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Broncos coach Fox says ‘sky is not falling’

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — John Fox wanted to ease the discomfort evident in Denver after the Broncos’ fourth loss of the season.

“It wasn’t all horrible,” the head coach said. “The sky is not falling. We’re not getting ready to get rid of our quarterback; he’s fine. We’re all going to get better.”

The sky may not be falling for the 11-4 Broncos, with a division title in hand. But after a 37-28 loss to the Bengals in which quarterback Peyton Manning threw four interceptions, there are concerns as the Broncos remain one win away from sealing a first-round bye.

Home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs is now out of the equation after the loss, and if New England wins its divisional-round game, the Broncos will have to win in Foxborough to reach their “Super Bowl or bust” goal for the 2014 season.

But on Tuesday, the chatter was not about the playoffs, but Manning’s recent struggles, which include twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdown passes (three) this month. Three of the pickoffs came in a disastrous fourth quarter, punctuated by Dre Kirkpatrick’s 30-yard pick-six with 2:41 remaining that put the Broncos into a two-score hole.

“It was a bad throw,” Manning said. “The guy (Kirkpatrick) had good coverage. I had a little route to (Demaryius Thomas); the guy covered it well.”

Kirkpatrick said that he saw a signal before the snap that tipped him off that Manning would throw to Thomas.

“I shouldn’t have thrown it to him, should have gotten off, probably had Emmanuel (Sanders) open over the middle, I might have even had Julius (Thomas), I think his guy might have fallen down. Definitely picked the wrong guy to throw it to.”

Exacerbating the crisis was that the Broncos had third-and-1, and should have been able to pick up the necessary one yard on the ground if the need arose, perhaps via a draw to running back C.J. Anderson.

Manning threw one more interception to a diving Kirkpatrick on the Broncos’ final drive, ending all hope of a rally.

“Four interceptions. You’re not going to beat very many good football teams,” Manning said.

While Manning remains the league’s leader in touchdown passes and in the top five in passer rating, his December struggles left him having to answer a question about whether he is all right, physically. He affirmed that he was, but after a loss that dropped the Broncos’ 2014 road record to 4-4, his team is wobbling a bit.

–Denver’s defense came into the league ranked second in the league against the run. It left the game with the same ranking, but was humbled after the Bengals gashed the Broncos for 207 rushing yards, the most allowed by the Broncos all season.

Eighty-five of the yards came on Jeremy Hill’s first-quarter touchdown run, a play made possible when the rookie running back eluded fill-in linebacker Todd Davis — a replacement for the injured Brandon Marshall — and took off.

“We’ve got to get him down before he breaks,” said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “He ended up breaking, man. That’s something we try to eliminate every week — big plays from the run game. We didn’t fit it right and it ended up breaking on us.”

Davis worked every down in the first half, but was replaced in the nickel alignment by Steven Johnson, the starting middle linebacker. But Johnson fared no better, and was beaten by Gio Bernard for a 22-yard touchdown reception on the Bengals’ first series of the second quarter.

“I feel as though I could have been better on that,” Johnson said. “When I watch the film and evaluate myself, I’ll know more then, but that’s just a play that sticks out in my head right now. It’s just going to kind of sting for a little bit, but I’ll be all right.”

But the defense might not be, unless it gets its leading tackler back soon.

“Not being able to have our linebacker that’s been with us the whole season, that definitely hurt us,” Harris said. “Hopefully he can come back next week, because we definitely need him.”

REPORT CARD VS. BENGALS

–PASSING OFFENSE: D — For one quarter, the up-tempo aerial circus returned, with Manning throwing for 168 yards and two touchdowns on 12-of-16 passing while posting a 147.9 rating to overturn a 20-7 halftime deficit into a 28-27 lead. For the rest of the game, the numbers were ghastly: 16-of-28 passing for 143 yards, with no touchdowns, four interceptions and a 31.4 rating.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus — Until C.J. Anderson ripped off a 27-yard run to move the Broncos into the Cincinnati red zone inside the two-minute warning, he had just 56 yards on 17 carries in a pedestrian performance. The only time the Broncos moved the football consistently was when they largely abandoned the run and went back to their pass-intensive, no-huddle attack in the third quarter.

–PASS DEFENSE: B — The injury to A.J. Green effectively took away the Bengals’ deep outside passing game, as the other receivers found no room to maneuver against Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. But the Bengals effectively mimicked the Chargers’ strategy of short passes to running backs and tight ends in the flat and on crossing routes. Fourteen of Andy Dalton’s 17 completions were to TE Jermaine Gresham and RB Gio Bernard, and they kept the chains moving.

–RUSH DEFENSE: D-plus — Much of the damage was done by Jeremy Hill’s 85-yard touchdown run, in which he eluded fill-in weak-side linebacker Todd Davis and meandered the rest of the way, eluding the Broncos’ secondary for the second-longest run ever allowed by the Broncos. The Broncos clamped down on the run otherwise, as Hill gained 62 yards on his other 21 carries, but Gio Bernard averaged 4.5 yards on his eight carries and quarterback Andy Dalton averaged 6.8 yards on four runs.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: D — Kicker Connor Barth missed his only attempt, a 49-yarder, and Omar Bolden set up a touchdown with a 77-yard kickoff return to start the second half. But a running story continues to be the Broncos’ overall third-phase meltdowns; they allowed Adam Jones to return a kickoff 80 yards and Brandon Tate to run back a punt 49 yards, leading to 10 Bengals points off a short field. The Broncos rank in the league’s bottom five in kickoff-return and punt-return average. Kayvon Webster committed two penalties to cap another performance to forget.

–COACHING: C — The Broncos’ adjustments worked, to an extent; they increased their offensive tempo in the third quarter and drove to three touchdowns to take a 28-27 lead. But at the start of the fourth quarter, nursing a one-point lead, they abandoned the three-wide receiver sets that helped power their 21-7 run and went back to a six-man offensive lineman formation. The Bengals overplayed the run as a result, and Denver went three and out. Even though they want to work the run, the Broncos need to mash the accelerator and keep it there, and not give a window for the opponent to strike back.


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