suspect that Belichick wasn't especially traumatized by his team's much-dissected defeat to the Colts last Sunday night was that he knows the Pats are cruising to an AFC East title. That reality was reinforced at Gillette Stadium as New England (7-3) rolled to a 31-14 victory over the Jets, maintaining its two-game lead over the Dolphins (5-5). The Jets (4-6), who've lost six of their past seven games, have become the poster children for peaking too early. Before their Week 2 meeting with the Patriots at Giants Stadium, first-year coach Rex Ryan had the team so hyped up that nose tackle Kris Jenkins(notes) compared the game to the Super Bowl. The Jets won 16-9; alas, the Lombardi Trophy was not handed out in the aftermath. Now New York is three games behind the Pats, who have a coach, quarterback and other veterans who know what a real Super Bowl is – and are preparing for a push that could get the franchise there for the fifth time this decade.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. The young woman who, upon seeing me walking through the Invesco parking lot while proudly wearing my Cal cap three hours before the Broncos-Chargers game, took off on a dead sprint from 100 yards away and screamed “GO BEARS!” a second before giving me an emphatic high-five. It was a surreal moment, but as someone basking in the afterglow of one of the most glorious Big Game experiences of my lifetime, I wasn’t completely caught off guard. First of all, no one has ever accused Cal fans of being subtle. And after what the Golden Bears accomplished the previous evening, those of us who have ties to the University of California had very little hope of containing our enthusiasm. On Saturday night, I sat at Stanford Stadium with my 13-year-old daughter and my equally obsessed college buddy Ajay and thoroughly invested myself in a ferocious, emotionally charged battle between archrivals. The underdog Bears gave up a quick, 61-yard touchdown run to the sensational Toby Gerhart, fell behind 14-0 and were in serious danger of getting blown out before rising up and physically dominating the trenches. With star halfback Jahvid Best sidelined, backup Shane Vereen (42 carries, 193 yards, three TDs) stepped up in heroic fashion while junior quarterback Kevin Riley summoned an unprecedented level of focus and maturity. Honorary captain Tiger Woods had proclaimed at halftime over the public address system, “The second half is ours,” but Cal’s ridiculously riled-up crowd – and the Bears’ offensive linemen – rejected that premise. Then, after Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh and Cal’s Jeff Tedford (whose game plan was brilliant) each made a controversial coaching decision in the final minutes, Gerhart got the Cardinal to within 13 yards of victory. And then, blessedly, junior linebacker Mike Mohamed made the interception that preserved a 34-28 victory and made so many of us so uncontrollably ecstatic. So, upon further review, I guess I can comprehend the 100-yard sprint and high-five. Completely.

2. Why Jim Zorn, a man who will most likely be fired in January after completing his second season as the Redskins’ coach, seems to be meekly serving out the string. Already emasculated by his bosses, who stripped him of his play-calling responsibilities in favor of a retired coach, Sherm Lewis, who was previously calling out bingo numbers at a senior center, Zorn at least gets to be his own man when it comes to clock and game management. In the eventual 7-6 defeat to the Cowboys in Dallas, a bizarre replay-review-turned-retroactive-penalty sequence near the end of the first half gave Washington a third-and-1 from the Dallas 20-yard line with 15 seconds remaining. The 'Skins, who led 3-0, were out of timeouts, but Zorn could’ve easily had quarterback Jason Campbell(notes) throw for the end zone before summoning the field-goal unit. Instead, he wimped out and turned things over to kicker Shaun Suisham(notes), later explaining to the Washington Post, “I didn’t want to complete the pass in bounds. I could have taken another shot to the end zone, but they were coming after us, too. They were blitzing. I didn’t want to get pushed out of the field-goal range we got.” Weak. At this point, what does Zorn have to lose by being bold? Oh, and by the way, Suisham missed. Awful.

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

I pretty much like everything about Mike Tomlin, from his temperament to his sideline attire to the terrific job he has done since replacing Bill Cowher as the Steelers' coach after the 2006 season. But I'm disturbed by what's happening to his team right now, and there are some things he needs to fix for Pittsburgh to have a realistic chance of defending its championship. Tomlin should start by spending some quality time with his special teams coordinator, Bob Ligashesky. On Sunday in Kansas City, the Steelers gave up a 97-yard touchdown to Jamaal Charles(notes) on the opening kickoff, the fourth time in five games an opposing kick returner has taken it to the house against Pittsburgh. That's crazy – and deplorable. Last year the Steelers had the league's top-ranked kick-coverage unit; now they're trotting out 11 human turnstiles? What happened? Even more despicably, Tomlin's team has given up a TD return on a fumble, interception or kickoff in eight consecutive games. Eight! Three years ago, when I wrote a Sports Illustrated cover story on Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer(notes), the former USC star compared his hatred of the Steelers to the spite he felt for college rival UCLA. Palmer recalled the Trojans' eight-year losing streak in the rivalry and the text on the billboards throughout L.A. that referenced it: "Eight straight ain't it great?" Maybe Tomlin should put up one of those billboards outside the entrance to the Steelers' facility. Hey, I know Palmer has his own issues after Sunday's defeat to the Raiders, but I'll bet he'll laugh when he reads this. Or maybe, you know, I just have intense college rivalries on my mind. Nah …

TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"Don't even think like that. Teddy will get those boys ready."
– Text Thursday afternoon from Rodgers, assuaging my fears of a potential Big Game defeat

"Your cheerleaders suck. Your team sucks. Blow out ye Bears."
– Text Saturday from Andy Sands, a former Stanford tennis player whom I've loved dearly since the third grade, doing some premature taunting in the first quarter

"Congrats, we suck."
– Text Saturday night from my Y! Sports homie and Stanford grad Jason Cole

"I love you man."
– Text early Sunday morning from me to Lord Jeff Tedford (7-1 vs. Stanford)

"We rushed their field?"
– Text Sunday night from Browns rookie center Alex Mack(notes), who would have loved the sight of his former Cal linemates manhandling Stanford's defense. (And yes, we did rush their field, and we stayed there for a long time. And then I gave Andy Sands a call …)

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