Good Morning, Broncos fans. For the Denver Broncos, 2012 revolved completely around one person - Peyton Manning.
To Denver's players and coaches, getting Peyton meant they would have a chance to win every game, and to improve their own play, as individuals and as a team. He represented the very real possibility of capturing the franchise's third Lombardi trophy.
We heard all week that Denver's veterans - namely, Champ Bailey, Keith Brooking, and Brandon Stokely - were trying to ensure that their younger mates would value the opportunity presented by making the playoffs, and being the AFC's number one seed.
From the fans' standpoint, this season was about once again having one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and getting to watch his every play, series, and game in orange.
Put simply, 2012 was, for all connected to the Broncos, about appreciating Peyton.
Although he appeared at times during the season to get that message - like when he abandoned the huddle- and 21 personnel-heavy facets of the offensive plan - John Fox made a few too many of his milquetoast decisions, and the result was a 38-35 loss at the hands of the mediocre Ravens (Gamebook, ANS boxscore).
Foxball caught up with Fox and the Broncos, by welcoming S#@% to happen.
After Baltimore had tied the score at 21, the Broncos got the ball at their own 20 with 36 seconds left and all three timeouts. They were due to receive the second-half kickoff though, so at the time, we didn't think it was a terrible decision to kneel on the ball.
But in the third quarter, up 28-21, the Broncos faced a 3rd-and-5 at their own 47. What did they go with? A pass to one of their star wideouts, or their active tight ends? Nope. Instead, it was a Jacob Hester run up the middle. To no great surprise, it worked about as well as did handing it to Lance Ball on 3rd-and-4 at Foxboro in Week 5.
After forcing the Ravens to give the ball up on downs at the Denver 31, and the Broncos up 35-28, all they had to do was run three minutes and twelve seconds off the clock. Two first downs, and it would be over, and the team would be hosting the AFC title game at SAF@MH.
Unfortunately, conventional wisdom - or Fox's at least - says it's all about getting the opponent to burn its timeouts.
For three straight games, from Week 11 to Week 13, that's precisely the tact he took, and although each ended as a Denver win, each was by just a one-score margin. Two required onside kick recoveries by Denver, and the Chargers and Chiefs were each given a final possession with a chance to send the game to overtime.
Fox was prioritizing the elimination of opponents' timeouts over maintaining possession of the ball and sealing victories.
He was inviting S#@% to happen.
He did so again yesterday, and for the first time all year - in a single-elimination tournament - it bit him in the ass.
On 3rd-and-7 at the two-minute warning, the Broncos handed off to Ronnie Hillman for the fifth straight snap, and like the aforementioned Ball and Hester carries, the outcome was sadly predictable.
Now, your chances are pretty good when you're up seven with 69 seconds left, and your opponent has 77 yards to gain and no timeouts. But pretty good isn't always good enough, and sometimes, S#@% happens.
Last night, that's exactly what went down.
When Rahim Moore's inexcusable brain fart tied the game at 35, there was still another chance for Manning to bail out his team. 31 seconds remained, the Broncos had two timeouts, and Fox decided to kneel on it.
Rather than take advantage of his team having possession of the ball, he chose to leave the outcome up to a toss of a coin.
He again invited S#@% in the door, and S#@% made a home at SAF@MH last night.
It took a while from there, but eventually, including a bunch more runs up the middle without Denver's best running back, and some more S#@% happened, as Manning made his most ill-advised throw since Week 2 in Atlanta, and the game ended shortly thereafter.
Yesterday should have been about Trindon Holliday and his unprecedented performance, or about Manning's three touchdown passes (two of which were exquisite throws, the other a too rare WR screen to Demaryius Thomas).
Instead, it's about Rahim Moore and Champ Bailey each having the worst games of their lives on the same day and for the same team, thanks to blatantly poor technique.
It's about Fox's meek decisions.
It's about an officiating crew that made terrible and impactful calls that led to each of Baltimore's first two touchdowns, and then a bunch of poor calls later on.
It's about a defense that led the league in sacks, and which had made big plays throughout the eleven-game winning streak, only to come up small yesterday. One late sack, and one lucky-bounce fumble recovery off a bungled snap to Joe Flacco was all this group could manage, and it wasn't enough.
It's about Matt Prater again not living up to his overinflated reputation and salary.
It should have been about a potential Manning/Brady title game rematch.
Instead, it's about all the S#@% that happened.
We were admittedly a broken record on the topic of Fox's milquetoast ways this season, and many called this a tired exercise in the comments. But as told to one reader just yesterday morning, we weren't about to change that tune until Fox stopped making so many bad decisions.
Unfortunately, if you make enough poor choices, probability catches up to you.
Eventualy, S#@% happens.
Just like you can win six games in a row - and yes, a playoff game - with a quarterback who has no business playing quarterback in the NFL, you can win eleven straight games while coaching like you just don't want to lose.
It's easy at 13-3 to lazily conclude that the coach is pushing all the right buttons, or that he has a great "feel" for the game.
Stupid decisions are the same stupid decisions in wins as they are in losses though, even if we want to excuse them in the former.
Caring more about timeouts than possession was stupid against San Diego, Tampa Bay, and Kansas City, and it was stupid yesterday.
For eleven straight weeks, Fox was presented with games in which his team was clearly the better one, and where his worst decisions were never punished. His margin for error was too great, and for the first time since the Broncos were down 24-0 at San Diego, that margin had shrunk, and this is the result.
No, this is not a call for Fox to be fired. He's a very good coach and manager of men, and he does deserve a large share of credit for how well the Broncos' season went until last night.
But what keeps him from being a great coach is his subpar decision-making, and the only way he'll win a championship in Denver is by either changing his ways, or by having an even longer run of good fortune than he had in 2011 or 2012.
For the record, Denver had one or two yards to gain on ten separate occasions on Saturday, and in every instance, they ran the ball. It could be that Manning checked into a run all ten times; we'll likely never know for certain.
Early on, there was nothing wrong with this strategy, what with the strong running of Knowshon Moreno. But once he and his skilled pass blocking departed with a knee injury, something should have changed.
Instead, the Broncos offense was all too predictable, and once Jacoby Jones scored his 70-yard touchdown, the game took on a feeling of woeful inevitability.
Fox, Mike McCoy, and Manning could have avoided this fate, though, by making bold decisions.
Instead, they went meek, and now they will all go to Honolulu instead of New Orleans.
As for Prater and his 52-yard attempt which wouldn't have been good from 5.2 yards out, a conversion there means perhaps a 24-14 halftime score. But the miss gave Baltimore the ball at their own 42, and three plays and one more Bailey disaster later, the game was tied going into halftime.
Our criticism of Prater this season was greeted with the same reaction as that toward Foxball - that it was tired and overrated as Broncos issues went. And while Prater's gaffe wasn't necessarily among the biggest reasons for Denver's loss, does anyone still think he deserved to be the fourth highest paid Bronco in 2012, behind just Manning, Bailey, and Elvis Dumervil?
As of now, he's due to be paid Denver's seventh highest salary ($2.5M, tied with Willis McGahee, Jacob Tamme, and Joel Dreessen) in 2013, although that will likely be the fifth highest figure once Joe Mays and D.J. Williams are cut or their deals renegotiated.
Videos: Highlights from BTV, NFLN; John Fox, Peyton Manning, and several others speak after the game; here are their quotes transcribed. Plus, the NFLN feature on Manning's rehab as told by Duke coach David Cutcliffe.
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