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Two wins short, and now change is on the way in Denver

| Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2006

DENVER -- Tom Nalen sat in his locker and talked about a good season that fell a little short.

He has no idea if he'll be back to help his team take the next step.

Still a bit shocked from the day before, the Denver Broncos called it a season Monday, emptying the contents of their lockers into pewter trash bags and leaving the facility -- some of them for the final time.

"I was planning on working this week, then going to Detroit," said Nalen, Denver's stellar starting center for more than a decade. "It's a disappointment."

The Broncos lost, 34-17, to the Steelers in the AFC title game Sunday, closing their surprisingly good year a game shy of the only destination coach Mike Shanahan has deemed acceptable since he arrived in 1995.

A year ago, though, a trip to the AFC title game would have been considered by many to be a wildly successful season for a team that was rudely dismissed from the first round of the playoffs for two straight years. The Broncos made it farther this year, but not as far as they hoped.

"We have the players, we just had a bad day," Nalen said. "If we had performed like we thought we were going to, we'd be there. So, I don't think any major changes are in store. This team can get there."

Change, however, is inevitable in the NFL, and there's no guarantee the Broncos will continue their quest with Nalen, left tackle Matt Lepsis, defensive linemen Gerard Warren and Courtney Brown or a few other key cogs from this year's team. All those veterans are free agents, have expensive options or will void their contracts. The Broncos need to pare about $30 million off next season's salary cap.

"It was weird coming off the field last night," said Nalen, who lifted his boycott on interviews because the season was over. "It could have been my last game as a Bronco. I've never been a free agent before."

As is often pointed out by Shanahan, who wasn't available for interviews Monday, about one-third of every NFL roster turns over every year, no matter how good the team.

The puzzling part with the Broncos is trying to figure out where the changes should start.

For so long this season, the road to a title seemed destined to go through Indianapolis. The Colts were the best team in the league. The Broncos lost badly in Indy the last two years in the playoffs. And for all their success and all of Jake Plummer's efficiency this year, it didn't seem they had the firepower to match up with the Colts.

No one will know how that rematch would have gone. What is known is that the Broncos are no better than second-best to Pittsburgh, a much different team than the Colts.

So, how to improve?

"You can always use more defensive and offensive lineman," rookie cornerback Darrent Williams said. "Bring in some more speed. You can always use speed. The game has turned into a speed game."

Plummer appears to be in place for the foreseeable future. Denver is set at cornerback and running back, where Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne combined for more than 2,000 yards. The offensive and defensive lines are aging and could be in flux. Rod Smith had another great season, but he's 35. The Broncos need to find a replacement for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

If the Colts are truly Denver's target, then the Broncos clearly need another playmaker on offense -- maybe a guy like Terrell Owens.

"I'll like anybody that comes in and helps us win," said defensive lineman Michael Myers.

If the Steelers are the benchmark, the equation gets more confusing.

The Broncos are, after all, a lot like the Steelers -- efficient, opportunistic and normally mistake-free -- only not quite as good, especially not in the game that ended their season.

"We didn't sign up to be 13-3," linebacker Keith Burns said. "You sign up to win every game and sign up to win the Super Bowl. Anything short of that is a disappointment. I'm not taking anything out of this season but a disappointment."

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