The Denver Broncos were one of the hottest teams in football to close out the regular season, winning 11 straight games to finish 13-3 with the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. But coming out of a bye week, the team could not put away the Baltimore Ravens, imploding down the stretch to lose 38-35 in double-overtime.
There are plenty of places to assign blame for this loss, but one of the most frustrating shortcomings for Denver was the overly-conservative decision making of head coach John Fox.
On three different occasions, the Broncos had the ball in the offense’s hands with an opportunity to either put points on the board or salt away the win, but all three times Denver went with “give-up” plays instead. Those lost opportunities allowed Baltimore to stay in the game and force overtime where they ultimately won. Today, questions will have to be asked of Fox and his staff.
Before the half, Baltimore took the ball after a missed Matt Prater field goal (where he uncharacteristically kicked the turf a foot behind the ball) and scored to tie the game at 21-21. Denver received the kickoff with less than a minute to play, but instead of trying to run a quick two-minute drill to try and get into field goal range, Denver ran an off-tackle run for a couple yards and let the clock tick away to the break.
In the fourth quarter, nursing a seven-point lead at the 2-minute warning, Denver faced a 3rd-and-7. If they converted it, they would be able to run out the rest of the clock as Baltimore was out of timeouts and unable to stop the clock. Instead of lining up and running one of their usual third-and-long kind of plays (shotgun, single back, allow Peyton Manning to audible run or pass), Denver came out in power-I (a formation they had struggled to gain 1-yard out of on previous drives) with only one wide receiver and quick snapped a handoff that went nowhere.
Finally, after Baltimore had scored the tying touchdown on an inexcusable defensive lapse, the Broncos got one last chance with 31 seconds and two timeouts to move down the field and attempt a long field goal to win. Instead, Manning simply took a knee and let the game go overtime to a chorus of boos from the hometown crowd.
There’s no guarantee that a more aggressive approach would have generated points or first downs in any of those situations, but with a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback in Manning and a talented receiving corps that has shown the ability to make big plays this season, why wouldn’t you at least try? In a tight game that came down to a double-overtime field goal, why throw away three possessions by taking the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands?
Hindsight is always going to be 20/20, but John Fox came into the game with a conservative philosophy designed to not lose the game rather than to win it. He passed up on opportunities to press their advantage and left the door open for the Ravens to burst through and win. After that disappointing implosion, John Fox will need to answer the question: Why?