Locker room not di­vided, team says, af­ter flare-up that fol­lowed lat­est loss.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Nicki Jhab­vala

Pa­tience had run out and frus­tra­tions boiled over. But the Broncos in­sist what tran­spired Sun­day night af­ter their 16-3 loss to New Eng­land is not a sign of divi­sion in the locker room.

Af­ter the game, Broncos coach Gary Ku­biak asked his play­ers if any of them wanted to ad­dress the team. Of­fen­sive tackle Rus­sell Okung stepped for­ward but im­me­di­ately faced push­back from cor­ner­back Aqib Talib, and the ten­sion es­ca­lated into a war of words.

“It’s just an in­stance where you have two guys who are very emo­tional and very com­pet­i­tive who re­ally want what’s best for this team,” Okung said Mon­day, re­fus­ing to divulge what he had planned to say to his team­mates. “It’s not a big is­sue. At the end of the day we all want the same thing: We want to win games.”

Okung said he and Talib met af­ter the in­ci­dent to clear the air and move on. But it wasn’t the first flare-up be­tween po­si­tion groups (Talib shoved Jor­dan Nor­wood dur­ing the Broncos’ loss to Kansas City on Nov. 27), and it prob­a­bly won’t be the last if losses con­tinue to stack up.

Ten­sions rise when teams lose, and lose when one side of the ball is do­ing well and other unit is strug­gling, such as is hap­pen­ing with Den­ver (8-6). Since the start of the 2015 sea­son, the Broncos’ de­fense has of­ten been re­lied upon to both con­tain op­po­nents and score points when the of­fense

strug­gled. The Broncos held New Eng­land quar­ter­back Tom Brady to a sea­son-low 188 yards pass­ing Sun­day.

“Any­time you lose a game to the Pa­tri­ots or a ri­val game, ev­ery­body is frus­trated,” Den­ver cor­ner­back Chris Har­ris said af­ter the game. “We feel like we played al­most good enough de­fense to win that game.”

Brady is 7-9 against the Broncos, and never be­fore had he won against them with as few points.

“They played re­ally good,” Ku­biak said of his de­fense Mon­day, “and of­fen­sively, we didn’t score enough points to win.”

Re­fer­ring to the OkungTalib postgame in­ci­dent, the coach said: “It was not a big deal. I’ve been in an NFL locker room 400-plus times. Let me tell you some­thing: That was noth­ing. That was frus­tra­tion be­cause we lost a game. I would never let some­thing be di­vi­sive. I wouldn’t let that hap­pen.”

But the frus­tra­tion had been build­ing, and the Broncos have lost four of their past six games largely be­cause of an of­fense that has floun­dered. The run­ning game that has long been a sta­ple of Ku­biak’s sys­tem has pro­duced in spurts but is av­er­ag­ing only 3.59 yards per play, rank­ing 29th in the 32-team NFL. And pass pro­tec­tion has of­ten been poor.

Den­ver’s Trevor Siemian has av­er­aged 300.2 yards pass­ing per game over the last six games, but he also has taken the fourth-most sacks (21) in the league.

His sec­ond-quar­ter in­ter­cep­tion Sun­day was a glar­ing and game-chang­ing mis­take. On third down in the red zone, Siemian tar­geted wide re­ceiver Em­manuel San­ders along the left side­line, but the ball trailed San­ders and landed in the arms of cor­ner­back Lo­gan Ryan, who un­der­cut the route and sprinted 46 yards to help set up New Eng­land’s only touch­down.

Cou­pled with Nor­wood’s botched punt re­turn in the first quar­ter — his third fum­bled punt in his past two starts — the Pa­tri­ots scored 10 points off two Den­ver turnovers in the first 19 min­utes.

“When you kill your­self with two early turnovers (and) you’re not putting points up, it’s hard to win games. Point-blank, pe­riod,” said safety T.J. Ward. “That’s what we’ve been do­ing the last few weeks, and you see we’ve got two (losses) on that side of the col­umn.”

The Broncos have em­braced a style of win­ning late and ugly, be­hind an of­fense that starts slowly and a de­fense that has a knack for cre­at­ing turnovers. Den­ver leads the NFL this sea­son with 103 points scored off turnovers — ac­count­ing for 34.4 per­cent of the team’s to­tal points, hardly a sus­tain­able model of suc­cess.

De­spite the con­tin­ued im­bal­ance, Ku­biak and his play­ers in­sist the shout­ing match Sun­day night didn’t cre­ate a rift.

“One thing Ku­biak also says to us is to make sure we’re hold­ing each other ac­count­able,” San­ders said Mon­day. “We un­der­stand that the de­fense has played ex­tremely well. Of­fen­sively, we’re not play­ing as good as we’re sup­posed to be. We’re the ones hold­ing this team back and we’re try­ing to get it to­gether, and the de­fense is hold­ing us ac­count­able. We don’t take it neg­a­tively. I take it pos­i­tively.”

The Broncos are in the No. 9 slot in the AFC play­off race with only two games re­main­ing, at Kansas City on Christ­mas and against Oak­land in Den­ver on New Year’s Day.

Pa­tience may be wear­ing thin. But time is run­ning out.

Aqib Talib was up­set with an of­fi­cial dur­ing Sun­day’s game, and with team­mate Rus­sell Okung af­ter it. He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

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