CHICAGO – If it were possible to summon a defining snapshot of how a game can be lost and a lasting opportunity can be squandered, this was it: Denver Broncos punter Todd Sauerbrun lying flat on his belly and flailing blindly for a tackle. He wasn't even looking in the right direction by the time Chicago Bears kick returner Devin Hester whooshed by.
Sauerbrun was the last lamb of defense, and by the time he felt Hester's tailwind, the Chicago returner was gliding home for a 75-yard touchdown on a third-quarter punt return. Yes, Sunday's 37-34 overtime win by Chicago could have been defined by many moments – including Hester's second scoring return, an overtime-forcing touchdown drive by Bears quarterback Rex Grossman or Bernard Berrian's miraculous game-tying touchdown grab. But if the Broncos are sitting out of the postseason in six weeks, pondering how they lost their way in a bumbling AFC West, they can look back and find symbolism in Sauerbrun's face-plant into the Soldier Field grass.
"That field is slippery as hell and you give (Hester) that much room in between us and I don't really have a chance," Sauerbrun said of Hester's 75-yard score. "You've just got to poke and hope."
Sauerbrun paused for a moment to reflect on the statement.
"Mostly hope," he said.
It was a fitting description for these Broncos, a franchise that continues to poke and hope and flail, only to further slip in the AFC West playoff chase. Going into Sunday's tilt with the Bears, it appeared the Broncos were starting to gather the steam necessary to finally take hold of their division, winning back-to-back games in impressive fashion. It was a momentum that carried right into Sunday's fourth quarter, when tight end Tony Scheffler made a miraculous hot-potato touchdown catch of a Jay Cutler pass, putting Denver ahead 34-20.
It was at that moment that some Bears fans headed to the exits, and Denver appeared on its way to truly solidifying. Those Broncos looked capable of rolling through their soft schedule and setting their sites on the division lead in a Christmas Eve rematch with the San Diego Chargers. But as has been the case with this team at various points during this season, an inexplicable trap door opened up, and big-play issues wiped the Broncos out.
What might be most frustrating to the Broncos and head coach Mike Shanahan, Sunday wasn't anything like the slaughterhouse losses to San Diego or the Detroit Lions. And it wasn't even like the nail-biting losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Green Bay Packers. Instead, this was a game Denver controlled when it mattered most. The Broncos had the edge in passing yards, rushing yards, turnovers and time of possession. But they lost the war of big plays, surrendering Hester's pair of touchdown returns, and allowing a blocked punt that translated into a touchdown drive.
Despite controlling much of the game, Denver lost its way on what amounted to three special teams-related scores, and defensive breakdowns late in the fourth quarter and again in overtime that led to Chicago's final 10 points.
The former can only be described as a letdown in coaching and preparation, since several previous teams learned the hard way by not kicking away from Hester. The latter is a sign of a team that has lost part of the defensive talent that made it look dominant at the beginning of last season. And if you're looking for the popular – but correct – scapegoat, look at a front seven that sacked Grossman three times but never ruffled him into the array of bad decisions that have pocked his career.
"(Losing a 14-point lead) is not supposed to happen," Broncos safety John Lynch said. "And it shouldn't even have been 14. (The score) should have been more like 30-6. But that's what Devin Hester does for you. I don't think the league has ever seen anything like this guy. I've seen some great returners, but nothing like this guy. But still – it's the NFL and there are going to be great players. You need to have an answer."
Undoubtedly, the Broncos do in the long run, with maturing talents like Cutler and emerging star wideout Brandon Marshall, who caught a 68-yard touchdown dagger one play after Hester's 88-yard kickoff return for a score. And Denver still has some of the same consistent staples, like a blocking scheme that made Andre Hall and Cecil Sapp seem like only a slight dropoff from the injured 1-2 rotation of Travis Henry and Selvin Young.
But what Denver doesn't have is the consistency to define themselves. The defensive line is thin with the losses of defensive ends Ebenezer Ekuban and Jarvis Moss. Cornerback Dre' Bly hasn't been the sturdy No. 2 across from Champ Bailey that Darrent Williams was, and neither of the outside linebackers – Ian Gold and Nate Webster – has paired with D.J. Williams to rekindle the dynamic tandem Williams created with Al Wilson in past seasons. Boil those defensive fissures down, and you have a team that scores 34 points and loses because of special teams lapses and erratic defensive play late in a game.
As Shanahan put it Sunday, "We had the chance a number of times to put it away and we didn't. Being the team that we hope we are, you've got to be able to put those games away."
And there was the key word again: Hope. The outside world expected a Broncos team that would enter December ready to seize a division in upheaval. Instead, this is still a team poking, hoping and falling flat.