INGLEWOOD, Calif. — There was a moment before kickoff when the Broncos' unlikely run to the playoffs seemed aided by a bit of fate.
Across the country, after Matthew Stafford led the Rams to a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, former Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller sacked Baltimore's quarterback to seal a victory for Los Angeles. The Rams' win was one of nine results the Broncos needed over the next two weeks to make an unlikely playoff run.
Six years after Miller helped guide the Broncos to a Super Bowl 50 title, it seemed fitting that a Miller sack helped Denver stay alive in the playoff race.
The Broncos' ensuing 34-13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, though, was a stark reminder of Denver's current reality. As the Broncos fell to their division rival, they were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
The loss, which was marked by untimely errors and an inability to capitalize on red-zone opportunities, solidified the Broncos' sixth consecutive season without a playoff berth and their fifth straight losing season.
"It's very disappointing," Head Coach Vic Fangio said of missing the playoffs. "We had three difficult losses prior to this one. All tight games against good teams. It's disappointing."
Denver closed the gap in 2021 compared to prior seasons; the Broncos were over .500 after 13 games for the first time since 2016. The Broncos held control of their own destiny — not needing to even win all four of its final games — before losing a string of three consecutive contests to the Bengals, Raiders and Chargers.
"There's a certain barrier that I've noticed that we just haven't gotten over," safety Justin Simmons said. "… When it comes down to it, you've got to find ways to win close games. There's going to be some games where things happen, the ball doesn't roll your way, whatever. But when the games that we have a chance to win, the close ones, those are the ones that matter. Now, at the end of the year, there's margin for a little bit of error, right? You put yourself in a corner like that and you don't find ways to win the close games, that's when things start getting out of hand. We've been in close games — obviously not today — but throughout most of the season. We just didn't win 'em. I'm saying all that to say we've got the talent. We just haven't put it all together."
The Broncos were just 1-4 in one-possession games in 2021, which dimmed their playoff hopes. On Sunday in Los Angeles, though, the short-handed Broncos — impacted by a slew of positive COVID cases — made too many mistakes to keep the game close.
They allowed two long kickoff returns, including a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. They gave up an opening-drive touchdown and a long touchdown pass to Mike Williams. They failed to score a touchdown on a pair of possessions — first on a gadget pass from Kendall Hinton to Drew Lock and then after an illegal formation penalty thwarted a fourth-down touchdown — inside the Los Angeles 5-yard line. And they scored just one offensive touchdown, which came late in the game, and again converted less than 30 percent of their third-down attempts.
"We can't seem to find a rhythm and a consistency in our offense to keep drives sustained, make first downs and eventually get touchdowns," Fangio said after the loss.
The Broncos remain 4-2 against the Chargers since the start of 2019 and 2-2 against Justin Herbert, but Sunday's game was a reminder that Denver must be better against its division opponents to return to the postseason. With a matchup remaining against the Chiefs to close the year, the Broncos are just 1-4 against division opponents this season.
"Obviously it's disappointing," said Brandon McManus, the lone holdover from Super Bowl 50. "It's what, six years now of missing the playoffs? When you lose a lot of division games, it doesn't help. That's what we've done the last few years. We gave ourselves a chance. We sat at 7-6. Obviously we didn't do enough to win enough games down the stretch here."
And for Drew Lock, that means a game with a 116.2 quarterback rating and no turnovers cannot be deemed a completed success.
"My No. 1 goal is to win a football game," Lock said. "Taking care of the ball and not winning the football game and a quarter will get you a donut. There's really not much that not winning the game gets you. I feel like personally my play has gotten better. I think I've showed strides in certain areas that I needed to show strides in, but doesn't mean much to me if we're not winning a football game."
In Lock's mind — and likely in the minds of so many others — that means 2021 was another disappointing campaign despite the strides that were made.
"In the NBA, you play to get to the playoffs," Lock said. "In the MLB, you play to get to the playoffs. In the NFL, the only thing that matters is the playoffs. It's disappointing. You can do really good things throughout the year, sure. But your main goal was to make it to the playoffs.
"… We didn't do what we wanted to do this year."