The Broncos again nearly completed the impossible. And this time, it would've been even more impressive.
When Atlanta took a 34-13 lead with just over nine minutes to play, the Broncos' fourth-quarter heroics from a week ago seemed like an anomaly. Then Drew Lock led a seven-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that he capped with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Tim Patrick. The Broncos' defense forced a three-and-out that took just 31 seconds off the clock.
Aided by a 41-yard catch from Jerry Jeudy, the Broncos scored again. This time, they moved 82 yards in just five plays before Lock ran it in from 10 yards out to cut the lead to 34-27. Denver couldn't recover the onside kick, but a penalty on the Falcons stopped the clock after a third-down play, and the Broncos got the ball back at their own 20-yard line with 44 seconds to play.
Despite a litany of mistakes, Lock and the Broncos had a chance to earn a win. The final drive, though, was emblematic of the struggles they faced all day. On first down, Lock looked 20 yards down the field for Jeudy, who had the ball in his hands briefly before it was knocked away. Phillip Lindsay wasn't able to haul in a second-down pass that would've given Denver first-down yardage. On third down, Lock was nearly strip-sacked. Then, as the play clock ran down on fourth down, the Broncos failed to get set and Lloyd Cushenberry III's snap bounced off Tim Patrick, who was in motion behind the line. The Broncos recovered, but they turned the ball over on downs.
The comeback was dead, and the Falcons held on to a 34-27 lead.
"Everybody wants to be known for something, and we need to stop being known for coming back [from being] down three scores in the fourth quarter and almost winning a game," Lock said. "We are known as the team that comes out like they've been playing already for four quarters and do that in the first quarter. We didn't today, and we have to find a way to do that."
The Broncos' fourth-quarter rally masked several issues that cropped up during the game.
For the second consecutive week, the Broncos' offense managed just three first-half points as they went to the locker room trailing by 17 points. Denver was just 1-of-5 on third down in the first half and netted 112 total yards. Lock completed 7-of-14 passes for 98 yards as Denver punted three times on its first four possessions. The offense also had just one rushing yard in the first quarter.
On their first drive, Lock and Co. moved the ball to the Atlanta 41-yard line but chose to punt on fourth down rather than trot McManus out to attempt a 58-yard field goal. McManus is 5-of-6 from 50-plus yards this season, and he's hit from as far as 56 this season.
"I had a strong urge to try that," Fangio said. "I believe it would have been a 58 or 59-yarder. [Special Teams Coordinator] Tom [McMahon] talked me out of it and I had a strong enough urge that I wanted to think about it some more to the point where I did call a timeout."
For as poorly as the offense played in the first half, the defense may have hurt the team worse. Missing their top two cornerbacks in A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan, the Broncos allowed Atlanta to score on its first four possessions of the first half. Matt Ryan was 18-of-23 for 216 yards, two touchdowns and a 134.8 quarterback rating at the break, and the Broncos allowed Atlanta to convert six of its first seven third downs.
"We weren't making nearly as many plays, we weren't being competitive, we weren't challenging the routes," Justin Simmons said. "We knew coming in — we talked about it all week that their record [is not] indicative of how they play, especially on the offensive side of the ball. I know they're top five in passing and they can be way higher than that. Matt Ryan does a great job, obviously they were without [WR Calvin] Ridley today, but they do a great job offensively finding ways to get guys open in the passing game. We knew that coming in, especially in the secondary. We knew it was going to be a big game for us and we didn't compete nearly as much as we should have and could have. That was pretty much the biggest thing."
Even without Ridley available, the Falcons were able to spread the ball around. Julio Jones finished with just 55 yards, but Olamide Zaccheaus surpassed 100 yards on the day, a large bulk of which came on a 51-yard touchdown pass to push the lead to 10-0. Davontae Harris was in coverage on the play and was targeted frequently in the first half before he was benched in favor of Kevin Toliver II.
"It was a struggle, obviously I never did find the right combination there in the first half in particular," Fangio said. "We had some good pressures, but when we weren't pressuring and rushing with four to try and help the secondary, our pass rush wasn't good enough. And at times when we pressured, the coverage wasn't good enough. They're a really good offense with a great quarterback and a good group of receivers. Our pass defense — which the pass rush is part of — we struggled today."
Denver's defense settled down in the second half, allowing just 14 points, but the unit sacked Ryan just twice and failed to get pressure with just four players.
"I need to watch the tape in its totality," Fangio said. "Our pass defense wasn't good enough and that includes pass rush, that includes me making the calls, and we've got to do better."
And unlike a week ago, the Broncos were unable to capitalize when they had opportunities. On Ryan's touchdown pass to Zaccheaus, Malik Reed's outstretched fingertips nearly caused a forced fumble. Instead, the Falcons connected for the longest play of the afternoon. On the Falcons' first offensive play of the second half, Justin Simmons picked off Ryan to give the Broncos a chance to cut the lead to seven. Instead, Denver gave up a sack and went three-and-out.
"We obviously answered with that, and then the way it works is that it happens, our offense wasn't really able to do much with it and then it's right back out," Simmons said. "We've got to continue, we can't just think, 'Oh, one takeaway, we've done our job,' and then then rest of the game is on the offense. We've got to continuously push this if we're going to be in the position to win football games. There's that roller coaster of emotions that guys can go through but that's when leaders need to step up, nip that in the bud, and then we come back out here and keep doing the same thing and keep executing the way that a Broncos defense knows how to execute."
In the fourth quarter, the Broncos scored to cut the lead to 14, forced a Falcons punt and took over at their own 15-yard line. On first down, though, Lock drifted backward as he threw and was intercepted. The Falcons scored two plays later to retake a 21-point lead.
"I will throw that ball 10 times out of 10 to Jerry on that pick," Lock said. "I saw it and knew it was coming. The only guy that was going to be able to lock Jerry up on that route was either the safety, if I overthrew it, or the guy underneath, and there's no chance that he had the chance to guard Jerry on that one — zero, none. 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 go out in the front yard and work the acrobatic throws. That is what playing quarterback is like 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 to get it away or you're going to throw the ball, and I'm going to lean on throwing the ball because most of the time it's when our athletes are one on one, and Jerry was open. It's a throw I can make and it's a throw I should make. It's embarrassing I didn't."
The late comeback attempt swelled several stat lines. Lock finished 25-of-48 for 313 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Jeudy posted seven catches for 125 yards and a score. KJ Hamler recorded a career high six catches for 75 yards, and Patrick snagged his third touchdown of the season. The Broncos' offense, though, will need to sort out its first-half issues to find sustained success.
"If we didn't finish with a dub, it doesn't mean anything," Jeudy said.
Both Fangio and several players admitted that a COVID-disrupted week may have impacted their preparation. The Broncos did not practice on Wednesday, and they were relegated to virtual meetings as part of the team's intensive protocols.
"I don't know," Fangio said. "That's a real thing, I'm not going to deny it, but it's also a convenient excuse and we're not going to use it as an excuse. We've got to make do with what we've got available and play better."
Whether in person or not, the Broncos will need to find a solution quickly to remain in the playoff hunt. At 3-5, the Broncos likely need to finish the season 6-2 to have a shot at a wild-card berth. Lock said he's focused on getting back to 5-5 with impending games against the Raiders and Dolphins.
"It's difficult, and when you put it in your head, it's going to be difficult," Lock said. "We just have to take it one week at a time. Come out and win the next two, go five and five, and who knows. We just have to keep playing, man. That's all we can do. There's a lot of football left, and we just have to hit our stride earlier in these games. If you think about what we do in the second half — if we just try to do that a little bit in the first half and score maybe two touchdowns — one or two touchdowns, just get something done in the first half, and that has a lot to do with how I play, but if we can do that, we should put a lot of points on the board."
No matter who they play, they'll need to piece together a more complete game to find success.
Their late comeback attempt speaks to their talent. The fact that they needed it speaks to a larger issue.