INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Outmanned, but not outhustled, the Broncos were reminded yet again it’s best to not be outmanned.
The visiting Broncos were whipped by the Los Angeles Chargers, 34-13 here Sunday at gorgeous, two-year-old, mostly roof-enclosed SoFi Stadium. The loss eliminated the Broncos from the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season.
"It sucks,'' star safety Justin Simmons said for the fourth or fifth time following a defining loss this season. "It's tough, man. You put in so much work and then to go out there and have that type of performance, all around, is, you know it's tough. I don't know if I can put a word on it in terms of how guys are feeling. I don't mean to be short. But it sucks."
At 7-9 with one game to play, the Broncos are also assured of their fifth consecutive losing season. The Chargers improved to 9-7 and play the 9-7 Raiders in Las Vegas next week. The winner will capture an AFC wild card playoff spot.
"It's very disappointing,'' said head coach Vic Fangio, whose job status for next year will no doubt be discussed this week by Broncos' chief executive officer Joe Ellis and general manager George Paton. "We had three difficult losses prior to this one (against the Chiefs, Bengals and Raiders), all tight games against good teams. It's disappointing."
A 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Andre Roberts early in the fourth quarter -- his second long kickoff return of the day -- and a 45-yard touchdown heave from Chargers' quarterback Justin Herbert to Mike Williams put the Chargers up 34-6, iced the game and essentially doomed the Broncos season.
Broncos quarterback Drew Lock shook off a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the game for a series and threw a consolation, 5-yard touchdown pass to Noah Fant with 6:31 left in the game. The touchdown was set up by the first career NFL catch by rookie Seth Williams, who snagged a 34-yard reception in tight coverage.
PHOTOS | Broncos at Chargers
"Felt a little funny, I had had it happen to me before, just needed to get a little shot in it and come back out,'' Lock said, who was replaced by Brett Rypien for a series. Rypien threw two incompletions in a three-and-out possession. "No way was I going to stand on the sideline with what it was. Shoot it up and come back out and give it everything I've got."
The Broncos played without 12 players because of positive COVID-19 tests, including starters Bradley Chubb, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, Bobby Massie, Baron Browning, Bryce Callahan and Mike Purcell. They also played without starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and inside linebacker Kenny Young t o concussions, cornerback Ronald Darby to a shoulder injury and defensive lineman DeShawn Williams to a season-ending elbow injury. And starting left guard Dalton Risner left early in the game with an elbow injury.
The Broncos activated 10 practice squad players for the game against the Chargers, including Seth Williams. Defensive line coach Bill Kollar also stayed home with COVID.
"It was a weird week for us in general,'' said tight end Noah Fant, who had one of his better games with six catches for 92 yards and a touchdown. "We had 12 guys on the COVID list and didn't get a full-speed practice in where you put the pads on and maybe hit somebody. So it was a little strange coming into this week.
"Even with that we have the guys who can keep us in games and win games. It's really on us, honestly, to figure that out and make whatever adjustments necessary."
It’s no wonder the Chargers hit the Broncos quickly where it hurt most – on special teams and defense. Roberts, fresh off the COVID-19 list, ran the opening kickoff back 47 yards and the Chargers easily went 55 yards for a touchdown on their opening drive. Running back Austin Ekeler, of tiny Eaton, Colorado and Western Colorado, rushed for 4 times for 30 yards including the final 3 yards for a touchdown.
The Broncos moved the ball on their first drive but on fourth and 6 from the Chargers’ 44, Lock was sacked by Jerry Tillery for a 10-yard loss. Lock later left for a series with a shoulder injury.
There must have been a couple thousand Bronco fan no-shows for this road game against the Chargers. While the crowd was perhaps 25-30 percent Broncos fans, the percentage used to be greater in visiting Denver’s favor, whether the games were in San Diego or Carson.
The Chargers had a couple chances to blow the Broncos out early but Fangio’s disguised defensive coverage confused Chargers’ young star Justin Herbert. At least in the first half. The Chargers wound up with a fourth-and-goal at the 1 but their head coach Brandon Staley uncharacteristically settled for a 19-yard Dustin Hopkins field goal.
Staley must have thought little of the Broncos’ offense as he accepted the 10-0 lead early in the second quarter. His instinct was correct.
Later in the second half, the Chargers had a first-and-goal at the 1 opportunity, but the Denver D knocked them back and the Bolts again had to settle for a field goal.
So the fight was there. The ability to win was not.
But then Lock came out of the locker room and delivered the ultimate sandbag move by heaving a 44-yard completion to Courtland Sutton. Lock later hit Fant for 18 yards, setting up first and goal at the 2. But the Broncos couldn’t punch it in. Javonte Williams was stuff on two runs and on fourth and goal from the 2, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur dialed up the what the team called the Mile High Special this week during the team's walkthroughs.
It worked better when it was called the Philly Special.
Lock handed off to running back Mike Boone, who swept left and pitched back to receiver Kendall Hinton going right. Hinton was blitzed up the middle soon after he got the toss and his hurried throw to Lock on the right side was a little behind and short of the quarterback.
Lock did a nice job going back to catch the ball, but he didn’t have the momentum to beat the pursuing Chargers’ defenders. Chargers edge rush star Joey Bosa blasted Lock a yard short of the goal line and the Broncos turned it over on downs.
"Looking from my perspective, I thought Kendall did a heckuva job just being able to get the ball out,'' Lock said. "You bring two guys off that edge, they had a good call against it. ... Kendall did the best he could to get out and I tried to punch it in after catching it. It was a good call by them, good defensive by them.''
The Denver D held and forced a punt, but returner Diontae Spencer muffed it and the Chargers recovered on the Broncos’ side of the 50. It became fourth-and-2 at the 41 but Herbert slipped a flare pass to Ekeler, who ran 11 yards for the touchdown. The Chargers finished the drive when Herbert drilled an 8-yard slant pass to Keenan Allen with 14 seconds left in the half to go up 17-0.
The Broncos weren’t done trying though. Lock escaped a sack and fired a 24-yard completion to running back Melvin Gordon, who went out of bounds at the 49 with 6 seconds left. Lock hit Hinton across the middle for 8 yards and the Broncos used their final timeout.
Brandon McManus then booted a career-long, 61-yard field goal at the buzzer.
"I've probably kicked more 60 yarders in NFL history and hadn't made one, yet,'' McManus said. "So, it was good to finally make one knowing I had the capability to make that from that distance.''
Surprisingly, the Broncos struggled to run the ball for a second straight week in the first half. Gordon (10 carries, 43 yards) and Javonte Williams (14 carries, 30 yards) had more room to run in the second half, but still were below par for a second consecutive week. Lock was 18 of 25 for 225 yards with a touchdown, 116.2 rating and no interceptions for a second straight start.
Herbert was 22 of 31 for 237 yards and two touchdown passes for a 114.6 passer rating.
Down 20-3 to start the fourth quarter, the Broncos had fourth-and-goal at the 1 and Gordon appeared to walk into the end zone untouched. But the Broncos were flagged for illegal formation that backed them up 6 yards from scoring.
Fangio took the field goal to make it a two-score game, 20-6, but then Roberts returned the touchdown and the 11-point swing in a matter of seconds doomed the Broncos in the game, and finished them off from competing for the playoffs in the season.
"The second kick was a bad kick by me,'' McManus said of Roberts' touchdown return. "I was supposed to kick it to the right more and higher. ... a bad kick by me."
The Broncos conclude their season on Saturday at Empower Field at Mile High when they play the 11-5 Kansas City Chiefs at 2:30 p.m. Although the Chiefs have already clinched their sixth consecutive AFC West title, they may need to win the regular-season finale to surpass Tennessee for the No. 1 AFC playoff seed and first-week bye.
The Broncos, for a sixth consectuive year, have no playoff spot to play for in their final game.
Broncos podcast: Klis' Mike Drop
Denver Broncos headlines, game previews and interviews with our 9NEWS insider Mike Klis.
HOW TO LISTEN
> Top stories curated daily just for you! Sign up for the 9NEWSLETTER to get can’t-miss stories, Next and Broncos content, weather and more delivered right to your inbox.
SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Sports
MORE WAYS TO GET 9NEWS
Subscribe to our daily 9NEWSLETTER
HOW TO ADD THE 9NEWS APP TO YOUR STREAMING DEVICE
ROKU: add the channel from the ROKU store or by searching for KUSA.
For both Apple TV and Fire TV, search for "9news" to find the free app to add to your account. Another option for Fire TV is to have the app delivered directly to your Fire TV through Amazon.