LAS VEGAS — With 2 minutes remaining in the first half, you could hear how many Broncos fans were at Allegiant Stadium.
You could hear it because disastrous back-to-back plays by the Raiders turned into turnovers that Denver converted into 10 points. Instead of trailing 7-3 at halftime, the Broncos were up, 13-7 at the break.
A good 25 percent of the crowd went wild. The Broncos had all the momentum. They had their closest playoff contenders losing game after game. They had a solid crowd behind them in enemy territory. It was all there for the Denver Broncos.
And then the Broncos' faithful went silent in the second half. They've been too quiet for six years running, really.
The Raiders regrouped at halftime and rammed the ball through the Denver defense on the first drive of the second half, finishing it off fittingly with a 5-yard touchdown run by backup running back Peyton Barber. The Raiders went on to win the AFC West Division matchup, 17-13 here Sunday before an announced gathering of 60,972.
Every seat was draped with a black-and-white, Terrible Towel upon arrival. Only the Raiders' faithful, and certainly not those pulling for the Broncos, knew what to do with them.
As has been the case for the past six or seven seasons, bad offense was the Broncos' primary culprit -- their only touchdown was a one-play, 1-yard drive set up by a fantastic interception and return by outside linebacker Bradley Chubb -- but the defense was culpable, too, as it couldn't bow its collective necks in the second half against what had been an inept Raiders' rushing attack.
"At the end of the day, we knew this was a win-or-go-home type of situation,'' said Denver defensive lineman Shelby Harris, who had 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble for naught. "And we didn't do enough to come out with a 'W.'''
Another run-oriented Raiders drive in the fourth quarter led to a 41-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson, who hailed from Colorado Springs and the Classical Academy high school.
The Raiders then perfectly executed the 4-minute drill that every team practices each week. They forced the Broncos to use all their timeouts, then killed the final 3:54 of game clock to seal the huge win.
After rushing for just 31 yards on 12 carries in the first half, the Raiders, who ranked No. 30 in rushing coming into the game, bulldozed the Denver D for 129 yards on 28 carries in the second half.
"Their backs did a good job of jump-cutting,'' Harris said. "We got a little overanxious making a play and they were jump-cutting and it was open lane. Kudos to them. It kind of seemed like they were doing what Cleveland did to us back in the season. Like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati."
The point was made. Then came a point of emphasis.
"Especially that last drive, when you know you've got to get a stop,'' Harris said. "Gotta get a stop. And we've been a good run defense all year and we didn't hold up our end of the bargain that last drive."
The Broncos are now all but eliminated from the AFC playoffs. Denver and the Raiders entered the game with 7-7 records which meant the game’s winner would move into a tie for the No. 7 and final AFC playoff spot with the Chargers and Ravens, both of whom have suddenly slumped to 8-7.
“Yeah, it definitely hurts,'' said Drew Lock, who got his first start at quarterback this season in relief of the injured Teddy Bridgewater. "It was in our hands today, and we didn’t take advantage of it.”
The Steelers had a chance at the No. 7 spot but they got drilled 36-10 by the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Steelers are now in trouble of missing the playoffs at 7-7-1. The Chiefs have now won six consecutive AFC West Division titles. During that run, the Chiefs beat the Broncos' 12 consecutive games.
Before the Chiefs' division streak, the Broncos had won the previous five AFC West titles. How suddenly and drastically, it turned.
"It's tough but we talked before the game and talked about how adversity builds greatness,'' Chubb said in an interview with 9News after the game. "We've got a little adversity right now but we're going to keep pushing, keep fighting and put a better product on the field."
Raiders' top running back Josh Jacobs, who made a key fumble late in the first half, rushed 7 times for 57 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter after he had just 25 yards on 9 carries in the first half. He finished with a career-best 129 yards on 27 carries.
He looked like a goat at halftime. Jacobs flat dropped the ball as he was running, a fumble that Broncos’ defensive tackle Mike Purcell outwrestled a scrum of humanity for the recovery. That led to a monstrous, 55-yard field goal by Brandon McManus, a kick that brought Denver to within 7-6 with 32 seconds left in the half.
Raiders’ interim coach Rich Bisaccia should have pulled a John Fox and kneeled away the rest of the half. Instead, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr tried a way-too-casually tossed screen pass to Jacobs. Chubb read the play halfway through his rush, backed up and made a deflecting catch to himself, then rambled 21 yards to the 1-yard line.
"Right before we went on the field, my coach alerted us to the screen,'' Chubb told 9News. "So as I was coming around I felt the running back behind me and saw him try to get it over my head. So I just jumped and tried to tip it and mess up the play but it ended up coming back to me. It was cool."
If only halftime were the time to pop champagne. Javonte Williams walked in untouched from there and the back-to-back turnovers had the Broncos stunningly ahead, 13-7 at the break.
It was a scoreless first quarter here at Allegiant Stadium, which seats 65,000 but had plenty of unannounced no-shows and as many as 15,000 occupied by Broncos' fans. (Think about it, wouldn't longtime Las Vegas residents have a closer affliation to Denver than Oakland?)
The Denver defense was doing a good job of putting pressure on Carr and limiting Vegas’ running game, while the Broncos’ coaching staff seemed to place handcuffs on quarterback Drew Lock.
This wasn’t the gunslinger Lock throwing the ball downfield and occasionally into danger. This was a conservative passing Lock through the first quarter.
Both teams opened it up in the second quarter. Carr finished off a 14-play drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow -- a "dandy" is how Raiders' radio play-by-play announcer Brent Musberger described him -- who got a step on a flag route. The drive was aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty on Harris who barely grazed Carr’s facemask as he was putting on some heat.
The Broncos immediately answered on the first play of their next drive, as Lock executed a play-fake, then hit Jerry Jeudy open on a deep crossing route for 40 yards. The series threatened to stall after a penalty by left tackle Garett Bolles, but Lock on third-and-20 hit Jeudy for 14 yards, enough to set up a 49-yard field goal by McManus.
It was 7-3 Raiders halfway through the second quarter. After an exchange of possessions, the Raiders got the ball at their own 33 with 2:44 left in the half. That's when the Raiders tried to gift the game to the Broncos.
Jacobs dropped the ball while running. Just popped out of his hands. He had taken an escape lateral from Carr, who was under pressure, then started running upfield and lost the ball. Purcell came away with it and the Broncos were in business at the Raiders’ 41 yard line just as the clock reached the 2-minute warning.
Only problem, the Broncos' offense never seems to be in business. Withough a running game, the Broncos had to settle for a 55-yard McManus field goal that closed the score to, 7-6.
On the Raiders next play, Chubb made his best play of the season, intercepting the screen pass, returning it to the 1, where Williams easily took it in to give the Broncos a 13-7 lead at the intermission.
Rattled, the Raiders reverted to Woody Hayes football. They rushed 8 times for 62 yards on a 9-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half.
With the Broncos down 14-13 late in the third quarter, their defense came through with its third turnover of the game as Harris stripped sacked Carr. Dre'Mont Jones, back after missing last week's game with a foot injury, recovered and the Broncos had the ball at the Raiders' 42.
Eventually the Broncos had fourth and 3 with Broncos head coach Vic Fangio electing to send McManus out for a 55-yard field goal. McManus hooked it left, then waved his arms in disgust at his coach. McManus was later seen yelling angry words at Fangio on the sideline. McManus wanted wanted a quicker decision so he would have more time to set up for the kick.
Showing up the coach -- something McManus has done before -- does not have a team-bonding moment.
"They were late spot -- we weren't sure if it was fourth and 1, fourth and 2, fourth and 3 -- they were late putting the ball down,'' Fangio said. "It happened on the other sideline so it put a delay in the action. And then Brandon was a little upset that he didn't know whether or not to go out there. It was nothing anybody could do -- it was not his fault, not my fault. We didn't know the down and distance. If it was a yard or less, I was going to go for it. We had to wait for the spot.''
Carr was 20 of 25 for 201 yards.
Lock acquitted himself well, completing 15 of 22 for 153 yards. And no turnovers. He didn't get a ringing endorsement from his coach.
“I would say up and down, it's hard to say anything,'' Fangio said of Lock. "When you get 158 yards of offense and eight first downs, it's hard to say anything good about the offense.”
Lock didn't get it done on third down, where the Broncos converted only 1 of 10 chances. Still, his performance was pretty good considering the Broncos couldn’t get their running game going. Melvin Gordon III had minus-4 yards rushing on 7 attempts while Williams had 7 carries for 12 yards with the touchdown.
A combined 8 yards on 14 carries will quell any talk of a 1,000-1,000 season for the two backs.
Jeudy was having his best game in a while with three catches for 60 yards in the first half, although he had a drop near the end of the half and was shut down after the break. Courtland Sutton broke his 2 catch-or-less skid of 7 games by recording 4 receptions for 33 yards.
The Broncos play the Chargers in Los Angeles next Sunday before finishing off their season January 9 at home against the Chiefs. The viciousness of Bridgewater's head injury may make Lock the starter in those games.
"I’m thinking I’m the starter for next week, and I’m going to prepare like that unless I’m told different,” Lock said.
Broncos players will show up and play hard. They're pros. They get paid handsomely, and the check is the same whether or not there are playoff implications. The Broncos might even win one. They should be pretty good at it. This is the sixth consecutive season the Broncos will finish up without a playoff incentive.
“They are disappointed like we all are, but these guys are competitors and fighters,'' Fangio said. "We are going to do everything that we can to get that eighth win.”
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