ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -The fans cursed and booed and then finally gave up. Maybe some of the players did, too.
By the time the fourth quarter mercifully rolled around last week, there was only a smattering of die-hard fans left in the seats to witness the Denver Broncos' worst shellacking at home in 41 years.
And some of those who stuck around did so only to continue their mocking chant, ``Let's Go Rock-ies!''
Is Denver actually becoming a baseball town?
With the Rockies in the NL championship series for the first time and the reeling Broncos having dropped eight of their last 12 and plugging new leaks every week, that just may be the case.
These days, purple and black are the more predominant colors around the Mile High City than orange and blue.
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan gets the fickle way of fans. He understood why they revolted and exited early in a 41-3 loss to San Diego.
``I would've left, too,'' Shanahan said. ``We normally don't play like that.''
It wasn't just Sunday. Denver has won just two of its last eight games at Invesco Field, where it's been the Broncos sucking air at altitude while opponents dance around in a Rocky Mountain High.
``I've got a lot of confidence in this football team,'' Shanahan said. ``Yet we've got to go do it on the football field.''
Shanahan has been trying to get back to football's biggest stage since the retirement of John Elway after the 1998 season. They won two Super Bowls together. But without Elway, Shanahan has been mortal, winning just one playoff game.
He's hitched his fate to Jay Cutler, a mop-top kid with an Elway-like arm that the Broncos traded up in the 2006 draft to get.
Cutler, who took over the starting job last season, has looked impressive at times, and like a wide-eyed youngster who's played only 10 NFL games at other moments. It may be that way for a while as the Vanderbilt product gets his seasoning on Sundays.
Even though their fans are leaving early on them, Cutler said the Broncos remain ``optimistic that we can make a run at this thing.''
Where does that optimism come from?
The Broncos, who've lost three in a row, have a defense that's dead last in the league at stopping the run. Defensive guru Jim Bates was brought in to bolster a sagging defense from a year ago, but it's only gotten worse. An entirely new front four and a green middle linebacker has been a recipe for steamrolling the befuddled Broncos.
Scott O'Brien was hired to fix the special teams and, after a month, the Broncos gave up on promising speedster Domenik Hixon, hoping he'd clear waivers and return to the practice squad to continue his education.
Instead, the Giants grabbed him and Hixon's replacement, Brian Clark, coughed up a kickoff the Chargers returned for a rout-igniting touchdown.
Then, there's troubled tailback Travis Henry, whose season - and therefore, that of the Broncos - is in legal limbo.
He spent the bye week meeting with his lawyers in New York as he plots his strategy to fight the NFL over a drug test result that could get him banned from the league for a year. Henry was suspended for four games in September 2005 while with Tennessee for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
It's no surprise Shanahan took a risk on Henry, a back who's perfectly suited for his zone-blocking system. Shanahan is known as a coach who'll look past character issues to give players a second chance; does Maurice Clarett jump to mind?
Now, Henry's case will be hovering over the Broncos like a dark cloud. Should Henry lose his beef with the league, the Broncos' backfield would consist of undrafted rookie Selvin Young, Andre Hall and Mike Bell, another undrafted rookie (in 2006) who was moved to fullback.
If all that wasn't enough, Javon Walker has missed the last two games with ominous swelling in his surgically repaired right knee. Stalwart center Tom Nalen tore a biceps muscle and is done for the season. So is tight end Nate Jackson, who ripped a groin muscle.
The Broncos can't turn to Nalen's top backup, guard Ben Hamilton, because he went on injured reserve with continuing concussion symptoms from what everybody thought was a routine hit in camp.
And to think this team believed it was in the same AFC class as Indianapolis and New England.
``Coming into this year, we had great expectations,'' safety John Lynch said. ``When you go through a stretch like this, that kind of mentality can be broken. But we can't let it be, because we've still got a lot of good football players in this room, and we've just got to put it all together.''
Really, the Broncos are fortunate they're not 0-5. They beat Buffalo on a last-second kick in the season opener, and knocked off Oakland in overtime thanks to a well-timed timeout by Shanahan that rattled Sebastian Janikowski, who clanked the do-over off the upright.
This team was dealt two emotional blows before the season began. The Broncos family was shaken by the tragic deaths of Darrent Williams and Damien Nash. Williams was gunned down on New Year's Day in downtown Denver, and two months later Nash died after leaving the gym following a charity basketball game in St. Louis.
Those two remain in the players' hearts and memories. The team has stickers with the numbers of Williams and Nash affixed to their helmets.
``We miss those two guys,'' safety Nick Ferguson said.
The Broncos are in such disarray that they've turned to the best cornerback in football to help cover kicks, and Champ Bailey leads the team with five special teams tackles, most of them of the touchdown-saving variety.
``When Sunday comes around, it's time to get it done,'' Bailey said. ``I just want to win. I'll do whatever it takes.''
In that case, can he please play offensive line, defensive line, running back, wide receiver, kick returner and middle linebacker, too?

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