When rookie receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler have nice games, when young gunslinger Drew Lock again shows the gumption of quarterback who is never out of a game, no matter the deficit, there are signs pointing towards a team that is coming on.
Given the struggles the Denver Broncos have had for going on five years now, they do seem to be getting there.
But when another slow start dooms them in the end, this time losing 34-27 to more experienced Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, it can also be reasonably stated the Broncos aren't quite there, yet.
"I think that's fair,'' said Justin Simmons, the Broncos' fine safety who came away with his third interception of the year and 10th in his last 2 1/2 seasons. "There's some times when we show that we're a helluva football team in all three phases. And then there's games where we just don't put it all together. Like this one."
Credit the Broncos for not being out of a game even when they're down 21 points in the second half.
Now about falling behind 21 points in the second half.
Ryan sliced up the Broncos for about 2 1/2 quarters, then hung on against another furious Lock rally to pull out their first win in five home games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Broncos recent comeback history had them believing they had a chance despite their huge second-half deficit. Last week, the Broncos were down, 24-3 in the third quarter before rallying to beat the Los Angeles Chargers, 31-30.
Against the Falcons, the Broncos were down 20-3 at halftime, 27-6 early in the third quarter and 34-13 early in the fourth quarter before making it competitive.
"We definitely have to get it remedied, that's for sure,'' Broncos head coach Vic Fangio said postgame about his team's slow starts. "When one side of the ball is struggling, the other side has to pick it up. ... We definitely have to start better on offense. Start better on defense so when you're on the road and you're struggling on offense the score is 10-0 at halftime, 9-0, 13-3. It's not way out of whack the way it was today."
The Falcons had suffered similar Charger-like losses this season, blowing a 19-point lead to Dallas and a 16-point advantage to the Bears.
Yes, the Broncos had a sense of, "We got 'em, right where we want 'em.''
"I hate to say it, but yeah,'' Lock said. "After last week, yes. Everybody wants their team known for something. We need to stop being known for coming from three scores in the fourth quarter and almost winning the game.
"We need to be known as the team that comes out like they've been playing for four quarters, not just the fourth quarter. But we didn't today.''
But after Lock threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to rookie Jeudy to draw the Broncos to within, 27-13, the second-year quarterback lofted an ill-advised interception deep in his own zone to set up an easy touchdown for the Falcons that pushed the score to 34-13. It was too much to overcome.
"I promise -- people may want to discredit this -- but I will throw that ball 10 times out of 10 to Jerry on that pick,'' Lock said. "I saw it. I knew it was coming. The only guy who was going to be able to look Jerry up on that route was either the safety if I overthrew it and the guy underneath and he had no chance.
"I tried to backpedal and that's a throw that -- I don't go out in the front yard and work on straight ahead throws. I'll come out in the front yard and work the acrobatic throws that are what playing quarterback is in the league.
"You're going to have guys get beat in front of you. You're going to have seven guys come when you only have six blockers. You have to decide on throwing it away or you have to throw the ball. And I'm going to lean on throwing the ball. Because most of the time that's when our athletes are one on one. And Jerry was open. It's a throw I can make. It's a throw I should make. It's embarrassing that I didn't.''
Lock answered with a drive that finished with his second touchdown pass, this one to Tim Patrick for 9 yards. Lock added another touchdown drive that he finished himself with a 16-yard touchdown run with 1:52 remaining.
But a final Broncos drive ended on downs deep in their own territory as both Jeudy and running back Phillip Lindsay didn't come up with catchable balls.
The comeback set-up was there. Ryan, in his 13th NFL season as the Falcons’ starter, was 25 of 35 late for 284 yards and three touchdowns. He was especially sharp in the first half when the Falcons had four drives (other than a one-play, end-of-half kneel down) and came away with two touchdowns and two field goals in the first half.
Lock, meanwhile, barely had the ball in the first half. He had some nice completions, and overall 25 of 48 for 313 yards with two touchdowns and interception.
The Broncos fell to 3-5 while the Falcons improved to 3-6 with their first win in five games at home.
Looking back, the Broncos lost this game the minute cornerback Bryce Callahan was scratched with an ankle injury. It's one thing to overcome one starting cornerback in veteran A.J. Bouye. It's another to overcome both starting cornerbacks, especially one like Callahan who had been terrific through seven games.
The drop-off from Callahan to his replacement, Davontae Harris, was startling.
The Broncos fell behind 10-0 after the first quarter and 17-3 early in the second. Ryan engineered three long drives that resulted in a 52-yard field goal by Younghoe Koo, a 51-yard touchdown pass to Olamide Zaccheaus, who beat cornerback Harris on a go-route and a 9-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Powell.
Ryan’s scoring throws came on third-and-11 and third-and-6, respectively. He added a 21-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones in the third quarter. Jones burned rookie corner Michael Ojemudia on the play.
"They got us on some good, deep throws,'' said inside linebacker Alexander Johnson. "I feel like they (Broncos cornerbacks) were right there, they were just 50-50 balls and we didn't come away with those 50-50 balls. That was probably one of the biggest things right there.''
Harris was benched late in the half, replaced by veteran Kevin Tolliver, who was called up from the practice squad this week.
Meanwhile, Lock and the Broncos’ offense only got one full series in the first quarter. Lock hit tight end Noah Fant for a 32-yard catch-and-run, but the drive stalled when Atlanta’s superb defensive tackle Grady Jarrett stuffed running back Lindsay for a 4-yard loss.
But on the drive that sandwiched the first and second quarter, the Broncos opened up speedy receiver KJ Hamler, who had a 14-yard reception and 15-yard run on an end around. Those two plays set up a 43-yard field goal to bring the Broncos within, 10-3 early in the second quarter.
But Ryan answered with a 42-yard off a scramble play to Zaccheaus, who again got by Harris, and later hit Powell, who beat safety Justin Simmons to the corner of the end zone to put Atlanta up, 17-3.
It was too much. Jeudy finished with seven catches for 125 yards and a touchdown and Hamler had six catches for 75 yards, plus the 15-yard reverse run. They were the Broncos' first- and second-round draft picks this year.
So better days are ahead for the Broncos. But it appears likely a fifth consecutive season will end without a playoff appearance.
“We’re here to win the game,'' Fangio said. "But I do think that we’re getting better, although it’s hard to see that when you have a game like we did today. We just need to become a more consistent, efficient team—particularly on offense. We need to be able to cover better on defense and rush the passer better. That was evident today where we came up short and I need to do a better job of calling the defense.”
Rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam left with a right knee injury. Right tackle Demar Dotson didn't finish the game because of a hip injury. He was replaced by veteran Jake Rodgers. ...
Inside linebacker Josey Jewell led the Broncos with 10 tackles. He also had a quarterback hit and a tackle for loss. ...
Aside from a couple Lock scrambles and Hamler's reverse, the Broncos struggled to run the ball as Lindsay (8 carries, 23 yards) and Melvin Gordon (6 for 18) combined for just 41 yards on 14 carries -- 2.9 yards a pop.
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