John Fox stayed true to his conservative roots Saturday night in Denver – and it cost the Broncos dearly in a classic AFC playoff game.
Baltimore beat Denver on the road, 38-35, in double overtime, and Fox will and should be second-guessed just like he used to be in Carolina for playing it so close to the vest when the game was on the line.
But that’s Fox, as we all know in the Carolinas. He doesn’t like to gamble. He told me 11 years ago the first time we talked at any length – just after he took over the Carolina Panthers for what became a nine-year stint -- that “a punt is not a bad play.” He’s conservative even when he has Peyton Manning on his side.
Leading 35-28 and with Baltimore out of timeouts, Denver had the ball and faced a third-and-7 at the Denver 47 with exactly two minutes to go. If Denver throws the ball just once -- for one more first down – then the game’s over.
Instead, the Broncos ran it (Peyton Manning would say later he audibled to a run, but if I'm the Bronco coaches I don't let that even be an option in that situation). They didn't get it. And they punted. And then Baltimore scored on a 70-yard pass to send it to overtime (that was eerily reminiscent of the way Carolina punted to Atlanta in September, only to see safety Haruki Nakamura allow a 59-yard pass over his head that set up the Falcons for a winning field goal).
But still… Denver is getting the ball back at its own 20, the game tied at 35, the home crowd in its favor, timeouts in its pocket. What does Fox do?
He has Manning kneel down once to send the game into overtime. Even the CBS announcers couldn't believe that one.
Now this game wasn’t all Fox’s fault by any means (Manning would say later he called a run audible on third-and-7, and of course the offensive coordinator has something to do with all this). In overtime, both teams possessed the ball twice, with plenty of chances to win, before Manning threw a bad interception and Baltimore converted it into the winning field goal. Who’s to say if Fox had made Manning throw the ball in those earlier two situations that Manning wouldn’t have thrown another interception?
But then again, if you’ve got a hall of fame quarterback on the field and you don't use him any better than that, I think you deserve to lose.
Bottom line: Fox mismanaged this one. I think Manning would have completed a third-and-7 pass at aruond midfield late in the fourth quarter. I don’t think the Ravens would ever have gotten the ball again for that last-gasp Hail Mary TD, and there would have been no overtime.
But now we’ll never know.
(Photo credit: Associated Press)