LAS VEGAS — As the Broncos walked off the field following a season-ending loss to the Raiders, the team's disappointment was palpable.
"I thought we'd rush the ball better, and I thought we would certainly defend better than we did," Head Coach Sean Payton said in the moments after the 27-14 defeat. "That's the thing that was disappointing."
Added safety Justin Simmons: "It hurts, and it hurts the way that we lost today. We didn't play well enough on defense to even give us a chance to win that game. It stinks. It's a bitter feeling."
And yet, as the Broncos closed the 2023 campaign with an 8-9 record, they still believed in the foundation they built for what comes next.
"You are what your record is in our league," Payton said. "That's just the truth. Like I said, you're disappointed. Not discouraged, but disappointed, because you do have an expectation. And then we go from there. We begin this offseason, which is going to involve a lot of work.
"… This isn't the industry to get discouraged. It would've been real easy to get discouraged with the start of the season. No one said this was going to be easy."
Cornerback Pat Surtain II acknowledged the Broncos didn't have "the finish that we wanted," but he also recognized the positives the Broncos could take from a 2023 season in which Denver rebounded from a 1-5 start to win seven of their final 11 games.
"We moved a step forward this year — obviously winning more games than we did last year — but we still have a lot to work on," Surtain said. "That's the main key going into the offseason."
The Broncos' Week 18 loss seemed to reflect the team's season, as Denver posted some highlight plays and yet also struggled in several areas. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham connected with wide receiver Jerry Jeudy for a first-half 24-yard touchdown and a 47-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter to set up another touchdown. Stidham, though, was sacked five times and hit 11 — and the Broncos managed just 48 rushing yards on 20 carries. Defensively, the Broncos allowed a 99-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes of the first half that pushed Las Vegas' lead to double-digits, and the Raiders became the first division opponent to score more than 19 points against Denver this season.
Though Simmons admitted Sunday's game got away from the Broncos, he said for the Broncos to take the next step, they need to find a way to secure "a better batting average" in close games. In 2023, the Broncos posted a 5-4 record in such games. That record includes both wins over the playoff-bound Bills and Packers and losses to the three-win Patriots and four-win Commanders.
"There are a lot of great things that we did this year," guard Quinn Meinerz added, "but at the end of the day it wasn't good enough."
Surtain, though, said the Broncos' belief remains strong heading into the offseason.
"Sean brought in that winning culture," Surtain said. "His resume speaks for itself. We've got the utmost belief in him to lead this team to the promised land, and that's what we're looking forward to."
And while the Broncos weren't able to post a winning record for the first time since 2016, they still viewed the 2023 season as a launching pad for future success.
"I think it will be the start of a nice turnaround here," Simmons said of the end to the season. "There are a lot of things that were disappointing, but [I'm] not at all discouraged. I think there was a lot of positives to build on for next season, and I think next season's going to be a really great year for the Broncos."