ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If there is a sense of panic over the Denver Broncos' 27-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers on Thursday, it had not hit team headquarters a day later.
Coach John Fox was pragmatic at his day-after-game press conference. The locker-room mood was light, with players rational about the factors that led to the Broncos' first regular-season home loss since September 2012, snapping a 13-game regular-season home winning streak.
"We lost our third game, not our 13th. We don't think the sky is falling," said Fox.
It's not falling, but the Broncos can no longer look up with the knowledge that they are in control of the No. 1 seed in the AFC, or with a buffer zone in the race for the AFC West crown. They need two wins in their two-week road swing at Houston and Oakland to secure their third consecutive AFC West title, and they need those wins and at least one New England Patriots loss to ensure the road to Super Bowl XLVIII goes through Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Given that just three of the last 10 top seeds in their respective conferences have made it to the Super Bowl, earning the No. 1 seed appears to carry no overwhelming significance. But the loss to San Diego might, if the Broncos can apply the lessons from it properly.
The last seven world champions have lost a game in Week 15 or 16. Some of these defeats have come at home. Some were more resounding than the Broncos' seven-point defeat Thursday, and to opponents far more pedestrian than the 7-7 Chargers, who are in thick of the fight for the AFC's final wild-card slot.
And exactly a year ago this weekend, the Broncos walloped the Ravens 34-17 for their first win in Baltimore in 29 years. It was part of a 1-4 December for the Ravens that left them stumbling into the playoffs searching for answers. They found them quickly, got a long-time defensive stalwart back from injury when Ray Lewis returned and won at Denver en route to their second world championship.
The Broncos might be in a similar situation. Like the Ravens defense last year, Denver's unit has been pummeled by injuries. Like those Ravens, the Broncos hope to get a linchpin back for the playoffs, assuming cornerback Champ Bailey can return to health after dealing with a sprained foot all season.
But Bailey's potential return isn't all the Broncos need. They need to shore up the run defense, which has been gashed in recent weeks, exacerbated by the absences of Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe and a recent shuffling of personnel. They might need to find a way to move the football consistently without wide receiver Wes Welker, who missed the Chargers game because of his second concussion in four games.
It's not the loss; it's how the Broncos use it.
"You can go back and do research; I think there has been a lot of successful teams that have had losses late in the season. Where we'll fit on that totem pole, I have no idea yet," said Fox. "We obviously have work to do to improve."
-- CB Kayvon Webster underwent surgery to repair a fractured thumb Friday. John Fox said the injury is "very similar" to the one suffered by Von Miller in 2011. That sidelined Miller for a game, and forced him to play the rest of the season in a cast.
-- WR Wes Welker has not yet passed the league-mandated post-concussion protocol. He suffered his second concussion in four games against the Titans on Dec. 8 and did not practice prior to the loss to the Chargers.
-- DL Derek Wolfe missed a third consecutive game after suffering seizure-like symptoms on Nov. 29, two days before the Broncos' second win over the Chiefs this season. Wolfe has not practiced since then.
-- CB Champ Bailey was deactivated for the 11th time this season. Bailey has struggled with a foot injury since Aug. 17, which he aggravated Oct. 20 at Indianapolis. He has only played once since that loss to the Colts, and John Fox acknowledged that the Broncos might have rushed Bailey back to have him play at Kansas City on Dec. 1.
-- QB Peyton Manning threw two touchdown passes, increasing his season total to 47. Manning needs to throw four touchdown passes in the final two regular-season games to surpass Tom Brady's NFL record of 50, set in 2007.
-- LB Paris Lenon received his second consecutive start at middle linebacker and played 33 snaps, working almost exclusively in the base defensive package. Lenon finished with two tackles.
-- WR Andre Caldwell had a season-high six catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns in the loss. Caldwell played 37 snaps, 13 more than he had ever played in his two years with the Broncos.
-- S Omar Bolden made his first career start, and played all but two snaps. Bolden played extensively four days earlier, and has taken Duke Ihenacho's place in the starting lineup.