ENGLEWOOD – Last year, the Denver Broncos had plenty of practice – fall behind, stay close, go into hurry-up mode late and find some way to pull out a game or send it into overtime with hardly any time left.
This year, about the only thing the Broncos are perfecting late in games is how to line up in victory formation.
With a game against the Chiefs (2-13) coming up Sunday, odds are against the Broncos (13-2) finally getting a dose of late-game drama. That means they could very well go into the postseason without having once endured the stress of needing the make-or-break score in 2012.
Not even Peyton Manning, who loves to rehearse every situation and every scenario as many times as possible with his new team, can give the Broncos the real-time practice they need in that department.
“You can’t do anything about changing the outcome of the game,” Manning said. “You try to simulate game-like scenarios in practice. It’s not quite the same as a game, so that’s something coach Fox and the staff have tried to do all season long.”
Through 15 games, the Broncos haven’t faced a single one that has come down to the wire.
Two of their three losses came by less than a touchdown, but in the 27-21 loss to Atlanta, they didn’t have the ball at the end, and in the 31-25 loss to Houston, they got it back with 20 seconds and no timeouts at their own 14-yard line – only time for a completion, a spike and one desperation play.
Meanwhile, the Broncos’ 10-game winning streak has come by an average margin of 14 points.
They’ve won three of those games by eight and another by seven – close enough to give the defense practice at some version of the prevent and the offense work on the run-heavy, clock-killing “four-minute drill.”
But when it comes to that desperation drive with the clock running out, the kind perfected in this city by John Elway in the 1980s and 90s – nada.
Practice situations, says offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, can take a team only so far.
“The most important thing as a coach is to prepare your players for that,” he said. “We talk about situational football every day. If this situation comes up, what would we do? On the weekends after you see certain games, as a staff you talk about certain situations in other games, and then you try to relay that message to the players.”
Last season, the Broncos had no shortage of real-life, late-game stress situations. With Tim Tebow at quarterback, they got the winning score in six games in the last two minutes of regulation or overtime.
This season, Manning has, in fact, engineered three game-winning drives in the fourth quarter to bring his career total to 48, the most in the NFL since the 1970 merger. But none of these has been a nail-biter. The latest go-ahead score came with 9:03 remaining in the Oct. 15 game against San Diego – the Broncos overcame a 24-0 deficit for a 35-24 win to start their winning streak.
Eric Decker, who has been in Denver for both Tebow and Manning, said every practice this year includes two-minute drills and lots of scenarios “just to make sure we have things planned before we get into it.
“But we have a lot of guys in this locker room who were here last year,” Decker said. “To be able to play from behind is something you can’t practice, but it’s something you build as you have experience and have success with it. I think we’ve had success with it, so the confidence is there.”
“But really,” Decker said, “our mindset is to get ahead and not have to worry about it.”