AFC West: Bottom Line is that Broncos Were Bad

(Sports Network) - In the end, any objective observer of the Denver Broncos' descent from the brink of the playoffs to 8-8 and out of the postseason money is left with the following hard truth: the 2008 Denver Broncos weren't a playoff-worthy team by a long shot.

Of course, had the Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe caught an onsides kick to finish off what should have been a Kansas City win over San Diego in Week 15, the Broncos would be sitting as an 8-8 division winner as the New Year was being rung in, and an unapologetic one at that. Certainly they wouldn't have been the first team of questionable quality to earn a playoff berth, but they would have been the most flawed unit in this year's 12-unit field by a fairly wide margin.

The 2008 Broncos, whose season ended with Sunday's 52-21 road humbling at the hands of the resurgent Chargers, did one thing extremely well: throw the football between the 20-yard lines.

Jay Cutler will be going to the Pro Bowl following a season in which he set a franchise record by tossing for 4,526 yards with 25 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

His top receiver, Brandon Marshall, caught a whopping 104 balls for more than 1,200 yards despite missing Week 1 due to a suspension, and rookie phenom Eddie Royal caught 91 passes and finished just 20 yards shy of 1,000.

Impressive numbers, but the fact that the Broncos finished second in the league in yards while coming in at 16th in points is proof positive that the offense's magic didn't extend to the red-zone all that often.

Cutler threw only six touchdown passes in his final six games, which corresponded with a 2-4 finish for Denver.

The revolving door of running backs in a year when no fewer than six players who garnered backfield carries (Michael Pittman, Ryan Torain, Andre Hall, Peyton Hillis, Selvin Young, P.J. Pope) ended up on season-ending injured reserve began to take on an almost-comedic effect, as Cutler was left to put the ball in the air almost exclusively on many occasions.

Then, there was the defense, that woeful, woeful defense that gave up 448 points, third-worst in the league behind only a Lions team that surrendered the second-most points in NFL history (517) and the 2-14 Rams (465).

When you consider that the Broncos came out -78 in point differential on the season, it is stunning that they finished with the same record as the Chargers, who were +92 in that category.

With or without cornerback Champ Bailey, who missed seven games with a groin tear, Denver was generally incapable of stopping opposing offenses.

The same Bills team that ran up and down the field against the Broncos in Week 16 was shut out at home a week later. The Browns, who just set an NFL record by going its final 24 quarters of the season without an offensive touchdown, scored 30 points on Denver back in Week 10.

On special teams, the Broncos were below-average in kick coverage and unreliable in the kicking game, as strong-legged Matt Prater proved to be at his most erratic late in the season.

In all, other than Cutler, his top targets, most of the offensive line and perhaps Bailey (if healthy), there isn't a member of this team whose place on the roster shouldn't be called into serious question during an offseason period that will be presided over by someone other than Mike Shanahan for the first time since 1994.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Broncos announced that Shanahan had been relieved of his duties after 14 seasons, a record of 146-91, and two Super Bowl titles.

Despite his unprecedented success, Shanahan had led the team to just one playoff win since John Elway's retirement in 1998, and this year's December collapse, which extended the club's playoff drought to three years, apparently sealed his fate in the eyes of team owner Pat Bowlen.

"After giving this careful consideration, I have concluded that a change in our football operations is in the best interests of the Denver Broncos," said Bowlen in a statement. "This is certainly a difficult decision, but one that I feel must be made and which will ultimately be in the best interests of all concerned."

"I appreciate the 21 years that Mike Shanahan has given to the organization as an assistant and head coach, and the two Super Bowl wins in that time. His contributions hold a special place in Broncos history."

Bowlen was expected to meet the media on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the team's future plans.

CHARGERS: The San Diego Chargers might have the weakest record in the 2008 playoff field at 8-8, but you'll find few NFL power polls that rate them as the weakest team of those about to embark on their playoff missions.

A four-game winning streak to end the season, one that came with an average margin of victory of 19 points, will advance the stock of any team.

The greater consistency of the offense and re-located playmaking ability of the defense is another factor, and the way an indisputably talented roster handled last year's playoff experience - by reaching the AFC Championship - are other pieces of evidence playing into San Diego's "dangerous" status.

"To make the playoffs is a big deal," said head coach Norv Turner on Monday. "To win your division is a big deal. I know what the skeptics say in terms of the record but I think every division is different and every division has to handle the situation, the schedule, who you're playing, where you're playing, the circumstances involved and we were able to do that.

"We're a very talented team. I think guys as the season goes on, you do get better. We're a very young team, a lot younger than people realize. That's the way you improve. I think there was a great sense of urgency in December."

In addition to the record, critics will undoubtedly poke holes in the quality of the Chargers' eight wins, five of which came in a division where there was not a team with a winning record.

San Diego is a combined 0-5 against teams in the 2008 playoff field, with losses to the Panthers (26-24), Dolphins (17-10), Steelers (11-10), Falcons (22-16), and their Wild Card Weekend opponent - the Colts (23-20) - making up that mark.

A win over Indianapolis would perhaps reinforce San Diego's worthiness of its playoff status, although many would say the Chargers have already achieved that over the past month.

"We're excited to win the division and are real excited to be playing at home," said Turner. "We know the Colts. I think they played well against us in the game six weeks ago. I think they're playing a lot better right now...I was watching a little bit of one of the NFL shows and Coach Madden was talking about being in the playoffs. He said, 'You're in the playoffs. You know you're going to play good teams. You're going to play the best teams. That's what you expect.' You have to go out and perform at your best, at the highest level."

CHIEFS: After presiding over the worst season in the Kansas City Chiefs' 49- year history, Herm Edwards' status beyond 2008 remains a mystery.

The resignation of general manager Carl Peterson two weeks ago put Edwards' position in peril, since it is believed that whoever succeeds Peterson would determine whether to keep the head coach or bring in his own hand-picked successor.

Following Sunday's 16-6 loss to the Bengals, which sent Kansas City to 2-14, Edwards is 15-34 in three seasons with the Chiefs, including a playoff loss at Indianapolis in his first year on the job. Since starting 4-3 in 2007, the Chiefs are 2-23 in their past 25 games.

Said Edwards on Monday, "I'm pretty sure when there's a new GM, he's going to know who I am, unless he's not an American. I've been in this business 30 years. What do I have to do? He's got to make a decision what he wants to do. He's got to look at it and say, 'Is this guy the right guy?' If he's not, that's OK. That's his decision and I'm OK with that."

"I'm not one to try and build cases," said Edwards. "I let my work speak for itself, and that's the bottom line. I'm not big on promoting Herman Edwards. I never have been, and I'm not going to start now. I've been in this business too long. I've tried to do things the right way. I've tried to do the thing right for this organization and this football team."

The 2-14 finish surpassed the Chiefs' 2-12 mark of 1977 for the worst record in team history. Kansas City will select third in the 2009 Draft, behind the Lions and Rams.

RAIDERS: Tom Cable was not a household name when he was made the Raiders' interim head coach five games into the 2008 season, and not many expected Cable to do anything but pilot what was already a sinking ship to its familiar place at the ocean floor of the NFL.

Until recently, there was very little to suggest that the former o-line coach would have a meaningful chance to lead the team beyond 2008, but that may have changed given the encouraging manner in which Oakland finished the season.

The Raiders won back-to-back contests over the Texans (27-16) and Buccaneers (31-24) to end the year, keeping Houston from a shot at its first-ever winning record and preventing Tampa Bay from reaching the playoffs. What's more, Cable - who called the team's offensive plays for most of this season - had the attack moving with a level of efficiency not seen in years in Oakland, with the Silver and Black averaging a healthy 28 points per game over their final three contests.

Given that owner Al Davis generally turns to offensive minds when he hires coaches, Cable's success as the team's play-caller speaks well of his chances to have the interim tag removed.

And, though his 4-8 record as interim coach might not scream "genius," Cable's single-season win percentage of .333 was better than any Raiders leader since Bill Callahan led the franchise to the Super Bowl in 2002. It won't hurt the former Idaho coach's case that he beat ex-Raiders coaches Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden for two of his four wins, either.

"It's the best I can do," said Cable after Sunday's win. "It's all I can do. I want to be the head coach of the Raiders, but it's not in my hands. But I certainly know I put this team together and got it going in the right direction, and [this game] proved that."

On Monday, Cable added, "It's not in my control. I know something good is going to happen...I'm a line coach by trade. I'm good with that. I can call plays. I'm pretty good at that. And I can run a football team, and I proved that."

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