DENVER (AP) — The one team that best found a way to neutralize Von Miller, Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and Chris Harris Jr. in 2016 was the Denver Broncos themselves.
The Super Bowl 50 champs won’t get to defend their title despite a powerful pass rush and stellar secondary that were even better than the ones that carried Peyton Manning across the finish line in February.
Denver’s five-year playoff run that featured two Super Bowl trips came crashing to a halt with a late-season slide that revealed both flaws in the foundation and fissures in the locker room .
The Broncos were 7-3 when the team returned from its bye to find the franchise’s three silver trophies glistening under glass in the middle of their refurbished locker room. Then came a crushing loss to Kansas City when they blew an eight-point lead with three minutes left in regulation and lost 30-27 in overtime. Moreover, quarterback Trevor Siemian sprained his left foot on a late sack, an injury that would impair his mobility and effectiveness the rest of the way.
“It’s just been a struggle since then, especially offensively,” coach Gary Kubiak said.
That tormenting epitaph leaves general manager John Elway facing many of the same questions he thought he’d answered in the glow of Denver’s Super Bowl win over Carolina:
—Who is the quarterback?
—Can they finally fix the O-line?
—Can they find an elite tight end?
Doomed by poor play in the trenches, a battered backfield and a bruised quarterback, the Broncos (8-7) never solved their tendency to start slow — which slowed down Miller , whose quiet final month could cost him the Defensive Player of the Year award that looked like a lock at midseason.
The Broncos’ 33 first-quarter points are lowest in the league and include just one sustained TD drive. That ineptitude defanged their 143 fourth-quarter points and 110 points off turnovers — both NFL highs.
“The thing we did last year, we were able to get leads in games,” Kubiak noted. “People had to play differently against us. They had to throw the ball. You go back to the playoffs, we scored first in all three of those playoff games, on the first possession.”
Denver has trailed 48 percent of the time this season and held the lead just 32 percent of the time. In all but one of their losses the Broncos never led for a single second.
Last year, they played from behind just 27 percent of the time and held the lead more than 50 percent, a figure that jumped to 67 percent in the playoffs.
“Even though we’ve been in some close games, we haven’t been able to get somebody to play from behind and let our guys rush the passer, which is what we do best,” Kubiak lamented. “It’s been tough.”
Other obstacles that destroyed Denver’s playoff plans:
BATTERED BACKFIELD: The Broncos were feeling good about their surging ground game when C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker combined for 190 yards in a rout of Houston on Oct. 24. Anderson showed up the next day with a sore right knee and needed season-ending surgery. FB Andy Janovich (ankle) and RB Kapri Bibbs (hamstring) also ended up on IR. Without Janovich, the Broncos have averaged just 60 yards a game.
RUN DEFENSE: No. 1 in run defense last year, the Broncos slid to 29th after losing Malik Jackson to free agency and Vance Walker to a knee injury in camp. Derek Wolfe had a stellar season but was hurt too often, and free agent Jared Crick, raw rookie Adam Gotsis and journeyman Billy Winn weren’t stout enough.
MIDDLING MIDDLE: Brandon Marshall wasn’t as effective without Danny Trevathan (Bears) alongside him at inside linebacker. Opponents avoided Denver’s Pro Bowl pair of cornerbacks by working the middle with tight ends and backs. When safety T.J. Ward missed Sunday’s game in Kansas City with a concussion, Travis Kelce went off for 160 yards on 11 receptions.
DRAFT CLASS: All seven draft picks made the roster, but the best of the bunch was Riley Dixon — because he got so much practice with 84 punts. QB Paxton Lynch was awful in two starts; Gotsis has 12 tackles; Booker gets 3.5 yards a carry; G Connor McGovern hasn’t played; Janovich got hurt. Safeties Justin Simmons and Will Parks showed promise.
TIGHT ENDS: For the second straight season Elway had to swing a deal just before the trade deadline to bring in a tight end. This time, it was A.J. Derby from the Patriots, and he quickly surpassed veteran Virgil Green and 2015 third-round draft pick Jeff Heuerman.
TERRIBLE TACKLES: Free agent tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson flopped. Okung played so poorly that when he tried to speak up after Denver’s 16-3 loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots, he was shouted down by Talib. Donaldson was whistled for five fouls in his return to Kansas City on Christmas Day.
BIG DROPS: Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders had big drops down the stretch. Bennie Fowler had the costliest drops of the season, however. One could have reversed their first loss to Kansas City but bounced off his hands, and the other that could have turned a loss at Tennessee into a win but ricocheted off his face mask.
So, the Broncos will be skipping the postseason party for the first time since 2010.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.