DENVER — On a play-by-play sheet, the final 2:48 of Sunday’s game between the Bears and Broncos is 31 lines long.
Twenty plays. Four timeouts. Four penalties. One kickoff.
Two lead changes.
If it seems overly simplistic to boil down a 16-14 Broncos loss to those 31 lines, well, it may be.
But a stadium full of Broncos fans went from resigned to defeat, then guaranteed of victory and then crushed by the finality of a loss.
And there may be no better way to understand how it all happened than to examine each piece of the convoluted situation that left the Broncos sitting at 0-2.
First-and-10. 2:48 to play. Denver 38-yard line. Joe Flacco pass to Royce Freeman for 19 yards.
The Broncos were effective all afternoon at moving the ball to midfield. Of their eight previous drives, only one didn’t make it past the 50-yard line. But from there, they almost all stalled. Denver tallied just two field goals through the first 57 minutes and 12 seconds of game time.
Even when Freeman caught a 19-yard pass to open the Broncos’ final drive of the day, it remained uncertain whether Denver could capitalize.
First-and-10. 2:40 to play. Chicago 43-yard line. Flacco pass incomplete to Courtland Sutton.
Second-and-10. 2:34 to play. Chicago 43-yard line. Flacco pass incomplete to Freeman.
Third-and-10. 2:31 to play. Chicago 43-yard line. Flacco pass incomplete to Emmanuel Sanders.
The drive, it seemed, had stalled before it really started. For the first of several times in the ensuing minutes, the game was on the line. Either the Broncos would convert the fourth-and-10 ahead of them, or the game would be effectively over.
With 2:31 to play, Head Coach Vic Fangio used his final timeout. If the team didn’t convert, it wouldn’t matter much.
Fourth-and-10. 2:25 to play. Chicago 43-yard line. Flacco pass to Sutton for 10 yards.
Right at the line to gain, Sutton turned around and caught a comeback route. He needed every yard — and the spot that came along with those yards.
“Courtland is a good, young player that is a grinder,” Fangio said. “Tough guy, plays hard, very competitive. Really glad to be on the same team with him.”
The Broncos were still alive.
Despite entering the red zone just once all game, despite scoring just six points and despite falling behind by 10 points, the Broncos had a chance to win the ball game.
First-and-10. 2:00 to play. Chicago 33-yard line. Flacco pass to Freeman for 5 yards.
Second-and-5. 1:37 to play. Chicago 28-yard line. Flacco pass to DaeSean Hamilton for 9 yards.
Another first down. The Broncos were getting closer, and the Broncos fans were getting louder.
“We did a good job of moving the ball methodically,” Fangio said. “Albeit we need to find a way to make some more big plays offensively, but I thought Joe Flacco ran the operation really well. That’s a good defense he’s going against, and I don’t think he ever flinched. I think there’s things to build on there.”
First-and-10. 1:32 to play. Chicago 19-yard line. Flacco pass incomplete to Phillip Lindsay.
Second-and-10. 1:27 to play. Chicago 19-yard line. Flacco pass to Sanders for 7 yards.
Third-and-3. 1:07 to play. Chicago 12-yard line. Flacco pass incomplete to Lindsay.
Another fourth down. Another must-convert opportunity. The Broncos finished the game 3-of-14 on third down. Could they go 3-for-3 on fourth?
Fourth-and-3. 1:02 to play. Chicago 12-yard line. Flacco pass to Sutton for 5 yards.
They needed to — and they did.
First-and-goal. 37 seconds to play. Chicago 7-yard line. Flacco pass to Sanders for a touchdown.
This route — a throw to the back-right corner of the end zone — is where things really started to pick up. Sanders got two feet and a knee inbounds before he was pushed out, and the referees conferred for a moment before signaling touchdown.
“You guys know who Emmanuel is,” Flacco said. “His personality shines out there on the field. He’s a fighter until the very end.”
Down a point, the Broncos seemed destined for a Brandon McManus extra point and for overtime.
But then Fangio sent out his team for the two-point conversion attempt and for the win.
Delay of game. 5-yard penalty enforced on Denver.
The offense, though, wasn’t ready for the try. On the sideline, Fangio looked perturbed by the penalty and sent out his kicking team to attempt an extra point instead.
McManus extra point is no good. Wide right.
The Broncos, it seemed, would fall 13-12.
Offsides. Penalty enforced on Chicago.
The try would be repeated. And with the ball back at the 1-yard line, Fangio sent his offense back onto the field.
“We’re trying to win games, and if we have an opportunity to win a game with a two-point play at the end there, I’m always going to consider it,” Fangio said. “The circumstances always come into play, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to do it the next time. I was convinced it was the right decision this time.”
Two-point conversion attempt. Flacco pass to Sanders. Attempt succeeds.
Denver 14, Chicago 13
Good call, Coach.
“I expected to be out there,” Flacco said, “so we were ready for the moment.”
In the area surrounding the north end zone where Sanders caught the pass, the all-orange crowd erupted. The Broncos had won. They were 1-1. They had overcome a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit.
But the home crowd wouldn’t cheer again.
McManus kicks 65 yards from the Denver 35-yard line into the end zone. Touchback.
First-and-10. 31 seconds to play. Chicago 25-yard line. Mitchell Trubisky pass to Trey Burton for 5 yards.
Initially, the Bears’ first play of the drive seemed inconsequential. Five yards, with 31 seconds to play hardly seemed devastating to the Broncos’ hopes of finishing the comeback win.
But then, the referee explained the yellow flag laying on the field.
Roughing the passer. 15-yard penalty enforced on Denver.
Bradley Chubb applied the pressure — hitting Trubisky as he released the ball — and the referee deemed it too much.
“They called it roughing the passer, so that’s what it was,” Chubb said.
The penalty pushed the ball to the Chicago 45-yard line. A moderate gain would put the Bears in field-goal range.
“Obviously, the critical penalty at the end of the game there, the roughing call was huge because it stops the clock, saves their timeout and gives them 15 yards,” Fangio said. “I haven’t seen the play yet, but that was critical.”
First-and-10. 24 seconds to play. Chicago 45-yard line. Trubisky incomplete pass to Allen Robinson.
Second-and-10. 17 seconds to play. Chicago 45-yard line. Trubisky incomplete pass to Robinson.
Third-and-10. 13 seconds to play. Chicago 45-yard line. Trubisky incomplete pass to Tarik Cohen.
Fourth-and-10. Too many men in the huddle. Penalty enforced on Chicago.
If there ever was a time for the Broncos’ pass rush to come alive, it was this. Through two weeks, Chubb and Von Miller had accounted for zero sacks. They needed one here — and it didn’t come.
Fourth-and-15. Nine seconds to play. Chicago 40-yard line. Trubisky pass to Robinson for 25 yards.
“I feel like if I could do my job and get him on the ground, it wouldn’t have even been there,” Von Miller said. “It’s a double loss for me. Tough day.”
Chris Harris Jr. flew over to touch Robinson down, and both teams spilled onto the field.
“They had a man on the left side,” Harris said. “I saw a dude wide open. I didn’t see the clock. I just saw the dude wide open and I needed to get him down.”
The Broncos seemed to think the game was over, that the clock had hit 0:00. But the Bears argued a second should be put back on the clock — and the referees agreed.
“At the end of the day, the clock is at zero,” Derek Wolfe said. “Where does that one second come from?”
On a replay of that final offensive snap, Robinson appears to be down with one second remaining — but there is no angle of Bears head coach Matt Nagy calling a timeout.
It was awarded.
First-and-10. One second remaining. Denver 35-yard line. Eddy Piñeiro’s 53-yard field goal is good.
Chicago 16, Denver 14
On one side, joy. Pure, unfiltered joy. It just so happened to come from the visitors’ sideline.
On the other, the Broncos were shocked.
Sanders and Wolfe said they’d never been a part of a loss like that, and Chubb said he’d never been as upset after a football game.
But with Aaron Rodgers and the 2-0 Packers looming, the Broncos must find a way to move past the unlikely and unwelcome loss.
“When I walk in the building tomorrow, I’m going to have my head up just as high as I’ve always had it,” Flacco said. “Guys see that, and guys respond to that. If I walk into the building and guys see me with my head hanging down, hanging low, they’re going to say, ‘Oh yeah, I can feel sorry for myself too.’ And the next guy is going to see that guy, ‘Oh yeah, I think I should probably feel sorry for myself.’
“There’s no feeling sorry for yourself in the NFL.”