DENVER — Beneath a cloudy, somber sky, the Broncos lined up for their fifth consecutive season finale with little to play for.
There was no playoff berth at stake Sunday, as there hasn’t been since Peyton Manning heroically came off the bench in the second half of the Broncos’ final game in 2015. A win against the Las Vegas Raiders at Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday would have been nice but it would not change the disappointment of a fourth consecutive Broncos’ losing season.
There was the No. 44 decal on the back of each Bronco helmet in honor of the team’s first superstar, Floyd Little, who died Friday at 78. A moment of silence was held. Those were nice touches, if under sad circumstances.
And then it was time to play before zero fans Sunday. And wouldn't you know, competitors being ever competitive, the game was one of the most exciting of the season. After Raiders quarterback Derek Carr moved his offense from his own 23 to the Broncos' 9 in about 25 seconds against Vic Fangio's prevent defense, Raiders' running back Josh Jacobs finished the drive with a fourth down, 1-yard touchdown plunge with 24 seconds left to close Las Vegas deficit to one point, 31-30.
And then, as he did in a one-point loss to the Broncos last year, Raiders coach Jon Gruden went for the 2-point conversion in the final seconds rather than a tie.
The Broncos didn't have Shelby Harris to knock it down this year. The two-point pass from Derek Carr to the seemingly uncoverable Darren Waller was complete for a 32-31 Raiders win. The Raiders seemed to be scrambling going into the 2-point play as there was confusion as to whether they would go for 2 and the win or the extra point and overtime. Fangio, who had some conservative calls in the third quarter quarter -- punting on fourth-and-1 near midfield, and kicking a short field goal on fourth-and-2 from the Raider 7 -- settled everyone down by calling a timeout.
“We just wanted to make sure that we knew exactly who they had in there and how we wanted to play it,'' Fangio said. "I thought it was more valuable at that time to use that timeout. I would have liked to save it obviously but the game at that point was coming down to that two-points or not.”
Carr then slipped a shallow slant to Waller, who warded off Broncos' dime safety P.J. Locke for the game-winner.
“I think we changed our mind three times,'' said Raiders coach Jon Gruden. "We went from three tight ends, one back and one receiver, to three receivers, one tight end and one back. And we ended up going with three tight ends, two backs and no receivers.
"We just kept looking over there on their sideline. Fortunately, really for us, they used a timeout that they could’ve used at the end of that game.”
With few seconds remaining, Lock got the Broncos to midfield on a 25-yard completion to the redemptive Jerry Jeudy but a 63-yard field goal attempt by Brandon McManus was drilled low into the line and never had a chance of clearing the block.
It was an back-n-forth contest, especially in the second half with the Broncos going ahead 31-24 midway through the fourth quarter on a 92-yard touchdown strike from Lock to Jeudy. A goat with five drops last week, Jeudy caught all five in this game for 140 yards, plus a two-point conversion.
“I didn’t have any doubt,'' Jeudy said. "The way I’m wired, I knew last game was going to be one of the last bad games I have my whole life. I learned a lot from that game. Coming into this game I was just a lot more focused, a lot more focused on the details and just catching the ball.”
The Raiders were up 17-10 at halftime on two long touchdown passes by Carr.
But the Broncos, on the strength of a fine, game-management performance by Lock and a 10-yard touchdown run by Melvin Gordon, went up, 24-17 early in the fourth quarter. Take a breath. The game was just heating up.
The Raiders answered with a long drive capped by Jacobs' 28-yard, game-tying touchdown run with 7:27 left in regulation. That made it, 24-24.
Pinned deep in his own territory, Lock on third-and-10 from his own 8 delivered his best pass of the year. He hit Jeudy across the middle on a 22-yard in-cut. Against the porous Raiders' defense, Jeudy had no one around him. He veered left and kept running down the left sideline until he pulled away with the go-ahead score with 6:29 remaining. It was 31-24 Broncos.
The Broncos entered the game with the NFL's worst turnover ratio of minus-20 -- double the next worst team, San Francisco and its minus-10. But for the finale, the Broncos were plus-4 as their defense forced four takeaways while Lock and the offense played clean football.
It's hard to lose a game when you're plus-4 in turnovers. And yet the Broncos finished 5-11. The Raiders got back to .500 at 8-8.
Lock threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Troy Fumagalli in the first quarter and a 2-yard, two-point conversion to Jeudy in the fourth quarter. If it were possible for Lock to cement his starting job for 2021, he gave it his best.
“There's without a doubt optimism,'' Lock said. "Not right now, probably not for the next couple hours just because that one definitely slipped away from us. That could have been a great way to end it out on a high note, but without a doubt optimism.
"In my eyes, I looked at a team that started off really young and kept growing as the year goes on. Guys started making vet plays that were just finishing up their first year of NFL football. I'm excited to grow with these guys and keep growing and make this offseason the best months of my life to be ready coming into next year.”
When Lock is hot, and wise with the football, he’s electric. He throws the intermediate middle ball as well as anybody. There is the feeling among the Broncos' braintrust that because he had little practice due to injury as a rookie last year, and no offseason practice this year due to the virus shutdown, Lock simply needs more time to develop.
The alternative to staying patient with Lock – Carson Wentz? Andy Dalton? Sam Dalton? – isn’t exactly ripe with quarterbacks who played well this season.
But when Lock is careless, the result has been too many game-losing turnovers. There is also concern, until he proves otherwise, he may never have the accuracy -- his tendency to overthrow the deep ball when his receiver has a step is a weakness he must correct -- to become a top 12 quarterback.
He entered this game ranked No. 35, although he played like a top 5 quarterback Sunday. Lock threw the short TD to Fumagalli while guiding the Broncos to a 10-3, first-quarter lead. The big play in the drive was a 29-yard catch-and-run by receiver Tim Patrick, who limped to the locker room after the play with a foot injury and didn't return.
The Raiders tied it when Carr lofted a beautiful 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end Waller, who beat slot cornerback Will Parks on the play. Parks was left alone on arguably the most dangerous receiving tight end in the game. Later in the half, Carr connected with receiver Bryan Edwards on a similar pattern for a 26-yard touchdown that beat newcomer cornerback Patrick Motley.
Besides Patrick, the Broncos also lost right guard Graham Glasgow to his nagging shoulder injury. He was replaced by rookie Netane Muti. Later, left guard Dalton Risner suffered an ankle injury and was replaced by Austin Schlottmann.
Despite all these setbacks to starters, the Broncos amassed 446 yards in total offense against the porous Raiders' defense.
Gordon entered the game needing 107 yards rushing to reach 1,000 for the second time in his career. He finished with 93 hard-fought yards on 26 carries and scored the first of his team's two go-ahead touchdowns early in the fourth quarter. He wound up with 986 yards -- the third time in his career he had at least 985 yards rushing in a season, but only once did he cross 1,000.
Lock was 25 of 41 for a career-best 339 yards with two TDs and no interceptions for a 103.6 rating.
Tight end Noah Fant had four catches for 48 yards while rookie Tyrie Cleveland had four catches four 45 yards in relief of Patrick.
Carr was 24 of 38 for 371 yards and two TDs but he also threw two interceptions for an 91.0 rating. He also had one TD pass to Nelson Agholor wiped out by an offensive pass interference penalty in the first quarter and lost another to Agholor because he badly underthrew the receiver, who had Motley beat by a couple of steps. Motley recovered to break it up. Waller was again a tough cover as he had nine catches for 117 yards and a touchdown, plus the game-winning 2-point conversion with 24 seconds remaining.
Jacobs did go past the 1,000-yard milestone with 89 yards rushing on 15 carries and had the two crucial touchdown runs in the fourth quarter.
The Denver defense entered the game with only 12 takeaways, which would have set a franchise-low. But the Broncos came up with four takeaways. Rookie cornerback Michael Ojemudia forced two fumbles that his teammates recovered and the two safeties, Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, each came up with a key, second-half interception. Simmons has five interceptions on the season.
But the Broncos, injury depleted from the first regular-season practice when they lost star defender Von Miller to an ankle injury, to the final week when Shelby Harris went down with a knee injury, simply didn't have the manpower to keep up.
Hoping for a competitive, 9-7-type season that would have been on the edges of playoff contention, the Broncos instead continued to stack its four-year frustration with records of 5-11, 6-10, 7-9 and then back to 5-11. Forty losses in four years.
“I think moving forward, the biggest thing that will help is getting guys back that have missed a lot of time this year,'' Fangio said. "I say we have 12 starters on defense because the nickel position plays a lot and I believe we were eight of those 12 starters for us. To get those guys back will be a big jolt for us and then for these young guys to improve, we played a lot on both sides of the ball and another year of maturation.”
The Broncos currently have the No. 9 overall pick in the 2021 draft. If the Eagles beat Washington on Sunday night, the Broncos will have the No. 8 overall pick.
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