NFL: This isn’t the history the Broncos wanted to make

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Despite a broken backfield, the worst injury epidemic in franchise history and a dreadful defense, the Denver Broncos never once trailed in the AFC West in 2008.

Not that it matters.

It’s the San Diego Chargers who are preparing for the playoffs as division champs while the Broncos try to decipher how they became the first team in NFL history to blow a three-game lead with three games to go.

“We did have a lot of injuries, but we don’t have any excuses,” guard Ben Hamilton said Monday. “We had plenty of chances to make the playoffs. We lost games we shouldn’t have lost. We were inconsistent to say the least. And hopefully next year we’ll get that ironed out.”

The Broncos’ 52-21 debacle at San Diego on Sunday night put the wraps on their strange season that saw them put 14 players on injured reserve — including an astonishing seven tailbacks — and play 14 rookies, some by merit but most from necessity.

San Diego and Denver each finished 8-8, but the Chargers advanced because they didn’t lose to Kansas City and Oakland like the Broncos did — by a combined seven touchdowns, no less.

“A lot of players on this team are young and next year they’ll be young and experienced,” right tackle Ryan Harris said. “And hopefully that will help us get over the hump.”

The Broncos haven’t been to the playoffs since losing the 2005 AFC championship to Pittsburgh. They’ve won just one playoff game in the decade since Hall of Famer John Elway retired, but coach Mike Shanahan’s job security seems as safe as ever.

The same can’t be said for members of Denver’s dismal defense, which ranked 29th in the league and managed just six interceptions and seven fumble recoveries all season.

Denver’s minus-17 turnover differential tied with San Francisco for the worst in the NFL.

The Broncos started six different linebackers but one of them wasn’t Niko Koutouvides, the much-ballyhooed free agent signing of last summer who couldn’t get on the field even when Nate Webster, D.J. Williams and Boss Bailey were all hurt at the same time.

The Broncos said goodbye to John Lynch and Hamza Abdullah in training camp but free agents Marquand Manuel and Marlon McCree were hardly solutions in the secondary, where the Broncos ran through six free safeties.

Cornerback Champ Bailey had his worst season ever, missing almost two months after tearing a groin at New England in October and never regaining his All-Pro form.

The Broncos’ offense finished second in the league in yards despite a backfield battered by injuries. They rushed for fewer yards than they ever had in the Shanahan Era that began in 1995 and their leading rusher was rookie Peyton Hillis, who gained 343 yards and scored six TDs before a torn hamstring sidelined him for the stretch run.

So, quarterback Jay Cutler shouldered the team’s chances week in and week out and he set franchise records for passing yards, completions and pass attempts while earning his first Pro Bowl nod.

Rookie Eddie Royal’s 91 catches were the second-most ever by an NFL rookie and Brandon Marshall caught 104 passes for 1,265 yards and six TDs — but considered the season a failure.

Marshall dropped 18 on-target passes, and on Monday he said he still has nerve damage in his right arm, which he put through a television set while horsing around with his brother in the offseason.

“The back of my hand is still numb,” Marshall said. “I’m not going to make excuses for myself, but I didn’t recover as great as I wanted to from my hand injury.”

He said doctors have told him it could take another year or longer to get full feeling back in his hand.

Behind young tackles Harris and Ryan Clady, the offensive line allowed just a dozen sacks.

“We go through six, seven, eight running backs and not know from game-to-game who’s going to be in there, its tough,” Cutler said. “I thought the offensive line probably handled it the best, still opening up holes and still being able to protect me when everybody knew I was going to throw.”

Staying out of harm’s way kept Cutler healthy this season, and he never had any issues managing his Type 1 diabetes, either.

“I’m heavier now than I probably was at the start of the year. Feel good about it. Health-wise, I’m good,” said Cutler, who lost 35 pounds in 2007 when his disease was undiagnosed.

His pocket of protection might collapse, however.

Center Casey Wiegmann, who proved to be the Broncos’ biggest offseason free agent acquisition when Tom Nalen needed season-ending knee surgery last summer, is considering walking away from football after 13 stellar seasons.

“It’s kind of like, should I come back or should I call it quits being healthy and calling it a good career?” Wiegmann said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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