Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson
DENVER -- The Denver Broncos are suddenly no longer the charming story of the NFL and by no means have firm control of the AFC West.
Since coming out of their bye week at 6-0, the Broncos have transformed into the lackluster team they were expected to be prior to the season. Although the entire Denver team is reeling, the problems start with the offense and quarterback Kyle Orton.
Orton, acquired in the Jay Cutler trade with Chicago, is suddenly not the cool customer he was when he led Denver to a 6-0 start.
Orton followed up a poor outing against Baltimore with his sloppiest game of the season as Denver lost to Pittsburgh 28-10 on Monday night. Orton couldn't get Denver into a rhythm and was forced into mistakes he wasn’t making during the early part of the season.
Orton looked uncomfortable and was unable to lead his team for the second straight week. Denver was beaten 30-7 at Baltimore in Week 8.
For his part, Orton kept his poise after the game.
“We lost to two good football teams,” Orton said. “We will try to come back and play better at Washington [on Sunday] … It’s a team game and the offense didn’t play very well.”
Although he deserves points for not panicking, Orton would probably be wise to feel some urgency.
The San Diego Chargers are roaring back into the AFC West race, which looked all but over three weeks ago. The Chargers have won three straight games and are now 5-3. They trail Denver by a game in the division. The two teams play in Denver on Nov. 22.
Orton needs to find his early-season rhythm by that game. Orton was intercepted three times Monday night after throwing just one interception in the first seven games. The first two interceptions (one was returned for a score) Monday led to Pittsburgh points and the final interception ended the game.
Orton had been so patient and instinctive early in the season. Last week and on Monday night, he was throwing into traffic, overthrowing targets and passing off of his back foot. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Orton had a passer rating of zero in the fourth quarter.
Essentially, he looked like the mediocre quarterback he was with the Bears, not the early-season MVP candidate he had been this season.
Denver never had a trip into the red zone against Pittsburgh. Its lone touchdown came on defense. In the past two games, Denver’s offense has scored 10 points. Against Baltimore, Denver entered Ravens territory just three times.
Making matters worse for Orton was that he had no support from the ground game. Denver mustered just 27 yards on 14 carries on the ground. Pittsburgh was just teeing off on Orton.
“We didn’t execute at all,” Denver receiver Brandon Stokley said. “We didn’t make any plays.”
Denver coach Josh McDaniels came to town with a pedigree of offensive genius. Early in the season, he was working wonders with Orton & Co. McDaniels, the architect of New England’s record-breaking offense in 2007, has to find a way to reconstruct the Kyle Orton of the first six games of the season or this feel-good story could continue to turn for the worse.
Here are other key aspects of Denver’s loss:
• Here come the Chargers: Denver travels to Washington on Sunday and the Chargers host Philadelphia. Denver hosts San Diego in a huge division game Nov. 22. No team has ever had a 3.5 game division lead, like Denver did earlier this season, and not made the playoffs.
Denver handed San Diego the division last season, losing its final three games of the year while the Chargers won their final three, including the season finale over the Broncos. It was the first time in NFL history a team blew a three-game lead in the final three weeks of the season.
Two weeks ago, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said it was the team’s goal to play well and hopefully look up in a month and realize that it had caught the Broncos. It could happen.
Still, Denver, with 30 new players from last year’s team, is not ready to worry about a repeat performance.
“We’re 6-2 and we’re still leading the division,” linebacker Andra Davis. “We’re not going to panic.”
• What happened to the second-half magic? In the first six games, Denver outscored its opponents 76-10 in the second half. It had four late comebacks.
However, in the past two weeks, Denver, known early in the season for making great second-half adjustments, has been hammered in the final 30 minutes of games.
Pittsburgh outscored Denver 21-7 in the second half; Baltimore outscored Denver 24-7 in the second half last week. Suddenly, 76-10 has turned into 45-14 -- the wrong way.
Pittsburgh’s offense exploded in the second half as Orton imploded. The Steelers, who were held to 56 yards of offense in the first half, had 321 yards in the second half. Denver had 59 yards in the second half.
Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall had 130 yards rushing in the second half.
“It’s not hard to get back to playing better,” Denver cornerback Andre Goodman said. “Even when we were 6-0 we didn’t think we were playing great football. We have work to do, but we can get there.”
If the Broncos can't return to their early-season dominant form, we may see a second straight Rocky Mountain collapse.