Even in victory, Broncos can't hide flaws

DENVER -- About the nicest thing you can say about the Denver Broncos is that their uniforms make them look like very large traffic cones. Otherwise, there's no reason to pay attention to this team.

Not yet, at least.

Yes, I know, they upset the sluggish Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-28, on a meat-freezer-cold Sunday night at Invesco Field. Thing is, you couldn't tell who was more surprised by the outcome, the Steelers or the Broncos.

OK, that's not exactly true. The Broncos insist that the last-second victory was no accident, that they were never as crummy as their 2-3 record and three-game losing streak made them look.

"I kept telling you guys we were confident in the locker room," said quarterback Jay Cutler, who remains a work in progress. "We had a bye week. We knew we were a good team. We just weren't playing up to our potential."

Cutler wasn't the only one to chide reporters about their lack of faith in the Broncos. Cornerback Dre Bly, whose injured right shoulder featured a puncture mark from a pain-killing shot, happily provided the obligatory cliché.

"Nobody was giving us any shot to win this game," Bly said.

Maybe that's because the Broncos hadn't earned the benefit of the doubt. With the exception of Jason Elam (Is it a good thing when the best player on your team is the place-kicker?), nobody on this team had played exceptionally or consistently well.

Elam's 49-yard walk-off field goal as time expired was his third game-winner of the season. Without him, the Broncos don't beat Buffalo on the road, don't beat Oakland in overtime and don't beat Pittsburgh.

"We'll take it if we can get it," Elam said. "If we can get 20 of 21, we will take it."

Elam was talking about the World Series-bound Colorado Rockies, who actually have won 21 of their past 22 games. If Elam thinks this team is going on some sort of Rockies-like miracle run, he's mildly nuts or oxygen-deprived. These Broncos have too many flaws to overcome. You can't keep winning on inside straights forever.

Cutler completed 22 of 29 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions, including one on which the Steelers had a team photo shoot going around intended receiver Brandon Marshall.

"They kind of fooled me," Cutler said.

Cutler is getting better. He did lead the Broncos from their own 20 to the Steelers' 31 in the last 70 seconds of the game, just close enough for Elam to do the hero thing again. Of course, it helped that Steelers linebacker James Harrison was nice enough to line up offsides on a third-and-1 play earlier in the drive. The mistake handed Denver a first down.

Broncos star cornerback Champ Bailey was on the inactive list. So was defensive end Simeon Rice, who has been mostly useless this season. Center Tom Nalen, whom Denver head coach Mike Shanahan calls "the best center to ever play the game," is lost for the season because of an arm injury. Wide receiver Javon Walker is out after knee surgery.

Meanwhile, NFL Father of the Year Travis Henry is trying to outrun the threat of a drug-related suspension.

Shanahan is getting criticized for rototilling Denver's roster too much in the offseason. And the Broncos' defense has given up 107 points in the past three games, with Brett Favre and the NFC North-leading Green Bay Packers coming to town Oct. 29 for some Monday night football.

"It's still early in the season, and we've got a lot of talent on this team," wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. "I think everybody around the league knows what we're capable of … The sky's the limit for us."

If the sky is the AFC West lead, then, yes, the Broncos have an outside chance at that. Otherwise, they're not going to reach playoff altitude. And even if they do sneak in somehow, does anyone really think they could beat the New England Patriots, the Indianapolis Colts or even these same Steelers again?

Give the Broncos credit for keeping it together Sunday night. They blew two 14-point leads, then had to sweat out that final drive. But even Mr. Sunshine knows how close the Broncos were -- and maybe still are -- to a lost season.

"If we lose this one … it's about as must-win as you can get this early in the season," Stokley said.

This early? The season is approaching the halfway point. Stokley needs a calendar, and the Broncos need more wins like this. Since losing to the Steelers in the 2005 playoffs, the Broncos have bordered on postseason irrelevancy.

Something happened to this franchise. It lost its mojo, and the rest of the NFL noticed.

"You show any weakness in this league, and people stop fearing you," said veteran safety John Lynch. "The nature of this league is scoreboard, and we've struggled at home of late, in particular. The only way to change that is do something about it. And I think we took a step toward that tonight in beating a very good football team. Ever since they beat us in the championship game, we kind of lost that dominance at home."

There's a big difference between a step and a leap. The Broncos are 3-3, but four of their next six games are on the road. The two home games are against the Packers and Tennessee. So good luck with that.

"We know we're a championship-caliber team," Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams said. "Definitely a playoff team."

If that's a promise and a prediction, the Broncos need someone other than Elam to win games. Otherwise, this city could become the unthinkable.

A Rockies town.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. He co-authored Jerome Bettis' autobiography, "The Bus: My Life In and Out of a Helmet," which is available now.