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Merilatt: Despite record, the Broncos are sliding

Sometimes, statistics can be deceiving. Case in point, this gem that began making the rounds at the conclusion of the Broncos’ 30-23 victory over the Chargers on Sunday:

For the first time in franchise history, Denver has scored 30-plus points in five consecutive games.

In a series of wins bookended by victories over San Diego, Denver has posted 35, 34, 31, 36 and 30 points on the scoreboard. They’ve gone 5-0 during that stretch, improving from 2-3 to 7-3, and have virtually clinched the AFC West.

It all sounds great. But in reality, if someone looks a little deeper into things, the Broncos are actually sputtering on offense.

That sounds crazy. After all, Denver has lit up the scoreboard in recent weeks better than they have at any time during their 53-year history. Or have they?

The Broncos’ longest touchdown drive of the day against the Chargers was 56 yards. Denver’s other two scores, plus one of their three field goals, were directly set up by their defense and special teams. A one-play, 31-yard touchdown drive followed Nate Irving’s blocked punt in the second quarter. And a three-play, 24-yard scoring “march” came on the heels of Wesley Woodyard’s fumble recovery in San Diego territory in the third quarter.

On one hand, there’s a huge positive to be found in those results. When given a golden opportunity, the Broncos offense was able to take advantage of great field position and put points on the board.

But there’s also a reality to be discovered in those facts, as well. It took the help of the other phases of the game for Denver’s offense to score on Sunday. When they had to manufacture points on their own, they struggled mightily.

On the first nine drives the Broncos had starting inside their own 40-yard line, they failed to score a single point. The drive chart when Denver wasn’t given the ball in point-blank range was an ugly sight.

Punt. Interception. Missed field goal. Punt. Fumble. Punt. Time expired in the first half. Safety. Punt.

That’s not exactly the production of an offense that is hitting on all cylinders. In fact, it reads much more like the stuff of a team struggling to put points on the board.

And it wasn’t just yesterday. The Broncos have been sputtering at times throughout their recent “hot” stretch.

During the five-game winning/30-point streak, Denver has punted the ball 29 times, fumbled eight times (losing six), thrown four interceptions (two of which were returned for touchdowns), missed two field goals and surrendered a safety.

That’s not exactly prolific. In fact, it’s downright ugly.

But the Broncos offense has been bailed out by their defense and special teams. During the streak, those two units have scored four touchdowns and recorded a safety. That’s 30 points tallied by phases of the game other than the offense.

In reality, Denver’s O has failed to break the 30-point barrier by itself in three of the five games during the streak. And yesterday, 17 of the 30 points were directly set up by the defense.

That’s not pointed out to rain on the parade. It’s not meant to serve as a wet blanket. It’s simply offered up as a reality check.

The Broncos are playing well right now. But they’ve been carried by their defense, their special teams and then their offense, in that order.

Peyton Manning and Company certainly haven’t been bad. In fact, they’ve been more than adequate. Denver’s offense has scored when it had to (at San Diego and Cincinnati), took advantage of golden opportunities when given them (yesterday), were better than their opposition (at Carolina) and even dominated a potent attack (home against New Orleans).

There’s nothing wrong with that résumé. Most teams would be more than satisfied with it.

So it may seem like nitpicking to be critical of Denver’s recent offensive performances. But if perfection is the goal, which is what Manning strives for, the Broncos have fallen short too often of late.

And that can’t continue. If Denver is going to be great, if they’re going to beat the elite teams in the AFC come playoff time, they’re going to have to be better. Turnovers, missed field goals, dropped passes, overthrows and blown assignments get teams beat in the postseason.

So while everyone is riding high today, enjoying yet another Broncos victory, now is not the time to get lulled to sleep. If Denver is going to be a Super Bowl contender, they have to clean things up on the offensive side of the ball.

Given who they have under center, that certainly isn’t mission impossible. But the time is now to start righting the ship. Otherwise, bad habits are going to rear their ugly heads at the wrong time down the road.

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