By Pat Graham, Associated Press
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The Denver Broncos will figure heavily into the AFC playoff picture — in a spoiler’s capacity, anyway.
It’s an unfamiliar role for the reigning Super Bowl champions.
After five straight playoff appearances, the Broncos were eliminated over the weekend and have nothing more than pride on the line Sunday against Oakland, which can wrap up the AFC West title with a win or could fall all the way to the fifth seed with a loss.
The Broncos (8-7) are trying to get a head start on a bounce-back season in 2017.
Just who may be under center for the finale, well, coach Gary Kubiak wouldn’t tip his hand Monday. He may stick with Trevor Siemian , who has been inefficient at times in leading an anemic offense that’s been held to 10 points or fewer the last three games (the first time that’s happened for Denver since 1966). Kubiak might insert rookie Paxton Lynch, the first-round pick who has struggled when he’s taken over.
“We’ll see. We’ll see what happens,” Kubiak said. “I don’t want to sit here, try to talk about that one way or another.”
A promising 4-0 start sure went sideways. For Kubiak, it happened with a crushing overtime loss to the Chiefs on Nov. 27. The Broncos have dropped four of their last five and are missing the postseason for the first time since 2010, when Josh McDaniels lost his job as head coach and Tim Tebow was about to lead the team to an improbable playoff run the next season.
“We were in pretty good shape at one time, but that’s the league. Over the long haul, we just haven’t been good enough,” Kubiak said. “We haven’t played well enough, especially offensively here down the stretch, to continue to play some more. That’s disappointing.”
The early exodus at least gives the Broncos a head start evaluating talent for next season. They very well could place some banged-up players — inside linebacker Brandon Marshall (hamstring), cornerback Kayvon Webster, tight ends A.J. Derby and Virgil Green (all concussions) — on injured reserve. That would free up roster space to promote practice squad players.
Not ideal. Just the way it is now.
“This organization, all we know is how to get to the playoffs, how to win the division and how to try to get to the Super Bowl,” outside linebacker Shane Ray said after Sunday’s loss at Kansas City. “Obviously, for us (to) no longer be in the playoff picture, it’s tough for us. I don’t really know how to describe it. You can tell by everybody that this is not Bronco football. This is not what we’re used to.
“Now, we’ve got to keep moving forward and get ready for the next show.”
One trend that has haunted Denver all season is slow starts. The Broncos have been outscored by a 94-33 margin in the first quarter this season. Not only that, but a defense billed as one of the best in the league frequently took a while to settle into games. They allowed scores on opening drives in nine games this season for 55 points. In contrast, last season’s version of the defense only allowed an opponent to score on the opening possession four times for 24 points.
With Oakland quarterback Derek Carr’s broken leg and New England needing a win over Miami next weekend, everything was setting up nicely for the Broncos to salvage their season and sneak into the playoffs as a menacing wild card.
Then, they allowed 21 points in the first quarter at Kansas City. The Chiefs ended up gouging Denver’s dynamic defense for 484 total yards — by far the most that side of the ball has surrendered all season.
“We got our tail whooped,” safety Darian Stewart said. “They were more ready than we were. They came out of the gates, and we gave up three huge plays. … We never recovered.”
Now, they’re playing out the string.
“It stinks, there’s no other way to put it,” Siemian said. “It’s frustrating right now, but this is part of the deal. We knew we had to win the next two to give ourselves a chance and we didn’t get it done. Regroup this week and give it our best against Oakland.”