DENVER — For a few moments, the Broncos seemed destined to create some Mile High Magic.
On a field where the Broncos have won so many meaningful games, they appeared poised to add another highlight.
Despite the frightening loss of their starting quarterback, a sluggish early offensive performance and timely big plays from Cincinati's offense, the Broncos had a chance.
With 1:04 to play in the game, Drew Lock and Denver's offense had an opportunity to drive for a come-from-behind win in the fourth quarter that would've boosted their playoff odds.
But on a warm December afternoon, with the Broncos in the thick of the AFC playoff race, their postseason chances fell back to earth with the final fourth-down pass that fell harmlessly to the ground.
For the same players who characterized Sunday's game as a near must-win contest, that made the 15-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals more difficult to accept.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," safety Justin Simmons said. "We could've played better overall as a team. Defensively, the glaring thing for me was no takeaways. You can say what you want but we didn't get any takeaways. The formula for winning is playing complementary football and finding ways to set up your offense on a short field. We weren't able to do that. We did a lot of things well but that was one of them we didn't do well at all. It's tough to win like that and this one hurts. It just hurts."
Perhaps most difficult to stomach is that the outcome was not determined until the final moments. Despite their mistakes — and the Broncos certainly made their fair share — they had a chance to cap a comeback. At this time of the season, in the thick of the playoff race, Simmons noted that teams need to make those plays. Against the Bengals, the Broncos could not.
"In the NFL in the fourth quarter, one-score games, the good teams find ways to win those games, and we didn't find a way to win that game today," Simmons said. "I think that's what hurts the most is we played a really good Bengals team and we had a chance to win. We just couldn't get it done. So like I've been saying all season long, culture-wise is up to the leaders. You can spin that, you know, whichever way you want to, but it's up to the leaders to find a way to help us win games like that. That's what it comes down to. No one cares about anything else but winning those games."
In the first half, the Broncos' defense forced four three-and-outs and held the Bengals to just a field goal for the first 29:56 of play. And while the Broncos' offense punted four times in the opening frames, they tied the game at three early in the second quarter. Before halftime, Denver appeared poised to take the lead. After a methodical drive pushed the Broncos to the edge of field-goal range, Teddy Bridgewater's third-down pass fell incomplete. Brandon McManus, after knocking in a 54-yard field goal earlier in the game, missed the late 51-yard attempt. In a matter of moments, after Joe Burrow completed a 19-yard pass to Tyler Boyd, the Bengals found their way to the edge of field-goal range, and Evan McPherson set a franchise record with a 58-yard field goal.
"We called a timeout because we had one left, just wanted to see what the look was," Fangio said. "I probably should have had us in a better call there. That one could be on me."
Instead of taking a lead to the locker room, the Broncos trailed 6-3 at the break. Denver is now 0-7 this year in games in which it trails at halftime.
The Broncos punted again on their first drive after halftime, and they then lost their leader and their signal-caller on the next possession. On a second-and-5 play, Teddy Bridgewater scrambled forward and dove for a first down. He was hit as he laid out for the yardage, and he fell to the grass. For several minutes, Bridgewater laid on the grass, and the Broncos' medical staff moved him to a back board before carting him off the field. Fangio announced after the game that Bridgewater would remain in the hospital overnight for evaluation, but he noted that the team's quarterback was doing well.
"You know how much Teddy puts into it," Simmons said. "He's such a big voice in our locker room. It hurts. Obviously from a football standpoint, it hurts and as a leader but just from a friend. A guy that invests into you so much. It hurts to see he could finish out a game like today."
For the third time this season, Lock entered the game as a reserve — and it went far better than his earlier appearances. He guided the team down the field on his first possession, and he found Tim Patrick in the end zone for a 25-yard strike that gave the Broncos a 10-9 lead. In that moment, the Broncos seemed sure to remain in the playoff hunt. The Bengals, though, fired back quickly on the next drive, as Burrow found Boyd for a 56-yard score.
"They ran a play-action pass, and we got sucked up a little too much," Fangio said. "It was a really good play on their part, tough play for us to defend in that situation. Give them all the credit there."
The play was one of the few negative moments for a Broncos defense that continues to prove itself as one of the best in the league — and Simmons said he believed it changed the complexion of the game.
"It was just poor execution all around and when it comes to me, it doesn't matter how it happens, you have to get him down to get your defense to another play," Simmons said. "You hold them to three there, it's 12-10 instead of 15-10, and maybe that last minute and some change [seconds] drive at the end of the game for our offense changes things—play calling, execution. Those are the things I look at. I don't look at what happened in real-time, I look at what we could have done to help better the situation. That's what happened."
Still, the Broncos' offense would respond. On Denver's opening possession of the fourth quarter, the Broncos moved the ball all the way to the Bengals 9-yard line. And that's when the game changed.
On second-and-9, Lock kept the ball on a read-option play, and before he could tuck it away, Khalid Kareem wrestled the ball loose. It seemed at first that Lock was able to force Kareem into another fumble, but a replay review showed Kareem was down by contact. Instead of a go-ahead touchdown, the Broncos were left without points. After the game, Fangio said the play likely stemmed both from an impressive individual effort from Kareem and a bit of recklessness with the ball from Lock.
Lock later noted that he should have handed the ball off to Javonte Williams in the backfield.
The Bengals would not score again, as the Broncos' defense held strong. But Denver's offense could not muster the same magic. Lock misfired on a third-and-13 pass to Sutton with less than four minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and the team's last gasp effort with a minute to play only went backward.
"You're not going to win many games scoring 10 points," Fangio said. "We just never found any rhythm, especially in our passing game to get that going and to be more of a balanced offense. The run game kind of went the way I thought it would be, because they're good at defending the run. We had some good runs. Some that weren't good, but that was to be expected against that team. We just couldn't get the passing game going consistently enough to keep drives moving."
As of Sunday night, Fangio said he didn't yet have enough information to name Lock the starter for Week 16 in Las Vegas — but Lock made it clear that he knew how he would approach his role moving forward.
"It's Teddy's team," Lock said. "If they need me, I'm here."
In the wake of the loss — one that dropped the Broncos back to .500 at 7-7 on the season — they maintained that they would continue to fight while they still had a chance. Denver will need to win its final three games and get help from a number of AFC contenders to earn a wild-card spot, but Simmons wasn't willing to rule out a push.
"I know the percentages [of making the playoffs] drop — maybe even drastically," Simmons said. "By no means does that mean the last three games, especially divisional games, are we saying 'Let's just finish out these last three games and whatever' — no. If other teams lose and we win, we still have a shot. I don't know what it looks like. I don't know the percentages, but one thing I know about the group is nobody is going to put down and fold and point fingers — none of that. We're fortunate enough to play in this league, and we need to win. That's what it comes down to. No one is satisfied by any stretch of the imagination that we're playing in meaningful games in December. We want to win just as bad as everyone wants us to win. We want to win more than fans want us to win. We want to win. It just sucks when you play close games like this. You have to find a way to make it happen. … With three games left, we're sitting at a 1-2 division record, and we have to win these games."
With any luck, the Broncos will return to Empower Field at Mile High for a season finale meeting with the Chiefs that still has playoff ramifications.
"We're not out," Fangio said. "We're just going to strap it up, have another good week of preparation and get ready for the next game."
On that January afternoon, the Broncos will look to recapture some of the Mile High Magic that, at least on this Sunday, they couldn't quite find.