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Broncos blow 20-point halftime lead, lose to Vikings

After Brandon Allen converted three, fourth-downs in final drive, three cracks from Vikings' 4-yard line fell incomplete.
Credit: AP Photo/Jim Mone
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, left, runs from Denver Broncos defensive end Dre'Mont Jones, right, during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS — Getting a tooth pulled without novacaine. Watching a three-hour movie on a TV channel with commercials. Driving behind grandpa and grandma on a curvy, hilly, two-lane state highway.

Watching the Broncos turn victory into gut-wrinching defeat in the final seconds.

There  are gluttons for punishment and there is the 2019 Denver Broncos.

The Broncos blew a 20-0 halftime lead and lost to the Minnesota Vikings, 27-23 here Sunday before a record crowd of 66,883 at U.S. Bank Stadium. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins threw three, second-half touchdown passes, then watched nervously to the bitter end as the game ended with the Broncos having three plays from the Vikings' 4-yard line. All three Brandon Allen passes were incomplete.

"It is just a hard year, that is just how it is,'' said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "It has just been like that every game.''

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Not every game, but the 3-7 Broncos have suffered three losses that went down to the final do-or-die play and another defeat snatched from victory occurred with 22 seconds left.

"This one hurts the most,'' said safety Justin Simmons. "Obviously, a game-winning kick hurts, but we had a high chance of winning. However, defensively we didn’t execute. That is what hurts the most knowing that my side of the ball is what let the team down.''

Credit: AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn
Denver Broncos tight end Troy Fumagalli, center, catches a 3-yard touchdown pass between Minnesota Vikings defenders Mackensie Alexander (20) and Anthony Barr, right, during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Minneapolis.

The Vikings can exhale as they enter their bye week at 8-3.

It's little consolation that the Broncos, a 10 1/2-point underdog, made the Vikings sweat to the final play. Allen, in his second NFL start, made three fourth-down conversions on the final drive, but three throws from the Vikings' 4-yard line all fell incomplete as time expired.

None of the throws were to star receiver Courtland Sutton, who had Vikings defenders on all sides of him.

"They were doubling Courtland the whole time. It's the respect he deserves,'' Allen said. "Really shouldn't go to him. Don't have to throw it up in double coverage to him, but I thought other guys separated. I was just trying to give us a chance to get the ball in the end zone, and it didn't work out.''

It looked good for a while as the Broncos dominated the Vikings in the first half.

With the aggressive, creative way Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello called plays, it seemed as if he took the week-filled ruminations about Gary Kubiak personal.

Deep shot after deep shot. Three reverses in one series to Sutton. On the first of those reverses, Sutton threw a deep ball for a 38-yard completion.

“That was a lot of fun,'' Sutton said. "I was looking forwad to it all week.''

Sutton had a LeBron-like game:

5 catches for 113 yards, plus a 21-yard pass interference he drew from Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

2 rushes for 10 yards.

1 of 1 passing for 38 yards.

“He’s a great player for us, one we can build on,” said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio.

Sutton's monster day, though, was for naught as the Broncos collapsed in the second half offensively (3 points), defensively (27 points) and on special teams (Brandon McManus missed a 43-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter that kept Minnesota's momentum rolling).

"If you ask anybody in this locker room, they all know that we are a good team,'' Sutton said. "Our record doesn’t reflect it because we haven’t finished off games. The teams that we have lost to know that we are a good team as well. We are going to fight until the very end no matter what. No team is going to overlook us especially after this game. These guys were undefeated at home and have a nice record and teams are going to look at this game and say look they gave them a run for their money.’’

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Momentum began to switch in the final seconds of the first half, when the Broncos blew a chance to go up 27-0. Will Parks, playing with a cast on his injured left thumb, had forced Vikings kickoff returner Ameer Abdullah and the Broncos had the ball on the Vikings' 17 with 52 seconds left in the half.

On the Broncos' first play, though, Allen threw an interception near the Vikings' end zone to safety Andrew Sendejo.

"Probably a bad throw by me,'' Allen said. "Really trying to force it, wanted to get a big play. So I think that was on me, forcing it. Probably should have checked on down.”

Said Fangio: "One of those where in hindsight maybe we should have ran it three times and got our three points and been happy, but you would have roasted me if I did that. But in hindsight maybe that would have been a good thing.”

Cousins got hot in the second half, starting with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Irv Smith Jr. that beat Broncos' cornerback Davontae Harris to cap the first possession. His second TD was a 54-yard strike to Stefon Diggs, who beat Chris Harris Jr. on a post pattern while the safety who was supposed to help out wasn't there. 

And then Cousins used a patented Kubiak boot left to find a wide-open Mason Rudolph for a 32-yard touchdown pass to give Minnesota it's first lead with 6:10 remaining.

The Broncos had let it get away.

“100 percent,'' said Broncos' defensive lineman Shelby Harris, who had a career-best 3.0 sacks in the game. "Any time you have a 20-point lead you’ve got to win the game. That’s on the defense. That’s on us. There’s no other issues about it. They came back at half shooting. And we couldn’t match it. They beat us.

"I’m not making excuses … It should never have been up to a last second play to win the game. Whenyou have a 20-point lead its over.’’

Credit: AP Photo/Jim Mone
Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton (14) carries the ball up field during the first half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Minneapolis.

To say “much” of the crowd, but not the entire gathering was appropriate as a good percentage of orange-jerseys dotting the seats. Those fans made plenty of noise whenever the visiting team made a big play, which was early and often in the first half.

Until that final-second interception by Allen as the Broncos were about put the game away, the offense had never played better than they did in the first half. Scangerello, the Broncos’ first-year offensive coordinator, was much maligned through the first eight games, as the Broncos’ ranked in the bottom 5 in most of the key categories.

After a disappointing, final-second, 15-13 loss at Indianapolis three weeks ago, Joe Flacco, the Broncos’ quarterback, publicly complained his offense wasn’t aggressive enough with plays called as if the team was afraid to lose.

Flacco then learned the next day he had suffered a season-ending disc injury in his neck. Allen took over and Scangarello heeded the advice.

In the first quarter alone Sunday, the Broncos' passing game hit on three completions of 31, 38 and 48 yards . Allen hit on two of those big plays and while he was just 4 of 9 at one point, his completions went for a total of 85 yards, one of which was a third-down, 3-yard touchdown to tight end Troy Fumagalli.

Sutton outmaneuvered Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes for a 48-yard catch, and then a drew a 21-yard pass-interference penalty from Rhodes that set up first and goal and the Fumagalli touchdown.

Credit: AP
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins celebrates in the second half of NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

On the next series, Scangarello went nuts with Sutton reverses. On the first, running back Phillip Lindsay took the direct snap from the shotgun position, sprinted left and tossed back to Sutton, who was moving left to right. Sutton stopped and heaved the ball downfield to Tim Patrick, who made a contested catch for a 38-yard gain.

Patrick was playing in his first game suffering a broken hand in the season opener, an injury that required surgery and caused the receiver to miss the previous eight games. Patrick finished with four catches for 77 yards.

Later in the drive, with the Broncos switching ends for the start of the fourth quarter, Scangarello called a reverse to Sutton on and fourth-and-1 from the Vikings 7.

Who calls a reverse on fourth-and-1 from the opponents’ 7? Sutton picked up 1 tough yard for first-and-goal. Fullback Andy Janovich scored from the 1 yard line as he kept piling driving over bodies while keeping his knees off the turn and his momentum lunging forward.

Janovich left the game later in the second quarter with what 9News reported to be a dislocated right elbow that will end his season.

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Meanwhile, Fangio’s Denver defense completely stymied Kubiak’s Vikings offense in the first half. Kubiak was to be the Broncos’ offensive coordinator for Fangio this year but Kubiak turned it down because of a dispute over the offensive assistant coaches he wanted, but couldn’t hire.

Through most of this season, Kubiak’s departure looked like the Broncos loss and the Vikings gain. In the first half, though, Kubiak was skunked and Scangarello appeared to be a play-calling whiz.

Kubiak got his offense going in the second half, though, by going to a no-huddle offense while head coach Mike Zimmer went for it when needed on fourth down. Oh, and Cousins started putting his $28 million a year arm to use. Cousins was 11 of 12 in the first half but for only 58 yards while he took three sacks for negative 25 yards.

In the second half, Cousins was 18 of 23 for 261 yards.

"We just couldn’t make a play to get off the field there in the second half,'' Fangio said. "Their passing game was way better than our pass defense.”

Credit: AP Photo/Jim Mone
Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton catches a pass over Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, left, during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Minneapolis.

After scoring 20 points in the first half, the Broncos had a couple chances to score more than 24 points for the first time in 19 games -- since they scored two defensive touchdowns to whip Arizona, 45-7 in game 7 last season.

It didn't happen, although the Broncos got oh-so-close at the end.

After the Cousins-to-Rudolph touchdown put Minnesota ahead, the Broncos got a 42-yard kickoff return from Diontae Spencer. Allen then went to work. He converted a third-and-13 with a 14-yard pass to running back Royce Freeman. Allen completed an 11-yard pass to tight end Noah Fant to convert a fourth-and-6 with 3:27 remaining.

Three plays later it was fourth-and-6 at the Vikings' 30, but Allen completed a 6-yard pass to Patrick. It was fourth-and-1 at the Vikings' 15 when Allen ran an option play for 11 yards.

It was first and goal at the Vikings' 4 but only 10 seconds remaining. Allen went to Patrick the first time, but he lost a tussel to Trae Waynes. The next two passes intended for Fant in the end zone where also push-and-pull battles that went the Vikings way.

“We either finish or we don’t and in this case we didn’t and we have to own that and go back to the drawing board,'' Sutton said. "Look at it, iron out what we need to do to fix it and go back next week and get a W.”

The Broncos play another 7-3 team on the road next week: The Buffalo Bills.

Broncos Bits

Defense tackle Mike Purcell suffered a rib injury on the first play of the game, but returned. …

Patrick suffered a shoulder injury in the first half but returned in the second half. …

The Broncos gave defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker one more week off the heal up his left shoulder. Adam Gotsis played for a second consecutive game. ...

With Patrick activated, rookie receiver Juwann Winfree was inactive.

Four of late owner Pat Bowlen’s children travelled with the team here and were on the sideline pregame: Patrick III, Brittany, Annabel and Christianna.

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