Broncos miss playoffs after 6-0 start
New coach, new system, new roster, new staff. Same old story for the Denver Broncos.
Josh McDaniels' first season as Denver coach ended the same way Mike Shanahan's last one did: with a late-season flop and an embarrassing blowout that wasted a strong start and kept the Broncos out of the playoffs.
Jamaal Charles ran for a Chiefs-record 259 yards on 25 carries and linebacker Derrick Johnson returned two interceptions of Kyle Orton for touchdowns in Kansas City's 44-24 rout on Sunday, their first victory in nine tries at Denver's Invesco Field.
"We blew it. In a very embarrassing way," Denver defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. "We have to go back and watch this film."
"As embarrassing as this was, you have to go back and watch this. You want to know which guys stepped up and gave it their all … or did some guys just fold it up?" Holliday said. "When this happens against a team like Kansas City. These guys had over 500 yards of total offence — I don't think they've gotten that in the last three, four games. It's ridiculous.
"Charles is a good back, no doubt about it. We knew that coming in. But what did he have, 300 yards by himself? That's embarrassing."
For the Broncos it was eerily reminiscent of last season's finale, when they were routed 52-21 by San Diego with a playoff berth on the line, a loss that led to Shanahan's departure and McDaniels' arrival.
But they don't appear any better off a year later.
Johnson returned his second interception 60 yards for a score that gave Kansas City a 37-24 lead with 10 minutes left, then Charles capped his amazing performance with a 56-yard TD run. He bested Larry Johnson's franchise record of 211 yards set in 2005.
The Chiefs looked nothing like a 4-12 team against the Broncos (8-8), who lost eight of 10 after a sizzling 6-0 start and went 0-3 at home in the AFC West after going 3-0 in divisional road games.
It was the first time the Broncos failed to win a division game at home.
There were 10 scenarios when the day began for the Broncos to avoid joining the 1978 Redskins and '03 Vikings as the only teams since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to miss the playoffs after a 6-0 start.
By kickoff, that list of possible paths to the post-season was whittled to three. They all involved a Broncos' win against a team they had routed 44-13 just one month ago.
The Broncos went into their high-stakes season finale with a thin receiving corps after Eddie Royal was held out with a neck injury and McDaniels deactivated Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall and tight end Tony Scheffler for disciplinary reasons.
Brian Dawkins insisted that wasn't the reason for this mess.
"No, that has nothing to do with missed tackles," he said.
McDaniels had accused Marshall, his best offensive player, of exaggerating a hamstring injury two days after making his second straight Pro Bowl.
That left Denver with Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Stokley, Brandon Lloyd and Matt Willis, who was promoted from the practice squad 24 hours earlier.
"We're not going to look back on it and say that cost us this game. That happened, whatever," said Gaffney, who had a career day with 14 catches for 213 yards.
Neither Marshall nor Scheffler was at Invesco Field, and McDaniels refused to say afterward whether they had a future in Denver.
Other than Gaffney, the Broncos didn't play as if much was at stake, never once holding the lead.
Pro Bowl teammates Dawkins and Champ Bailey weren't on the same page on Denver's first defensive series, allowing Kansas City to score its first offensive touchdown in the first quarter all season with a four-play, 86-yard drive.
With Dawkins biting on a run fake, Bailey was burned for a 50-yard catch by Terrance Cooper. Bailey missed his assignment on tight end Leonard Pope on the next snap, good for 29 yards. Two plays later, fullback Mike Cox dived in from a yard out for Kansas City's first TD on its opening possession in 18 games.
The Broncos trailed 30-24 in the fourth quarter and had a chance to take their first lead after reaching the Chiefs' 40-yard line. That's when Johnson stepped in front of tight end Daniel Graham and returned Orton's pass 60 yards for his second score.
Then, Charles ended all doubt with his long TD, which put him in striking distance of the NFL's single-game rushing record of 296 yards set by Minnesota's Adrian Peterson in 2007 against San Diego.
Instead, Charles encouraged coach Todd Haley to get seldom-used Javarris Williams some work.
"I could have [gone] back into the game, but I just went up to the coach [and said] I'm satisfied right now. I'll get it some other time," Charles said.
Denver's playoff drought now stands at four years.
"We've got to look at what may be the common denominator in why we're not finishing better than we're finishing," McDaniels said. "I can't speak for years prior, but I can speak for this year and we certainly didn't play nearly as well in the second half of the season as we did in the first half.
"We've got to find an answer. This isn't an acceptable ending to the season."