The Broncos’ two-month streak of luck ran out on Sunday, thanks to sloppy play from their own side and the Colts’ Luck of their own.
For the second consecutive meeting, the emerging Indianapolis quarterbacking legend outplayed the reigning one, though that was hardly the only reason for the Colts’ 27-24 victory. The Broncos fell behind 17-0 before turning it into a game that was (sort of) in doubt until the final minutes. If you’re looking for a culprit, blame Peyton Manning’s two interceptions (the Colts had no turnovers). Blame the Broncos’ elusive and dodgy (and not in a good way) running game: After Denver’s backs had seemingly rediscovered their mojo the past two games, they combined for a mere 35 yards rushing on Sunday. And blame a couple of numbskull penalties on Indy’s final drive that kept the ball out of Manning’s hands at the end.
Although it’s disappointing to lose to a Colts team that’s played this entire season in disarray on and off the field, all it means is that the Broncos have finished the first half at 7-1, a record that any franchise this side of New England would be delighted to have.
Even so, any honest orange-and-blue bleeder would admit that it’s a shaky 7-1. The team has been playing championship-level defense—though it’s way too soon to claim that its performance has been historically good—and until Sunday, that’s been enough to carry an offense that’s still finding itself.
The truth is, the team still controls its own destiny. The second half slate features four divisional games (another AFC West title is all but certain at this point), plus tests against the Patriots (11/29) and Bengals (12/28), both at home in prime time. If the Broncos win one or both of those, plus the ones they’re supposed to win—their next-toughest remaining tilt is probably at Pittsburgh on 12/20—they’ll likely finish no worse than a 2-seed in the AFC. Even losing to both Cincy and the Pats might not drop them below the 3-seed in a conference that currently only has five teams playing plus-.500 ball.
Of course, none of this matters if Manning gets dinged up again or can’t solve his cold-weather conundrums (be they real or imagined). And this matters even less if the team can’t establish a running game that’s currently one of the five worst in the NFL.
Since Manning’s arrival in Denver, the Broncos’ regular seasons have been virtual formalities, dress rehearsals for their inevitable playoff runs. Barring a total second-half collapse, 2015 will be no different. But what might change this year is that come January, the Broncos might find themselves in more of an underdog role rather than one of the playoff favorites, and that might turn out to be their biggest asset of all.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.