- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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DENVER -- Remember the Denver Broncos?
They had a six-pack of wins to start the season. Beat the likes of Cincinnati, Dallas, New England, San Diego. Had a 3½-game lead in the AFC West.
That was before the abduction. Someone replaced those Broncos with these Broncos. These Broncos play like they have an endorsement deal with Sominex. They slept through Sunday's 32-3 loss to the San Diego Chargers, and no one is sure when -- or if -- they'll ever awaken.
I'll beat the holiday rush. The Broncos are History Channel. They're done. I'm declaring them unofficially eliminated from the playoff equation with a half-dozen games remaining.
"We definitely have to find some answers fast," said Broncos safety Renaldo Hill.
Why bother? The Broncos' record says 6-4 --wild-card material -- but their November says 0-4. The way they're playing these days, I'm surprised they didn't lose on their bye week.
The Chargers, once 2-3, have overtaken Denver in the AFC West standings. Just like they did last season. The Broncos missed the playoffs in excruciating fashion in 2008; they'll miss them in excruciating fashion in 2009.
"We knew it was a long season and things happen," said Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
This is true. For example, not every Broncos player grabbed a feather pillow and had nap time Sunday. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall's mouth was wide awake during and after the game. During the game he did a verbal scorch job on rookie running back Knowshon Moreno, whose second-quarter fumble at the Chargers' goal line cost Denver a touchdown. And afterward, Marshall aimed fingers at himself and at his teammates.
"I don't regret anything," he said. "This is a playoff game. There were guys who were on the sideline who weren't angry, who didn't have a lot of emotion and they need to look at themselves in the mirror.
"This is a game where you've got to have it."
The Broncos didn't have anything, especially it. Marshall was good for three catches and 26 yards. Moreno finished with 80 yards and that killer fumble. They had the ball nearly 16 minutes less than the Chargers.
"This is probably the most frustrating game I've played in," Marshall said. "I approached it like a playoff game."
So did the Chargers, who somehow lost to the Broncos a month ago in San Diego. But the Chargers, who have won five in a row, aren't the same team. And the Broncos, unbeaten in September and October, have misplaced their mojo.
"We can't sit back and mourn," Hill said.
Mourn, no. Yell at each other, yes.
Moreno's fumble could have cut a 13-0 Chargers lead to 13-7 at halftime. Marshall knew that, which is why he confronted the rookie.
"Maybe I handled it wrong; we'll see," Marshall said.
"Nothing big, just everyone heated," Moreno said. "Nothing long-term. Just heat of the moment."
As the afternoon temperatures dropped from the low 50s to the 30s, so did the number of Broncos fans at Invesco Field. There were blotches of empty seats as early as halftime, but the actual "I'm getting out of here" moment came late in the third quarter.
That's when the Broncos, trailing 20-3 and in full desperation mode, went for it on fourth-and-5 at the San Diego 40-yard line -- and whiffed.
Commence the evacuation.
From first place to frustration; that's the Broncos. They did it in less than a month and with stunning ease.
"I'll start as I have the last few weeks," said Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, before detailing --again -- the list of weekly errors by his team. The short version: They're shopping at Costco and buying mistakes in bulk.
At least this time the Broncos aren't waiting until the final three weeks of the season to wet themselves. Like Thanksgiving Day turkeys, the Broncos are cooked.
Speaking of Thanksgiving, the Broncos play again Thursday, this time against the New York Giants.
"It's probably the best thing about this," McDaniels said.
Sure it is. Hello, 6-5.
Then the Broncos go to Kansas City, where the Chiefs just beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. Six and 6.
Then they travel to Indianapolis for a Manning-oscopy. Six and 7.
After that, they play Oakland. Seven and 7. Maybe.
A trip to Philly won't be much fun. Seven and 8.
Then the Chiefs come here. Eight and 8. Maybe.
Anyway, it won't be enough. Not with the Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins in the playoff martini shaker. And not the way the Broncos are phoning it in these days.
Actually, that's not fair. Kyle Orton and his sprained left ankle limped off the Broncos' sideline to replace starter Chris Simms with 4 minutes, 19 seconds remaining in the first half. Simms was only in the lineup because Orton's ankle was the size of a state fair pumpkin. It was Simms' first start since September 2006, and he played like it.
Simms was awful. He completed 2 of 4 passes for 10 yards, was sacked twice and fumbled once before McDaniels handed him a boarding pass to the bench.
"I just didn't have the greatest day of my life," Simms said.
What does it say about the state of the Broncos when a quarterback playing on one ankle and barely any practice time is better than Simms playing on two ankles and with a full week's worth of prep time?
And yet, when asked if getting the hook in the second quarter surprised him, Simms said "I wasn't expecting it."
The Broncos think they can fix whatever is wrong. But here's the problem: They can't even articulate what's wrong. And if they could, they don't seem capable of being able to repair it.
"It's going to take all of us being honest with ourselves," Hill said.
Honestly? It's over.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.