A late-game collapse by the Steelers on Sunday allowed the Raiders a fourth-quarter comeback capped by a game-winning field goal as time expired.
"They outplayed us defensively," Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark said. "Their defense made the stops when they needed to, and we didn't. It wasn't from a lack of trying. Maybe it was trying too hard."
Could Denver have been trying too hard on Sunday against the Texans? That’s hard to imagine. But there’s still a grain of truth there.
What happened against Houston was nothing more or less than a better team beating a lesser one. No one likes admitting when their team simply doesn’t have the players or the chops to overcome their opponent, but Denver fans are going to have to accept it this time. Ironically, the Texans have spent years building a team that could beat Peyton Manning.
Every NFL team knows they have to be able to beat their division foes to get an invitation to the playoffs. Each franchise builds itself with that fact in mind, in some lesser or greater way. In the AFC South, you had to beat the Colts. Houston never really did. They made up for it on Sunday.
You have to stay true to your principles when you’re building, and Houston has. They’ve maintained the zone blocking that Alex Gibbs modified into an NFL institution, and turned an undrafted free agent, in Arian Foster, into the NFL’s leading rusher in 2010. Quarterback Matt Schaub was the guy who could never win a big game for you, until he could.
It’s ironic that Houston had to whet their skills on the stone that was the Indianapolis Colts until they became sharp enough to cut Denver off at the knees in one incredibly ugly series of possessions that ended with the Texans up 21-11. It would be 31-11 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. That was a touchdown too far for the Broncos to run; a late rally fell six points short for the second week in a row.
In 2011, Houston brought in former Broncos head coach Wade Phillips to run his own variation on his father’s contribution to the game, the Bum Phillips one-gap, penetrating, odd-front defense. They found J.J. Watt out of Waukesha, WI, a 6-5, 295 lb monster of a player who looks and acts very much like Derek Wolfe, and they placed him in the perfect slot to show off his skills. He spent the day torturing Manny Ramirez and Orlando Franklin - mostly Ramirez, who looked as if he was playing in a dimension that was a full second behind the one that housed Watt and the Texans. J.J. would finish the day with seven tackles, four tackles for loss, three QB hits, 2.5 sacks, and a partridge in a pear tree, or so it seemed. Denver didn’t have an answer for him, nor for the rest of the Houston defense.
Denver fans were lured into high expectations when their Peyton Manning-led offense decimated the 49ers defense in much the same way that Schaub carved up the Broncos in the first and second quarters on Sunday. That was preseason, but it was followed by a nice win over the perennially playoff-bound Steelers.
I often write a pregame article, but I let that go last week in order to laud the accomplishments of Rod Smith. I often write a bit here and there as the week’s opponent approaches over time, so I went back to early August to see the first thing I’d put down about the Texans’ game. It was this:
“This game worries me. Houston is used to playing against Manning, and their roster is deeper than Denver’s.”
Today, I don’t have that much to add.
I’ll go deeper into the film this week, but it won’t look much different. When you lose like this, it’s a team effort. Several players went down to injuries, many misread the plays, and the wide receivers showed that they haven’t learned to get separation well yet. Lots of Broncos limped out of the locker room. Schaub left part of his earlobe on the Mile High turf. It was a brutally physical game on both sides of the ball, and Denver got the worst of it.
What really hurts is that Denver did try. They haven’t been together that long as a team, and it showed in drops, missed opportunities, and blown coverages. Fans often struggle to accept that playing in the NFL isn’t a matter of days or weeks, but one of months and years of working just as Houston did, to create a team that’s deep and good enough to power their way into and through the playoffs. It’s worth looking at how long Houston has had to hold the line and trust in Gary Kubiak, and surround him with top coaches and players, to get to this point. Kubes has responded as most Denver fans expected - he’s succeeded with tenacity and effort. He always was that kind of man.
John Elway talked about it taking three years at least - and yes, he said ‘at least’ several times- to rebuild this team. Adding Manning was a stroke of genius, but he’s one player, no matter how talented and driven. Manning also has been susceptible to throwing multiple INTs as he did in Atlanta - he just comes back and has brilliant games, and I’m sure that he will again.
The Broncos' young receivers have to start catching them, getting their feet down in bounds, and taking the opportunities that he gives them. It’s a process, not an event. Hurts, doesn’t it? when things went wrong, Denver began pushing, overthinking things, not staying disciplined. Trying too hard, in essence. Trying the wrong things, to be more precise.
The measure of a team often isn’t whether it loses or wins in the short run - Denver’s still finding its balance, and it shows. The question is whether they can get back up, gird themselves, and take it out on the next team on the schedule, fighting back into the race. That’s going to be necessary against the Broncos' divisional foe, the Raiders. Oakland found a way to scrap, push, claw, and force their way back into a game they should have been out of, and beat a good Steelers team that was on its second game on the road out of its first three. Denver will have to find that same quality within themselves to beat the Raiders this weekend. It won’t be easy, but at least it’s at home.
As for myself, I’m going to take a little of my own advice. This week I’m going to be scouting the film on the Raiders; laying out some the players and plays that Denver might be seeing and needing to stop. Like Denver, the Raiders have injuries, problems and weaknesses. I’m going to try and identify a few.
It’s a place to start, and that’s something Denver needs this week. After this game, no one really had a clear idea why things fell apart. Part of that is breaking down the film to get clear on why you fell apart on Xs and Os, but I thought that Denver looked panicked, losing discipline and containment. Part was playing a superior team. Part of the answer is to look at what you’re going to need to do right to beat the next team in line.
I hope to show some things this week that might bear on what the Broncos need to deal with coming up on Sunday. After this kind of a loss, my sense is that there’s not much point for me in walking into the future while looking backwards. The Denver coaches are taking care of that part of things, and there’ll be plenty of analysis on the autopsy of the Texans game. This time, I’ll leave it to those who have the urge to cover that end.
The good news? After San Diego won in Oakland in Week 1 and did a fine job at home against a dismal Titans effort, they played against the Atlanta Falcons in their inimitable, disastrous way. With the Chiefs also coming from behind to pull out a win, it was good to see the Bolts bumbling their way to the kind of home loss that Denver could have had if they had given up after the Texans' run of touchdowns in the first half.
The divisional importance of a Raiders/Broncos tussle might be just what the team needs to focus and get on the same page. They’re playing a hard stretch right now, and their divisional record is going to be a big part of their succeeding this year.
It starts this weekend. It’s not too early to have a big game.