The Denver Broncos’ ninth game last season was Peyton Manning’s low point.
Manning had his worst outing. He completed 5 of 20 passes. He threw four interceptions and was benched. He didn’t play again until Week 17. The Broncos lost 29-13 to the Kansas City Chiefs that day. They didn’t look anything like Super Bowl contenders.
So maybe the Broncos’ ninth game this season isn’t a big deal. They were manhandled by the Oakland Raiders in a 30-20 loss on Sunday night. They held the ball for only 18:32. The offense struggled to move the ball. The defense wasn’t physical enough, allowing 218 yards rushing.
Last season the Broncos went 8-2 after that Chiefs loss and won a Super Bowl. Maybe the Broncos pull off the same trick this season. The Broncos’ defense, when it’s playing at its best, gives them a chance.
But this year seems different. The AFC West is tougher. Last year the Broncos had to hold off a strong Chiefs team. Now they have to battle the Chiefs and Raiders. Denver is looking up at both, from third place.
The Broncos’ schedule down the stretch isn’t easy:
Nov. 13, at New Orleans
Nov. 27, vs. Kansas City
Dec. 4, at Jacksonville
Dec. 11, at Tennessee
Dec. 18, vs. New England
Dec. 25, at Kansas City
Jan. 1, vs. Oakland
The “easy” games are on the road. There are no gimmes at home. It will be a tough schedule down the stretch. If things get really bad, a playoff spot isn’t guaranteed for the defending champs (though that would require one of the AFC teams hovering around .500 to get hot).
It’s not just the schedule. The Broncos have lost three of their last five. The offensive issues are getting tougher to ignore. Denver doesn’t seem like its considering benching quarterback Trevor Siemian yet, but the questions are starting. Siemian is limited. He’s fine if everything else is going well, but he sticks out when that’s not the case. And the Broncos have first-round pick Paxton Lynch waiting, though he didn’t look ready when he got a chance to start against the Atlanta Falcons. The running game should be carrying the offense, but C.J. Anderson’s injury has been a big blow. The rushing attack was fine when Anderson and Devontae Booker were the 1-2 punch. But after Anderson went on injured reserve, Booker hasn’t been effective in the lead role.
And on Sunday, even the defense looked mortal.
You’d assume the Broncos will figure things out because the coaching, talent and championship pedigree is in place. But Sunday night’s performance, at least for the moment, brings in some doubts.
Here are the power rankings following Week 9 of the NFL season:
31. Cleveland Browns (0-9, LW: 31)
“We’re not going to go 0-16,” Browns linebacker Chris Kirksey told Cleveland.com after Sunday’s loss. “That’s for a fact. We’re not doing that.” While you can’t pick any game as The One the Browns will win, you give any NFL team seven shots at a win and odds are it’ll get one. I don’t think they’re going winless.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6, LW: 30)
The Jaguars outgained the Chiefs 449-231, had 25 first downs to 10 for the Chiefs, and still lost. Four turnovers will do that. It would be easy to pile on the Jaguars some more in this space, but the truth is they played better. We’ll see next week, against the Texans, if that means anything.
29. Chicago Bears (2-6, LW: 29)
Jordan Howard’s rushing yards, the past five games: 111, 118, 34, 22, 153. So he might get 125 on Sunday. He might get 25.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-5, LW: 23)
Why won’t Dirk Koetter take out Jameis Winston during blowouts? “We’re not going to be taking Jameis out of games. Those guys are paid to play, they want to play and we’re going to play them,” Koetter said, according to Jenna Laine of ESPN.com. There’s a remarkable lack of critical thinking there. Yes, “those guys are paid to play,” but I’m not sure why Koetter would be thinking about the Buccaneers getting their money’s worth out of Winston when he should be considering what’s best for the well-being of his young quarterback.
27. New York Jets (3-6, LW: 28)
In the Jets’ two games before Sunday, Matt Forte had 55 carries and averaged 3.3 yards. On Sunday the Jets cut back his playing time, gave him 12 carries, and he averaged 7.7 yards per attempt. Huh, so not overworking a 30-year-old back might turn him into a more efficient player? Crazy.
26. Los Angeles Rams (3-5, LW: 26)
Todd Gurley’s longest run this season is just 18 yards and his 3.1-yard average is dead last among all NFL players with more than 75 attempts. The quarterback situation is awful, the coaching isn’t great, the staff doesn’t give Gurley enough carries, the line isn’t good and all of the other reasons. But Gurley being one of the least productive backs in the NFL over a half season is crazy.
25. Miami Dolphins (4-4, LW: 27)
It’s amazing how things can turn on a dime in the NFL. The Dolphins were 1-4, and their win was a lucky win at home in overtime against the Browns. Since then they’ve won three in a row, with two solid victories against Buffalo and Pittsburgh. It’s like the Dolphins became an entirely different team.
24. Baltimore Ravens (4-4, LW: 24)
Don’t get too excited about the Ravens. A 95-yard touchdown accounted for about 35 percent of their total yardage on Sunday. A blocked punt was returned for their only other touchdown. The offense has shown almost no consistency, aside from the great Justin Tucker kicking the ball. I need to see it again before I believe they’re much better than the team that lost four in a row.
23. Tennessee Titans (4-5, LW: 20)
The Titans have scored 155 points their last five games. In that stretch, Marcus Mariota has a 111.8 rating. And just think how good the offense will become if the Titans add a true No. 1 receiver next offseason. There’s nothing resembling a top receiver on the roster, and they’re still looking pretty good.
22. Indianapolis Colts (4-5, LW: 25)
Everyone figured they’d be 3-6 after losing at Lambeau Field. Well, now what after they won in Green Bay? Are the Colts ready to make a run? Are the Packers that bad? If that wins says something about where the Colts are headed, it’s not like the AFC South is too tough to navigate.
21. Carolina Panthers (3-5, LW: 22)
A win is a win and if you want to point to the defense wrecking the Rams, fine. But the Panthers also had just 244 yards and allowed five sacks. It was ugly on offense. Not the kind of performance that would lead anyone to believe they’re all the way back. But they need wins while they try to figure everything else out.
20. New Orleans Saints (4-4, LW: 21)
Drew Brees had 323 passing yards and backs Tim Hightower and Mark Ingram combined for 245 rushing yards. The 49ers’ defense is awful, but that’s still a lot of yards to pile up in one game.
19. San Diego Chargers (4-5, LW: 18)
The Chargers might be the best last-place team we’ve seen in a long time.
18. Cincinnati Bengals (3-4-1, LW: 17)
The Bengals could decide soon to activate rookie cornerback William Jackson III, the team’s first-round pick, off injured reserve. He and linebacker Nick Vigil, another rookie, could give a stagnant defense a boost the rest of the way.
17. Houston Texans (5-3, LW: 16)
If Jadeveon Clowney (three sacks in eight games) has another gear, the Texans could really use it in the second half.
16. Arizona Cardinals (3-4-1, LW: 14)
J.J. Nelson is being given a shot to start at receiver. He has 163 yards and two touchdowns his last two games, and could provide some of the big plays that have been sorely lacking in the offense all season.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (4-4, LW: 11)
I’m not quite sure why the Eagles have given up on Ryan Mathews. He has played just eight snaps in each of Philadelphia’s last two games, with Darren Sproles getting almost all of the action. Mathews hasn’t been great but he hasn’t been bad either. The Eagles could use a better running game instead of asking quarterback Carson Wentz to do it all.
13. New York Giants (5-3, LW: 13)
Rashad Jennings is the Giants’ leading rusher this season. He has 168 yards and is averaging 2.6 yards per carry. In related news, the Giants are averaging 68.2 rushing yards per game, dead last in the NFL.
12. Green Bay Packers (4-4, LW: 10)
I don’t see how Mike McCarthy keeps his job if the Packers don’t make the playoffs. And general manager Ted Thompson and his allergy to free agency has to get a critical look too. This looks like a team in need of a reboot.
11. Washington Redskins (4-3-1, LW: 12)
After rookie running back Rob Kelley played well in London in their last game, Washington is going to let Kelley lead the running game going forward. He has good size and power, and it’s not like Matt Jones had been impressive. Kelley might give a nice boost to the offense.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4, LW: 9)
This is still the “well, if they got hot … ” team of the NFL. But apparently Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t really ready to return, and that was a miserable loss at Baltimore. The Steelers look like they’re sleepwalking. It’s always dangerous to assume the switch will get flipped.
9. Detroit Lions (5-4, LW: 19)
They’re probably playing the best right now among all the NFC North teams. Since the NFL went to divisions in 1967, the Lions have won just three division titles, amazingly enough. They last won one in 1993, when it was still the NFC Central. So technically the Lions have never won the NFC North. It’s right there for them to take this season.
8. Minnesota Vikings (5-3, LW: 7)
The Vikings are averaging 2.7 yards per rushing attempt. Nobody has posted an average that bad since the 1953 Giants averaged 2.6 (h/t to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press).
7. Denver Broncos (6-3, LW: 3)
The talk in Denver on Monday was that Kapri Bibbs might take over as the head of the running game. Bibbs isn’t the answer to what is bothering the Broncos.
6. Atlanta Falcons (6-3, LW: 6)
Yep, Matt Ryan is still your MVP.
5. Seattle Seahawks (5-2-1, LW: 4)
Tight end Jimmy Graham should be the comeback player of the year. He made two of the prettiest touchdown passes you’ll see on Monday night. Not many thought he’d come back this well after major knee surgery.
4. Oakland Raiders (7-2, LW: 8)
If Latavius Murray is going to play like he did on Sunday night, when he rushed for 114 yards and three touchdowns, the Raiders’ ceiling goes up. The offense looked strong and balanced against a very good defense.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (6-2, LW: 5)
I know the Raiders are the talk of the NFL after Sunday night, but let’s not forget this about the Chiefs: They have won 17 of 20 games including playoff contests. It’s 16 of 18 in the regular season. And they dominated the Raiders in Oakland on Oct. 16. This is the most underappreciated team in the NFL right now (though, admittedly, it feels strange putting them at No. 3 … but it’s not like another team has a better argument).
2. Dallas Cowboys (7-1, LW: 2)
Ezekiel Elliott had just 18 carries on Sunday, only the second time he hasn’t reached 20 carries in his rookie season. Maybe Jason Garrett is realizing that he doesn’t need to keep giving Elliott the ball in blowout wins just because he can.
1. New England Patriots (7-1, LW: 1)
If the Patriots can beat the Seahawks at home next week, they might not lose for a while. The four games after Seattle: at San Francisco, at N.Y. Jets, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Ravens. The Patriots have a shot to wrap up the AFC’s No. 1 seed before Christmas.
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