DENVER — When Von Miller recovered a Geno Smith fumble with just over four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, it looked like the Broncos, trailing 23-9, might have had a chance to mount a late comeback.
At the very least, the offense could end a disappointing season on a high note after Miller forced a mistake by the Chargers' backup quarterback.
Instead, the Broncos needed 11 plays to gain just 35 yards. The final offensive play of the season was a misfire from Case Keenum on fourth-and-10, and the Chargers ran out the rest of the clock — and the rest of the Broncos' 2018 campaign — on their ensuing drive.
For the fourth consecutive week, the Broncos failed to surpass 20 points, leading to their fourth consecutive loss.
It was the end to a frustrating day. Denver forced four turnovers, but the offense scored just three points off them.
The raw yardage numbers suggested Denver should have won the game — or at least been in position to do so. The Broncos outgained the Chargers 370 yards to 276 yards, but the offense went 4-for-14 on third down and scored just nine points despite reaching Chargers territory on eight drives.
"We’ve got to do better than that," Keenum said Sunday. "The defense absolutely played their butts off tonight. ... Really, that’s unacceptable on our part. It’s on a lot of things. We’ve got to convert third downs, and we’ve got to punch it on when we get down there."
The Broncos averaged 20.6 points per game this season, among the bottom dozen teams in the league, and were often unable to capitalize after a stout Denver defense created opportunities.
"[The defense] played winning football all year," Head Coach Vance Joseph said. "We’re a top-10 scoring defense and that counts in this league. ... Obviously, we’ve got to find a way to score more points. In my press conference when I took the job, [I said] my goal was to [score] 28 points a game. That hasn’t happened. ... Even today, we played good defense. In a league that’s going to [score] points, you’ve got to score to win. If you don’t score, you can’t win. That’s the bottom line."
There's reason to expect improvement going forward, though. The next time Sunday's starting wide receivers — Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton — take the field, they will have had their first full NFL offseason under their belt. The same goes for rookie running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders — who led the team in receptions and receiving yards despite missing four games — could return from a torn Achilles.
The tight end position could be bolstered by healthy versions of Jake Butt, Troy Fumagalli and impending free agent Jeff Heuerman.
There could be other offseason moves — both in the draft and in free agency — to improve the unit as well.
But perhaps the most important offseason change could be the progress of Keenum as he heads into his second season in Denver. The veteran quarterback led four fourth-quarter game-winning drives this season and showed some positive signs, even as the offense had several key pieces go to injured reserve or miss significant time.
"I’m going to do better," Keenum said. "It was an incredible learning experience for me. It was a different situation as a quarterback than I’ve ever been put in. But I learned a lot this year. I grew a lot, and I look forward to really building on that in the years to come."