Kicking into Gear
With Jake Plummer back under center, Denver beg its playoff push with an easy win over San Diego
Every Wednesday morning during the season Denver coach Mike Shanahan speaks to his players about the task at hand Before the 5-4 Broncos took the practice field last week, Shanahan kept his words to a minimum. "In the seven years that Mike has been my head coach," tight end Shannon Sharpe said on Sunday, "it was the shortest address he's ever given the team."
Shanahan's subdued message: The last three teams that represented the AFC in the Super Bowl—the Ravens, the Patriots and the Raiders—started 5-4 in their championship seasons. "We know what we have to do," Shanahan told his team. "Let's go out and do it."
Simple as it may have been, Shanahan's message got through. In the first three quarters on Sunday against the Chargers, Denver ran up a 388-21 edge in total yards en route to a 37-8 win.
It's highly unlikely that the Broncos will wrestle the AFC West tide away from the 9-1 Chiefs because Kansas City's remaining schedule—other than a Dec. 7 date in Denver—is not particularly tough. The top four playoff seeds in each conference go to the division champs, and the runner-up in the AFC South (the Titans and the Colts are 8-2) figures to get one of the two wild cards in the AFC. At 6-4, the Broncos and the Dolphins are tied in the race for the last spot.
While no Kansas City starter has missed a game this season because of injury, eight Denver first-stringers have sat out a total of 24 games, including quarterback Jake Plummer, who missed four games after breaking a bone in his left foot while getting off his couch one day last month. While he was out, the Broncos lost three out of four.
But in his return on Sunday, Plummer was brilliant. Twice in the first half Shanahan called bootlegs, and Plummer ran for 14 yards total. His throws were accurate and unforced, and he completed 23 of 34 attempts for 253 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. The last of his three TD passes, all of which went to Sharpe, was an arcing spiral that the tight end snatched near the back of the end zone.
Plummer, who was Shanahan's marquee free-agent acquisition last winter, is vital to Denver's bid to reach the postseason for the first time since 2000. A speed linebacker such as Ian Gold, who was lost for the year when he tore his right ACL on Oct 12, is missed, but the drop-off from Gold to un-proven Donnie Spragan is nothing compared with the drop-off from Plummer to third-stringer Danny Kanell. (Backup Steve Beuerlein was put on injured reserve on Oct. 21 with a fractured pinkie on his passing hand.) "There's still pain in the foot," says Plummer, "but it's a non-issue in my head. [The bone] is strong enough that it shouldn't break again."
The Broncos have averaged 29.7 points in the six games Plummer started, 173 in the games he missed. He has been surprisingly accurate (62.4%) and, though he was known for throwing ill-timed interceptions during his six years with the Cardinals, he has played with more discipline in Denver. The interception he threw against the Chargers was his first in 153 attempts.
Even if the Broncos make the postseason as a wild card, they will be battling history. Since the league went to the 12-team playoff format in 1990, no fifth-or sixth-seeded team has reached the Super Bowl. (When Denver won the tide game as a wild card after the 1997 season, it was the fourth seed in a three-division conference alignment.) "We proved in 1997 that the most important thing is to get into the playoffs and then be relatively healthy once you get there," said Shanahan, whose club beat Jacksonville at home, Kansas City and Pittsburgh on tire road and finally Green Bay in the Super Bowl. "I firmly believe that what separates teams in January is losing key players."