INDIANAPOLIS — The Denver Broncos promised this year wouldn't be like last year, and they were right.
It was worse.
The Broncos fell 49-24 to the Colts in the first round of the playoffs Sunday, a humiliation that was worse not so much because of the score — they actually lost by more last postseason — but because it exposed Denver as a franchise that is getting no better despite insisting that it is.
"What's the difference?" irate receiver Rod Smith asked a reporter. "What are the results? How do you think I feel?"
In the wake of last year's 41-10 loss to the Colts, Denver decided to shore up the secondary by acquiring John Lynch in free agency and trading Clinton Portis for Champ Bailey.
Clearly, that was only a start, not a solution.
Bailey played well all season and in this game. But he couldn't make up for the lack of a pass rush, or for Roc Alexander — a raw, rookie nickelback who got burned by Reggie Wayne for no fewer than eight of his 10 catches and two long touchdowns.
Lynch was supposed to add some experience and attitude. He made headlines last week with his big hit on Colts tight end Dallas Clark, the resulting $75,000 fine and the threats from the league to eject him. Lynch finished with four tackles Sunday and rarely got close enough to anyone to do anything that would merit his ejection.
"I've never been in a game where I felt so helpless," Lynch said.
Last year, the defining play of the playoff debacle was a 46-yard touchdown catch by Marvin Harrison, in which he caught the ball in the middle of the field, went down and, untouched by a Denver defender, stood up and ran into the end zone.
This year, Denver didn't make any single mistake quite as embarrassing, but add up all the weaknesses and the result was just as bad.
One of the few improvements was that the Broncos didn't quit. After falling behind 35-3 at halftime, they scored two touchdowns to make the game mildly interesting for a moment.
All it really did, though, was help Peyton Manning improve his numbers.
The record-setting quarterback fell short of his perfect 158.3 passer rating of last year, but he did have 360 yards passing in the first half — 23 more than he had in the first half last year. He finished with 457, just 32 short of the NFL playoff record. So much for sending a message to flighty Colts receivers, the way Lynch said Denver did during the emotional lead-up to the game.
"I thought I could channel the energy and make it a positive," Lynch said. "But I'm drained. I dealt with so much crap. It's by no means an excuse for the way the team played."
Manning's counterpart, Jake Plummer was — well — Jake Plummer. As always, he made some nice throws and put together some good numbers, just as many quarterbacks who fall behind by 32 at halftime do. He finished with 284 yards, two touchdowns one interception and a few more throws that could have been picked off.
But he wasn't the real problem.
It was a total collapse by a defense that finished fourth in the league, but closed the season not forcing the issue, not making big plays, not really showing improvement over last year. It was a less-than-perfect effort from an offense that couldn't convert a third down or get into the end zone in the first half against the league's 29th-ranked defense.
"We've got a talented team," running back Reuben Droughns said. "We need to find ways to move the ball more consistently and get wins."
The architect of the team is the same guy who coaches it — Mike Shanahan, who remained winless (0-3) in the playoffs since John Elway retired after Denver's second straight Super Bowl win in 1998.
Since then, Shanahan is 54-45, the Broncos haven't won a division, haven't hosted a playoff game, haven't looked anything near the elite team they once were.
They finished this year 10-7, just like last year. They finished this year with a first-round drubbing by the Colts, just like last year.
"I'm not the GM," Bailey said. "Obviously, I can't make the changes. I'm sure coach will look it over and try to make us a better team next year."