DENVER - The Broncos had the right idea.
How should they protect a defense taking on water like a capsized dinghy?
Play 12 guys. They tried it in the first quarter, but the officiating crew noticed. Five-yard penalty. They tried it again in the third quarter. Same result: 5-yard penalty.
Bummer. Well, it was worth a try. Eleven isn't cutting it.
"We've got to be a whole lot better," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said after the Chargers sunk the Broncos 27-20 Thursday. "I know that."
There was a strong, noticeable feeling inside a dreary Broncos locker room they know something else, too: This defense is in big trouble.
Right now, the Broncos defense is so far from Super Bowl-worthy it couldn't scalp a ticket to the big game.
When Peyton Claus doesn't slide down the chimney with a sack full of touchdowns, the Broncos stamp their name on the naughty list. It's not nice what the Chargers did at Sports Authority Field, knocking the Broncos from the top of the AFC and giving the Patriots a golden road to homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs.
But was it really a surprise?
As it stands now, this Broncos defense couldn't stop an avalanche in Kansas. When Philip Rivers was analyzing photographs on the Chargers' sideline, I wondered if he was trying to figure out which wide receiver was more open.
The Broncos offense will be fine. Better than fine, actually, and pity the poor Texans who are next on the schedule.
But the Broncos defense is in flux. In Week 15, the Broncos' defense isn't sure who should be on the field and who should not.
That's how 12 men-on-the-field happens. That's how one week, Duke Ihenacho is a starting safety. The next week he's not. One week, Wesley Woodyard is the defensive leader. The next week he's on special teams.
It's no surprise Manning is so comfortable in Colorado. These Broncos are looking more and more like those Colts - a powerhouse offense that feels like it must score on every possession, simply because it's defense is giving up mad points.
"We feel like we left one out there," cornerback Kayvon Webster said.
Thursday marked the first time Manning's offense was held to fewer than 27 points. When that happens, this is what happens.
Time of possession: San Diego, 38:49; Denver, 21:11.
"We didn't have the ball much," Manning said. "When we had it, we didn't do much with it."
All the undrafted free agents on the Broncos' defense made for a feel-good storyline that championed the underdogs. Check out these guys! Against the odds, they made it to the big time.
There's one small problem with that notion. It also underlines how poorly the Broncos have drafted. Crippled by enough injuries to fill a hospital wing, the defense is being exposed as having the depth of a kiddie pool.
Case in point: the critical play of the game. Nate Irving, a linebacker drafted in the third round, finally left a mark. He committed an offsides penalty that turned a Chargers fourth down into a first down.
"San Diego came out and they were the better team," Woodyard said.
Thursday night was weirdness. It started with a half-empty stadium held up by rush-hour traffic and ended with Bubba Caldwell as the Broncos' leading receiver. Bubba had four catches all season. He had six Thursday night.
Imagine if Bubba was going against his own defense, the Broncos' defense, which is allowing almost four touchdowns per game (26.5 points).
It took a former Broncos offensive coordinator to bring down the Broncos offense. Good on you, Mike McCoy.
"They definitely played better than us, really, in all three phases of the game," John Fox said.
This was a bad loss for the Broncos, and it will be portrayed as evidence they are not Super Bowl material. That's silly talk. In the AFC, there's not another team scarier than the Broncos.
Only the Broncos defense can beat the Broncos. And that's a scary thought, because it just might.
Manning won a Super Bowl with a 21st-ranked defense in 2006. He reached another one with an 18th-ranked defense in 2009. He will have to pull off the same magic trick again.
For better (on offense) and for worse (on defense), these Broncos are those Colts.