DENVER — In a midseason game that figured to define the Broncos as either contenders or pretenders, those with late-January ski trips planned can take heart.
No cancellation and rescheduling necessary.
The visiting Philadelphia Eagles, behind talented quarterback Jalen Hurts, moved the ball with surprising ease against the Denver defense in the first half, then watched the Broncos' offense self-destruct in the second half. The up-and-down, maddeningly inconsistent Broncos got whipped by Philly, 30-13.
Those all bright orange Colorado Rush uniforms sure look garish in lopsided defeat.
"Probably us not executing and probably like coaching,'' said Broncos defensive lineman Dre'Mont Jones when asked about Denver not stopping the Eagles from rolling up 214 yards rushing and Hurts from dominating the first half. "Pretty much simple.''
OK, then. A crowd of 70,564 (6,202 no-shows) gathered on an unseasonably warm (65 degrees) if cloudy mid-November Sunday afternoon at Empower Field at Mile High, hoping to see a Broncos team ready to take off after its impressive win last Sunday in Dallas.
Win this game and the Broncos would take a 6-4 record and three-game winning streak into next week's bye. Lose and no one figured to take the Broncos playoff hopes seriously.
"I don't think it was a lack of focus, I really don't,'' head coach Vic Fangio said. "I think we were ready to play. We couldn't handle what they do best, which is run the ball with a quarterback being involved with it.''
This was a week to build momentum, even if 60% of the Broncos' offensive line was out with injuries and the team was enduring a second week of COVID-19 distractions. The Eagles entered the game with a 3-6 overall record and 0-3 mark against AFC West Division opponents. The Broncos were 5-4 and 3-0 against NFC East opponents.
The NFL, like stock investments, is a weekly reminder that past performance is not an indicator of future results.
PHOTOS | Denver Broncos vs. Philadelphia Eagles
"It [stinks], man,'' said Broncos safety Justin Simmons, who came up with a second half interception for naught. "We set ourselves up in prime position to hit this bye on a high streak. Go into the bye with a win and then close out our season pretty much with just divisional games with the exception of maybe two [against Detroit and Cincinnati]. We got to fix it. By no means is the season over.''
Literally, he's correct. But for the rest of the season, the Broncos now look like a team that simply had everything go right for them for one game at Dallas. And no more.
Hurts used his legs and arm to amass 17 first downs and 270 yards in total offense by the half. Hurts was 15 of 20 passing for 176 yards and two touchdowns for a 136.4 passer rating. He also had a 34-yard touchdown pass flat dropped by Quez Watkins with seconds remaining in the first half.
Hurts also rushed five times for 52 yards by the intermission.
"We struggled stopping their run, obviously,'' Fangio said. "They've been running it good against most everybody they play. We've struggled stopping the run consistently this year. I was worried about that coming into the game and that proved itself out. Hurts scrambling hurt us in the first half.''
Hurts did little in the second half -- he passed for just 2 more yards and rushed for just 1 more yard. But he didn't have to do much more after Eagles cornerback Darius Slay returned a Melvin Gordon III fumble 77 yards for a touchdown.
Denver head coach and defensive play-caller Vic Fangio thought the answer was to call more blitzes, but his defense always seemed to be a step, or play, behind Hurts.
For the second time in four games, the Denver defense put its team in a 10-0 hole before the Broncos’ offense could run its fourth play. It happened during the Thursday night, Oct. 21 game at Cleveland, where the Browns went up 10-0 and held on for a 17-10 win.
This time, the Broncos offense got back in the game quicker thanks to the powerful running of Javonte Williams and Gordon, and a taunting penalty against Eagles’ defensive back Avonte Williams. Gordon finished off the drive with a 1-yard TD, his fifth overall touchdown in four games.
It was apparent from the jump the Broncos weren’t going to go up 30-0 this week, as they did surprisingly against the heavily-favored Dallas Cowboys last week. The Eagles behind their athletic leader Hurts moved the ball easily on their game-opening drive to the Broncos red zone before stalling. Philadelphia’s Jake Elliott hit a 30-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Broncos play-calling quarterbacks coach Mike Shula, who was filling in for COVID-19 stricken offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, couldn’t find the right play early as Denver punted after a three-and-out. Hurts finished off his second possession with a perfectly-thrown 36-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Devonta Smith, who beat his college teammate Pat Surtain II on the play. Surtain had very close coverage but the ball was well thrown and Smith made a great catch.
The Eagles were up 10-0.
But Shula stuck with the run on the next possession and Williams got the Broncos going with an 11-yard run. Gordon after the end-of-quarter field switch exploded for 15 yards, setting up first and goal from the 8. Gordon finished it off with a run around right end for 7 yards, then walked in from the 1.
The Broncos tied it, 10-10 off their next possession. The key play was a short pass by Teddy Bridgewater across the middle that split two Eagles’ defenders and was corralled by tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. After turning to daylight, Albert O. ran 64 yards to the Eagles’ 8.
Defensive offside made it first and goal from the 4, and the Broncos went no further. A run and two incompletions left the Broncos short, and a 21-yard Brandon McManus field goal tied it 10-10 with 13:38 left in the first half.
This was not a good first half for Fangio’s defense, however. He blitzed more than usual against the run-pass offense run by Hurts. But Hurts was difficult to stop, anyway, as was evident on his 31-yard scramble that keyed a 12-play drive finished off with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Smith, who beat slot corner Kyle Fuller on a crossing pattern to the back end of the end zone. It was 17-10 Eagles late with 3 minutes left in the half.
The Eagles added another late field goal from Elliott, who was good from 52 yards after Watkins dropped a touchdown pass. Still, the Eagles were up, 20-10 at the break.
The Broncos’ offense had just eight first downs and 127 yards at the intermission.
However, it appeared the Broncos made necessary adjustments at the half. Simmons came up with an interception against Hurts as the Denver defense held the Eagles from scoring until midway through the fourth quarter.
The offense was also moving the ball as its first three possessions of the first half reached the Philadelphia 4, 10 and 23 yard lines. Those drives ended with a blocked field goal, a 22-yard field goal by McManus, and a fumble by Gordon on fourth-and-1 that was returned 83 yards for a touchdown by Eagles cornerback Darius Slay.
It was a back breaker.
"Fourth down with everybody cramped in there you're better off putting both hands on there and go get it,'' Gordon said. "With Slay, we were trying to get the ball and he's a great player and made a great play. I tried to get him, I got crushed on that play.''
On Slay's return, it appeared to everyone in the social media coliseum that Bridgewater could have stuck his body in and made the tackle but he decided to back off instead.
"I just tried to force the ball back,'' Bridgewater said. "We always say the sidelines is your friend so try to force the ball back. That's all I tried to do right there."
"I didn't see it, it was on the other sideline,'' Fangio said. "I didn't see it so I can't really comment on it right now."
It's the second time this year a Broncos captain made a business decision to bail out of a tackle during a turnover return. Earlier in a game against the Raiders, receiver Courtland Sutton appeared to walk away during an interception return.
It's an understandable action within the high-stakes NFL. Sutton tore an ACL making a tackle on an interception return last year, and the slightly built Bridgewater, who missed two seasons with his own ACL injury, would have been placed in harm's way had he tried to tackle Slay. Both are in the final years of their contracts.
“I see a guy trying for the block, and I’m just thinking maybe I can force the ball back inside and one of our guys will make the tackle,'' Bridgewater said.
Still, it's not the all-for-one spirit fans like to see. The Broncos, at 5-5, appear closer to another wait-til-next-year finish. They will host the Chargers in two weeks.
The Denver run defense was hurt by an early game injury to inside linebacker Baron Browning, who has been battling a back injury the past couple weeks. He was replaced by undrafted rookie Curtis Robinson. ...
The Broncos played without their two starting offensive tackles, Garett Bolles and Bobby Massie, who were out with ankle injuries. They were replaced by Calvin Anderson and Cam Fleming. Right guard Graham Glasgow suffered a season-ending broken ankle injury last week and was replaced by third-round rookie Quinn Meinerz. ...
One reason why the Broncos appeared so disjointed Sunday is they have been dealing with a serious COVID-19 issue the past two weeks. Seven players and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur have missed at least one game because of testing positive for the virus.
The Broncos did rearrange their meetings operations because of enhanced protocols. They will conduct meetings virtually Monday, and take Tuesday off. "It's a distraction, there's no two ways about it,'' Fangio said. "We went from nine weeks of basically being back to normal and then all the sudden we were back into last year's mode. So it was a distraction, but that's what this league is. It's full of distractions and you've got to overcome them.''
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