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Sunday’s result was more of a regression to the mean than an outlier for the Broncos

Andrew Mason Avatar
October 7, 2019

CARSON, Calif. — This was the market correction.

By myriad metrics, the Broncos’ production did not reflect that of an 0-4 team. Their flaws certainly didn’t mean they should be 4-0 or 3-1. But their attributes, when balanced with the areas in need of improvement, reflected a team that should have been .500 or 1-3.

The expected win-loss ledger given their point differential through four weeks was 1.4 wins and 2.6 losses — right in between 1-3 and 2-2.

Not a good team, but a team that was better than its record. And more often than not, its performance in the win column begins to normalize.

That’s what happened Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park. The Broncos made a few lineup tweaks, but they also got some good fortune: a deflected pass that Justin Simmons intercepted for the first takeaway of the season, a fortunate recovery of the subsequent fumble at the end of that play, a Chargers pass rush that didn’t have its usual punch without edge rusher Melvin Ingram, a foe that drowned itself with three giveaways.

“We go back and we watch the film of the games, and we watch guys’ effort, trying to rake balls out,” Simmons said. “Tipped balls that just don’t quite make it.

“So we knew we were due.”

Even the little things finally went the Broncos’ way — right down to Vic Fangio correcting himself into the proper way of referring to the fan base and how it once again took over Dignity Health Sports Park.

“It speaks well of Broncos Nation — or, what am I supposed to say — Broncos Country, sorry,” he said.

Just like his team throughout the 20-13 win, Fangio had a bumpy moment, but he stuck the landing and got it right in the end.

“We finished, but it was painful,” Fangio said.


It certainly was not because of the front seven, which was stouter with the installation of Mike Purcell at nose tackle, the move of Shelby Harris to defensive and and the starting debut of Alexander Johnson at inside linebacker.

Even with Bradley Chubb out for the season, those tweaks brought more thump against the run and more pressure up the middle. Purcell had the Broncos’ only hit of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, but the entire defensive line seemed revived.

Rookie defensive end Dre’Mont Jones had a three-point play with a rush of Rivers that forced an intentional-grounding penalty, turning a 34-yard field-goal attempt for rookie kicker Chase McLaughlin into a 48-yarder that Purcell deflected at the line of scrimmage, leading to a knuckleball that fell short of the uprights.

The “painful” part came from three areas:

First, the pass defense, which kept the Chargers alive with penalties. Five of Los Angeles’ 19 first downs came via Broncos infractions — four of which were on reserve cornerbacks Devontae Harris (pass interference), Duke Dawson (pass interference) and Isaac Yiadom (two holding penalties).

Second, the special teams, which allowed a 68-yard Desmond King punt return for the Chargers, only touchdown, saw a missed Brandon McManus field goal from 54 yards with nine minutes left in the game and endured another hair-raising punt return when Diontae Spencer fielded a Ty Long punt at the Denver 4-yard line — the second time in three weeks he has caught a punt close to the Broncos’ goal line. That’s perfectly acceptable in the CFL, but on the smaller NFL field, it’s a no-no.

Spencer’s decision resulted in a stern talking-to from Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon, which was no surprise, given what McMahon said of Spencer’s last return like that:

“He knows better than that regardless of what his old career was,” McMahon said on Sept. 27. “He can’t do that, he can’t do that to us, he can’t get us pinned.”

Then, there was the offense, which roared from the garage like an F1 Mercedes, speeding to 14 points before the Chargers could blink thanks to crisp execution and deft play calling — starting with a 26-yard playaction pass to Jeff Heuerman out of a three-tight end formation on the first snap.

But after Courtland Sutton’s tackle-breaking 70-yard catch-and-run put the Broncos up 14-0, the offense became a broken-down jalopy, bogged down by penalties and shaky execution. Denver converted just one of its last nine third-down attempts — and the lone success came because of a Joe Flacco scramble.

Two giveaways should have cost the Broncos at least six points. McLaughlin’s missed field-goal attempt and Johnson’s end-zone interception ensured that didn’t happen.

Shortcomings like these doomed the Broncos in their first four games. But they were due for a game in which their opponent held the lighter fluid and struck a match. The Chargers obliged.

“Sorry for [having to watch] that damn game,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn told media after the game. “If we play like that, we won’t beat anybody.”


Lynn’s dead-on assessment of his team is one reason why the Broncos’ locker room seemed more relieved than giddy.

The other is that the Broncos understand what the 0-4 start means — that they have to be nearly perfect to climb back into the race. The list of teams that started slow and improved — but failed to work their way into the playoff conversation — is lengthier than the lines of cars that sit clogged on Los Angeles’ freeways each weekday.

“I think you guys are more happy than we are,” Shelby Harris told media after the game. “Don’t get me wrong, we won. But it’s just — it’s one win. It’s a 16-game season. You can’t get too high up on one win. Yeah, we were 0-4, but it’s just like when we lose, we say we can’t get too down on ourselves, and when you win, you can’t get too high on yourselves.

“It’s nice to get the first win, but we’ve got a long way to go, and we need to get a lot more wins. Yeah, I guess you could say it was relief that we got the first win, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a long way to go.”

A long way to go with much to fix. That’s where the Broncos stand.

But they were due some regression to the mean. Sunday, they got it.


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