Broncos’ loss opens door in AFC playoff race

John Fox doesn’t see a defense that’s diving or a sky that’s

falling.

A day after the Broncos lost their aura of indestructibility and

handed New England a golden chance to steer the road to the Super

Bowl away from the Rocky Mountains, Denver’s coach said the

stunning 27-20 loss to San Diego doesn’t substantially change the

challenge facing his team.

”You can go back and do research; I think there has been a lot

of successful teams that have had losses late in the season,” Fox

said Friday. ”Where we’ll fit on that totem pole, I have no idea

yet. We obviously have work to do to improve. I know that. I agree

that every loss is a wakeup call.”

Last year’s Super Bowl champion, the Baltimore Ravens, in fact,

went 1-4 in December.

”They got hot at the right time,” safety David Bruton said.

”You just get hot at the right time. Yeah, it stinks that we lost

the game, but we’re definitely just trying to move forward and

learn from it. We just finished watching film and just move on to

the next one. You learn from adversity. You learn from your

mistakes.

”You want to be hot in December, but we lost early in December

and we can learn from that and push forward and become hot at the

end of December and throughout January and February.”

That would mean a trip to the Super Bowl, which the Broncos are

still talking about despite their latest misstep that might have

cost them the smoothest path to the title game.

The Broncos (11-3) have dealt with deficiencies on defense all

season, but they’ve all been camouflaged by a high-powered offense

led by Peyton Manning, the prohibitive favorite to win his fifth

MVP award.

This time, Manning had an off night, failing to guide the

Broncos to a single first down in the second quarter as the

Chargers (7-7) overcame an early 10-3 deficit to take control.

”We had those three three-and-outs in a row and … it was

damaging enough to cost us the lead,” Manning said after the game.

”And we were never able to recover from that.”

The Chargers played keep-away from Manning, controlling the

clock with drives that ate up yards and time. Ryan Matthews (127

yards on 29 carries) became the first running back to top 100 yards

on Denver all season, and the Chargers gained 103 yards on first

down.

Asked if that was a direct result of the absences of Kevin

Vickerson (hip, out for the year) and Derek Wolfe (illness, out

indefinitely), Fox demurred.

”No, I really think defensively … this has been the same all

season,” Fox said. ”I think the difference is instead of scoring

30, 40, 50, we scored 20.

”It’s something that we’re working on. It’s something that we

have to get better at. I don’t think it’s acceptable for anybody,

including those guys in that room. I think they understand that and

we have to get better to get where we want to go,” Fox added.

”Having said that, I think we lost our third game, not our 13th.

We don’t think the sky is falling.”

The Broncos entered the game averaging an eye-popping 39.8

points but managed just two TD throws from Manning, both to Bubba

Caldwell – Manning’s 46th and 47th of the season, three shy of Tom

Brady’s NFL record – and two field goals by Matt Prater.

Without Wes Welker (concussion), the Broncos were 2 for 9 on

third down, however.

”Look, you have a player of that caliber, I mean, you’re not

happy that he’s not available,” Fox said. ”But nobody comes to

rescue you. They still have the game scheduled and you have to go

play the game. Everybody in this league does that.”

Fox said Welker still hasn’t been cleared. He’ll have to pass

baseline cognitive tests early next week if he’s to play Dec. 22 at

Houston.

The Broncos don’t expect to have rookie cornerback Kayvon

Webster available against the Texans after he underwent surgery

Friday on his right thumb, which he broke early in the third

quarter.

The Broncos expect he’ll be able to play with a cast after that,

much like Von Miller did his rookie season. It’s probably tougher

for a cornerback to play with a cumbersome cast than for a

linebacker, however.

”I’d say life in general is probably tougher in a cast,” Fox

said.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on

Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton