ENGLEWOOD • Last year, the Denver Broncos had plenty of practice — fall behind, stay close, go into hurry-up mode late and find some way to pull out a game with hardly any time left.
This year, about the only thing the Broncos are perfecting late in games is how to line up in victory formation.
With a game against the Chiefs (2-13) coming up Sunday, odds are against the Broncos (13-2) finally getting a dose of late-game drama. That means they could very well go into the postseason without having once endured the stress of needing the make-or-break score in 2012.
Not even Peyton Manning, who loves to rehearse every situation and every scenario as many times as possible with his new team, can give the Broncos the real-time practice they need in that department.
“You can’t do anything about changing the outcome of the game,” Manning said. “You try to simulate game-like scenarios in practice. It’s not quite the same as a game, so that’s something coach Fox and the staff have tried to do all season long.”
Through 15 games, the Broncos haven’t faced a single one that has come down to the wire. Two of their three losses came by less than a touchdown, but in the 27-21 loss to Atlanta, they didn’t have the ball at the end, and in the 31-25 loss to Houston, they got it back with 20 seconds and no timeouts at their 14-yard line — only time for a completion, a spike and one desperation play.
Meanwhile, the Broncos’ 10-game winning streak has come by an average margin of 14 points. They’ve won three of those games by eight and another by seven — close enough to give the defense practice at some version of the prevent and the offense work on the run-heavy, clock-killing “four-minute drill.”
But when it comes to that desperation drive with the clock running out, the kind perfected in this city by John Elway in the 1980s and 90s — nada.
Practice situations, says offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, can take a team only so far.
“The most important thing as a coach is to prepare your players for that,” he said. “We talk about situational football every day. If this situation comes up, what would we do? On the weekends after you see certain games, as a staff you talk about certain situations in other games and then you try to relay that message to the players.”
Last season, the Broncos had no shortage of real-life, late-game stress situations. With Tim Tebow at quarterback, they got the winning score in six games in the last two minutes of regulation or overtime.
This season, Manning has, in fact, engineered three game-winning drives in the fourth quarter to bring his career total to 48, the most in the NFL since the 1970 merger. But none of these has been a nail-biter. The latest go-ahead score came with 9:03 remaining in the Oct. 15 game against San Diego — the Broncos overcame a 24-0 deficit for a 35-24 win to start their winning streak.
Eric Decker, who has been in Denver for both Tebow and Manning, said every practice this year includes two-minute drills and lots of scenarios “just to make sure we have things planned before we get into it.”
“But we have a lot of guys in this locker room who were here last year,” Decker said. “To be able to play from behind is something you can’t practice but it’s something you build as you have experience and have success with it. I think we’ve had success with it so the confidence is there.”
“But really,” Decker said, “our mindset is to get ahead and not have to worry about it.”
Kick returner Trindon Holliday is doubtful for the Denver Broncos’ season finale against Kansas City because of a sprained ankle.
The injury has sidelined him all week and prevented him from working on ways to cut down on fumbling. He has five fumbles on returns to go with touchdowns on a punt return and a kickoff return.
Coach John Fox said the cure for that is “you just practice. You work on it. No different than a running back or quarterback as far as in the pocket, receivers after they catch the ball. Any time you have that ball, you have the other 10 guys’ best interest in hand. It’ll be something that we’ll continue to work on.”
Jimmy Leonhard is expected to handle punt returns and Omar Bolden the kickoff returns if Holliday doesn’t play Sunday against the Chiefs.
Cornerback Tracy Porter (concussion) was ruled out for Sunday. He was injured last week just three snaps into his first game since Oct. 7. He had been sidelined after experiencing symptoms similar to those he had before a seizure during training camp.
“That’s so unfortunate because he’s been waiting for this opportunity to get back in there. And I just hope he’s OK. I think he will be but only time will tell,” cornerback Champ Bailey said.
Right guard Chris Kuper is 50-50 for Sunday after participating on a limited basis for the second straight day. He’s been sidelined with a sprained left ankle and migraines.
Fox said he wasn’t worried about Kuper’s availability heading into the playoffs.
“He practiced for the first time yesterday and then today. I think he’s making good progress,” Fox said. “He’s been out for a little bit. We’re just going to make sure he’s ready to play football and we’ll make that decision day to day.”
Kuper has played in just six games this season. He missed the first month with a broken forearm and five of the past seven games after spraining his left ankle, the same one in which he tore ligaments in a gruesome injury on New Year’s Day.
Fox said he was pleased with the progress of running back Willis McGahee, who went on recallable IR after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee Nov. 18 when he was tackled low by San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer.
McGahee is eligible to return to practice next week after missing the final six regular-season games but won’t be available to play again unless the Broncos (12-3) reach the AFC championship.
“All indications are it’s on schedule and he’s getting better,” Fox said. “He won’t be ready here anytime real soon but we’ll evaluate that as we get going and finish up the regular season.”