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Nightmare before Christmas: Broncos suffer rare back-to-back losing seasons after falling to Raiders, 27-14

Bizarre, 99-yard punt return helped put Broncos in 17-0 halftime hole
Credit: USA TODAY Sports

Vance Joseph will wake up Christmas morning as head coach of the Denver Broncos. 

New Year's Day could be a different matter. Joseph coached hard, his players played hard and at times this season, his team played well.

But the NFL in general and the Broncos, in particular, are only about results, not the process.

Broncos quarterback Case Keenum started to play like Fran Tarkenton in the second half with his mad scrambles and touchdown passes to rookies DaeSean Hamilton and Courtland Sutton, but the Raiders still beat the Broncos, 27-14 on a wet Christmas Eve Monday in what was likely the final game in the infamous Black Hole.

The team appeared so lethargic early -- nothing suggests listlessness like getting caught napping on a 99-yard punt return against an opponent that started the day with a 3-11 record -- that you couldn't help but wonder if the players were distracted by the one-foot-in, one-foot-out speculation that Joseph will be let go after the team's final game Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers.

"No, I don't think so,'' said right tackle Jared Veldheer. "There's always outside noise wherever you are this time of year. I think all 32 teams always have something''

"No, coach, man, none of our jobs are guaranteed for next year,'' said defensive tackle Shelby Harris. "At the end of the day, they can clean everybody out of here. That's why you have to go out there and play like it's your last down, because it very well could be. You can't go out there and say we'll get it right next year. No, because your next year might never come.''

Credit: USA TODAY Sports

Falling behind, 17-0 at halftime, the Broncos have suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time 1971-72. That would be 47 and 46 years ago. The coaches then were Lou Saban and Jerry Smith in 1971; John Ralston in 1972. The quarterbacks were Steve Ramsey and Don Horn in '71; Charley Johnson and Ramsey in '72.

That was the end of a dubious, 13-season run of futilty when the Broncos never posted a winning season to begin the franchise's history. Never since have the Broncos been that bad. Until now.

"It's frustrating,'' Joseph said. "I thought our team maximized every game. Probably the Jets' game we didn't max out. We didn't play good enough football today, offensively. Defensively, we had our moments but we still gave up too many drives and didn't get enough stops so we didn't play winning football today.''

The Broncos were 5-11 last season in Joseph’s first year as head coach and although they reached 6-6 this year thanks to a three-game winning streak, they have since lost to the 49ers, Browns and Raiders.

The 6-9 Broncos will play a season finale Sunday against the 11-4 Los Angeles Chargers. The Raiders are 4-11.

"It's disappointing,'' Harris said. "We've got to beat the teams we were supposed to beat. Winning teams got to beat those teams. Nothing against those teams because they proved to us they're better than what their record is but that (stuff) just hurts. It hurts.'' 

The Broncos entered this game No. 13 in the 2019 draft order. The loss left them in a four-way tie for 10th, although the Broncos’ difficult strength of schedule may not improve their draft position much.

In some ways, Joseph can't be blamed for a struggling offense that has recently become talent-challenged because of injuries. The latest injury to Matt LaCosse left the Broncos starting Brian Parker, who at the start of training camp was their No. 5 tight end, The Broncos are also thin at receiver, where they no longer have long-time stalwarts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and along their offensive line, where three of their top seven blockers suffered season-ending injuries.

"We all want to play better,'' said Keenum, whose nice stat game was ruined when he threw two interceptions with nothing to lose on his final two possessions and his team down big. "I want to win for coach Joseph. We all love him. He's an incredible human and a great football coach. I want to play hard for him and I want to play hard for everybody in that locker room. That's a big part of our team and our identity in that we stay together and we love and like and respect each other and we want to fight for each other.

"But it's a production league. When you're not winning, it's tough.''

The Broncos had won three in a row to improve to 6-6, but successive season-ending injuries to Sanders and star cornerback Chris Harris Jr. seemed to demoralize the collective spirits.

"After Emmanuel and Chris got hurt it was tough,'' said linebacker Brandon Marshall. "Emmanuel was a playmaker on offense. Obviously, Chris was on defense, too, but it's tough to just go out there with the young boys and have a good passing game. They're just young. They're good. They're talented, They just need time.''

The Broncos fell behind 7-0 on what might have been the most unfair touchdown you’ll ever see. The Broncos’ Colby Wadman dropped a perfect 65-yard punt that landed on the soft, soggy turf and bounced down at the Raiders’ 1-yard line. Broncos’ gunners Andre Holmes and Isaac Yiadom kept the ball in play, with Yiadom sliding to hold the ball at the 1-yard line.

However, the officials ruled Yiadom had not controlled the ball enough to rule the ball down. Raiders’ returner Dwayne Harris, who initially let the ball go, retreated to pick up the batted ball, ran right, and suddenly found himself in an open spring down the right sideline.

The play was reviewed by Harris’ 99-yard fluke punt return for a touchdown held up.

"That was a bizarre play, obviously,'' Joseph said.

The Broncos had the ball for 12:20 of the 15-minute first quarter. The Broncos had 5 first downs after the first quarter while the Raiders had none.

Yet the Raiders were up 7-0.

And the dispirited Broncos went down 14-0 when the Raiders put together an 89-yard drive with their first possession of the second quarter. A ridiculously easy 28-yard touchdown run by Doug Martin on a simple off-tackle play finished the drive.

"I take fault for that second touchdown,'' Marshall said. "We had a blitz called and I called it the wrong way. We were supposed to have somebody on that edge. I take full responsibility for that one.'' 

Credit: Robert Reiners/Getty Images

At least Phillip Lindsay surpassed the 1,000-yard milestone. The undrafted rookie needed 9 yards coming in and had 46 yards on 10 carries late in the third quarter before he left the game with a right wrist injury.

Lindsay will have an MRI on Christmas morning, but the early diagnosis was he had a bad sprain -- he needed help fixing his collar and putting on his tie in the postgame locker room -- and was removed as a precaution.

If he can play next week, Lindsay can shoot for Dominic Rhodes’ NFL undrafted rookie record of 1,104 yards set with Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in 2001. Lindsay has 1,037 yards.

Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson, of Colorado Springs, drilled a 43-yard field goal with 19 seconds left in the first half to make it, 17-0. Brandon McManus’ 58-yard field goal on the last play of halftime was a couple yards short.

But Keenum, as he has all season, refused to give in and made it interesting. Thanks to his third quarter drive that started with a 26-yard completion to Tim Patrick and included a 17-yard scramble to convert a third-and-10, Keenum was 15 of 24 for 139 yards with the touchdown to Hamilton and no interceptions through three quarters.

He was 21 of 32 for 194 yards and 2 touchdowns after scrambling and throwing a 19-yard touchdown to Sutton with 7:31 remaining.

"Oh my goodness, he was playing his butt off,'' Veldheer said.

"We're playing as hard as we can and we're giving it everything we've got,'' Keenum said. "You should see those guys in the huddle, second half when we were going (hurry-up) tempo. ... They were giving it everything they've got. I love these guys, I love this locker room. I love playing hard, I love fighting and we've got a lot of fighters.''

Maybe, but for all that try hard effort, the Broncos are missing the playoffs for a third consecutive year.

"It's tough, especially being part of an organization that's so used to elite play,'' said Broncos' linebacker Von Miller, who didn't register a sack on Raiders' quarterback Derek Carr. "It's tough. It's the story of the season. We play tough. We play every game for our brothers and our coaches. We just came up short.''

Credit: USA TODAY Sports

BRONCO BITS

The Raiders were going to play one more season at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum before making the permanent move to Las Vegas in 2020. But the city of Oakland filed a lawsuit against the Raiders seeking payback from the $80 million in stadium upgrades. The lawsuit has Raiders owner Mark Davis looking to play elsewhere in 2019. ...

It rained off an on for about 3 hours prior to kickoff, but it didn't rain during the game. ...

The Broncos have played five consecutive games on the road on either Christmas Day or Christmas Eve since 2007, including three in the last three years. They are 0-5 in that stretch, losing by scores of 23-3 (at San Diego in 2007), 40-14 (at Buffalo, 2011), 33-10 (at Kansas City, 2016), 27-11 (at Washington, 2017) and now 27-14 -- a combined score of 150-52, or an average of 30-10. ...

Broncos receiver Andre Holmes will join Lindsay in the MRI line Wednesday. Holmes was limping on a sprained left ankle.