Nobody has been better than the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter of games this season. They've scored 58 points and allowed just six, and they haven't been scored upon in the final quarter since Week 1. They've figured out how to manage the endgame.
It's the rest of the game they have yet to decipher.
"I'd like to start it the other way, to start fast," defensive tackle Justin Bannan said.
Just five teams have a scoring margin in the first three quarters worse than the Broncos' minus-31. Those teams -- the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs -- are a combined 5-20, hardly the company a team many fancied as a Super Bowl contender wanted or expected to keep.
"Fourth-quarter comebacks are great, but it usually means you've screwed up in the first three quarters," Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "The nice thing would be to eliminate some of the misses early in the game and let's kind of keep the game on the field, if you will, keep it a one-score game or have a lead. It'd be nice to have a lead in the fourth quarter and work on holding that. That's what we're trying to do."
Because of those early deficits, the Broncos have become way too accustomed to playing from behind to the point where it impacts their play-calling. In losing three of their past four games, the Broncos have been forced to abandon the balanced play-calling they wanted. They ran on just 32.5 percent of their offensive snaps in losses to the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and New England Patriots. It wasn't just that they only led for six minutes and 52 seconds of those games; it's that they trailed for 85.2 percent of those games -- and they were behind at least two scores for 66.2 percent of them.
In each of those games, the Broncos scored the last 14 points. But only for a desperate final possession in the last 20 seconds at Houston did the Broncos have the ball in the second half with a chance to take the lead in those three defeats.
"We've come back a couple of times now, so I think we've proven that we can come back out of a hole. We haven't come back to win yet," Manning said. "I think the nice thing would be not to get into that hole as deep. But I do think that guys have been sort of calm and collected in those situations. We've had no panic. Guys have done their jobs. Just need to play with that type of execution and precision for the entire 60 minutes."
That requires a little more urgency, according to the team's executive vice president, John Elway, who noted in an interview on the team's website that the Broncos' pace at getting in and out of the huddle on each play needs to match that of their opponent. That was not the case against New England, when the Patriots often snapped the football before Denver's defense was in position.
"This game is a game that needs to be played with passion, emotion and enthusiasm. If you don't bring that to the table in this game, then you're in for a long day," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "It seems like we've gotten off to some slow starts. Not necessarily saying that we're not bringing that passion, emotion and enthusiasm, but it's extremely vital.
The consternation over the punchless starts isn't just a fan talking point -- it's in the locker room, as well.
"It's important to get off to a quick start," Brooking said. "We've talked about that as a team. We know how important it is. That's going to be our focus and concentration this week is really starting fast."
That's all well and good -- as long as the Broncos don't sacrifice their late-game proficiency for the sake of a quick opening strike.