DENVER – Peyton Manning was good on Thursday night.
He was 27-of-41 for 289 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on a play in which his arm was hit as he threw. Denver gained 5.6 yards per play. Manning had a 92.4 rating. Prorate those numbers out over a full season and compare them to the rest of the league. You'll find that they're just fine.
That's the problem. The Broncos aren't going to win a title with Manning being good. He needs to be great every single week for the Broncos to win.
He wasn't great on Thursday and neither were the Broncos. The defense couldn't get off the field, allowing the Chargers to hold the ball for 38:49. The running game gave no help. Denver's backs averaged 1.6 yards per carry. The Broncos still had a chance, down seven points with the ball in the fourth quarter, but Manning's interception with 5:07 left practically sealed the 27-20 loss.
With Manning not playing at his normal record pace, the Broncos lost at home to a team that was 6-7 coming in. They have no room for error.
"We didn't have the ball much but when we had it we didn't do enough with it," Manning said. "Give San Diego credit. They played better than we did.
"It's our job to score points when we have the ball. No matter if you have it for 40 minutes or 20 minutes. We had it for 20 tonight, and we didn't do a good enough job on offense."
Thursday's loss doesn't mean the Broncos can't or won't go to the Super Bowl. They're 11-3. A loss, without receiver Wes Welker, on short rest to a desperate Chargers team doesn't eliminate everything else the Broncos have done.
"It's not the end of the world," cornerback Chris Harris said. "You're going to take losses. It think it's good to learn from this game."
But for the first time all season they need some help.
Because of Denver's loss on Thursday, New England will be the first seed in the AFC if it wins out. Denver already lost at New England once this season and everyone knows how Manning has fared against Bill Belichick's defenses in his career. Maybe the Patriots lose this week at Miami, or next week at Baltimore, and open the door back up for the Broncos to control their destiny. But it's not up to the Broncos anymore.
And Thursday was a reminder that the Broncos are very good, but far from unbeatable.
The defense is just average. Not terrible. But definitely not very good.
On Thursday night, Ryan Mathews rushed for 129 yards, his highest output since Nov. 27, 2011. The Chargers were 6-of-12 in third-down conversions. They didn't make many big plays but they made most of the little ones.
"Can't do anything on the sideline," receiver Andre Caldwell said. "They did a good job with their offense keeping us off the field."
Denver has had bad days on defense before this season, but Manning has been great almost every game. When Manning was just good against the Chargers, the defense couldn't bail him out. It's a challenge to win a championship with a middle-of-the-pack defense. Everything else needs to go right.
"There's only one way to go and it's upwards," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said about the defense. "On defense we'll challenge ourselves to get better."
Maybe they won't need to get better. They were one of the clear favorites in the NFL before this week with that same defense. Manning's first Super Bowl championship team, in Indianapolis seven years ago, had an average defense.
Thursday's loss didn't eliminate the Broncos as a Super Bowl contender. Even if the Broncos don't end up with the No. 1 seed, that means little. Only two No. 1 seeds have won the Super Bowl since 2001. Thursday's surprising loss just showed that if Denver is going to win a Super Bowl, Manning has to be great in every remaining game. Anything less than that isn't going to be enough.
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