DENVER—An early Rocky Mountain sunset in the later part of November beat the season setting on the 2017 Denver Broncos.
But not by much.
In a salvage-or-That's All Folks home game Sunday against the lowly Cincinnati Bengals, the Broncos lost, 20-17 before another disappointed home crowd at Why Is It Still Called Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The Broncos, 3-1 entering their bye week, have lost six in a row. No one needs to say the Broncos are finished. This stat screams it all: No team has ever been 3-7 after 10 games and made the playoffs. No one.
"You got to get 10 wins to make the playoffs so, shoot,'' said Broncos' cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "It's not looking real good right now.''
The 2014 Carolina Panthers made the playoffs despite a 3-6-1 start. They finished 7-8-1 to win the brutally inept NFC South Division that year, then won a home playoff game.
But 3-7 isn't 3-6-1. And 3-7 isn't even close to 9-7, which was what the Broncos were last season in their first season without Peyton Manning to miss the playoffs.
"Yeah, we started off so good, too. Right now, I'm really disappointed for Domata,'' Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe, who played a fine game, said about his fellow defensive linemate and former longtime Bengal, Domata Peko. "We wanted to win that game so bad for him. He left and came here to win, I took less money ($9.2 million a year when others of his ilk are making at least $12 million per) to stay here and win.
"And now, what the hell? It's disappointing. I thought we learned our lesson last year. But last year seems like a blessing compared to this.''
The Bengals are 4-6, even though they entered the game as the NFL's worst offense, and probably still are after generating just 190 yards in total offense. But they had enough to outscore the ever-mistake-prone Broncos.
At least there was some fight in this Broncos' defeat. They were down, 20-10 with 9:02 left after No. 3 cornerback Bradley Roby got burned for his second touchdown, this time on an 18-yard pass from Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton to A.J. Green.
But Broncos' quarterback Brock Osweiler came through on the next drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas to give Denver hope.
It wasn’t so much the Denver Broncos were a “little bit soft.’’ Worse, the problem seems to be they’re just not very good. Are they not nearly as good as everyone thought they were coming into this season? Or is this a good team that has underperformed?
Neither is comforting.
"That's a tough question,'' Harris said. "We definitely still have some ballers. I can't say what I really want to say.''
The problem with the offense was costly turnovers -- an Osweiler pick thrown in one end zone and nearly returned to the other was a 13-point swing -- penalties, dropped passes and an inability to stem the pass rush.
The defensive shortcoming has been a trend of not keeping the opposing offense off the board when it matters most.
"You are who you are,'' said Broncos' head coach Vance Joseph, who is now officially having a disappointing first season. "It's our record. Tonight we had great effort. We moved the ball offensively, but we had two turnovers. They both led to points. That's the game, again.''
At least there were no major special teams snafus, other than having Brandon McManus’ 61-yard field goal attempt blocked to end the half. The Broncos did come up with a blocked punt by Shaq Barrett that gave Osweiler and the offense the ball at the Cincinnati 29.
The Broncos not only didn't take advantage, Osweiler threw an end zone pick that was nearly returned the other way. Osweiler was 23 of 42 for 254 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He is 0-3 in his three starts.
Whenever the Broncos decide Paxton Lynch is ready, he will be their next quarterback. Lynch was promoted to No. 2 quarterback this week, with season-opening starter Trevor Siemian inactive against the Bengals. Lynch will be evaluated this week to determine if he's ready to start next week against the Raiders in Oakland. But even if it's determined he needs more time, it won't be long before the first-round draft pick is given his chance.
"I'm not worried about that,'' Osweiler said. "I'm never going to look over my shoulder.''
Former Broncos head coach Red Miller, who passed away September 27 from complications of a stroke, was honored as the 32nd member of the team’s Ring of Fame at halftime. Somewhere, Red must be irked.
Both teams entered the game with 3-6 records. Only the Broncos were called out by their general manager John Elway as having "gone a little soft" on Friday night.
The Broncos seemed to play hard. They just didn’t play well.
"Was I mad?'' Harris said, repeating the question in reference to Elway's team portrayal. "No, it's just his opinion. Everybody's accountable. He picks the players and we have to make plays. Apparently, we're not good enough.''
Which may be a sadder commentary than "soft.'' There was one play that exemplified the ineptitude of these two teams.
On third-and-3 at the Bengals’ 4-yard line early in the game, Osweiler threw a pass intended for Cody Latimer in the end zone. Latimer was supposed to come off a pick, except he’s the one that got rubbed off on the play.
Osweiler’s pass zipped into the gut of Cincinnati cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who had nothing but a wide-open, green-grass field ahead of him.
Kirkpatrick was about to go in for a 101-yard pick six but as he reached the Broncos’ 15-yard line, the ball popped out of his hands. No one around him. He just lost the ball.
Luckily for him, the ball fell forward and Kirkpatrick was able to recover at the Broncos’ 1 yard line.
It took the Bengals three plays but finally Dalton executed a play-action fake and hit tight end Tyler Kroft wide open in the left corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
Instead of 7-0 Broncos, it was 6-0 Bengals (Bengals kicker Randy Bullock, who has struggled this season, missed the extra point).
"Cody was going to have a touchdown and unfortunately, a football play happened where him and the guy who was covering Emmanuel (Sanders) collided and the football was gift-wrapped for Kirkpatrick right there, and he made a great play,'' Osweiler said. "Bottom line, no excuses.''
The two teams then exchanged, 75-yard touchdown drives. This time on third-and-goal from the 3, Broncos’ offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was conservative in his play call and C.J. Anderson rewarded him with a 3-yard touchdown run.
The extra point by Brandon McManus gave the Broncos a 7-6 lead.
Which lasted until the Denver defense folded on the next drive. Dalton hit Brandon LaFell for 29 yards on a crossing route and later threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Alex Erickson on a sideline-and-go that burned Roby.
After the game, Roby left the locker room without explaining his rough day (he also had a pass interference call late in the fourth quarter that helped the Bengals eat valuable clock) to the media.
It was 13-7 Bengals early in the second quarter. Yes, the Osweiler pick was dreadful. A 13-point swing no doubt. But in the last three weeks, often when the Broncos’ offense does score, the Denver D gives up a score on the next possession.
Denver’s defense has not been able to sustain momentum during this five-game losing streak.
The defense did play much better after the second Dalton touchdown pass but the offense could only muster a 45-yard field goal by McManus in the third quarter.
And so at 3-7, everyone knows the Broncos are done. Even their most ardent fans. Despite the team's putrid play coming into the game Sunday, it drew a sellout with only 3,399 no-shows. That's more than usual, but even those that did show up seemed to sense doom was upon them.
"You could kind of feel it in the stadium, there was no energy, even with the fans,'' said Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. "That's how it felt. It was real quiet in here.''
There is nothing worse than the deadly silence of playing for nothing but pride.
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