SAN DIEGO --In a prime-time game played under the lights of Qualcomm Stadium, the Broncos nearly took themselves out of the game against the Chargers before the sun set over the nearby Pacific Ocean.
They pressed on and rallied and had a chance to come back, but for the second time in five days, they left too much to do and too little time to do it.
Once again, they fell behind 10-0. Once again, they trailed by three scores early in the fourth quarter. Once again, they marched downfield to scores that put them within an on-side kickoff of a last-gasp chance to tie the game.
Once again, the rally was ...
"Too little, too late," said quarterback Trevor Siemian after the 21-13 loss. "Too much to overcome."
It started with the Chargers marching 75 yards in 12 plays to a score on the first series of the game, ensuring that every offensive snap the Broncos have had in their last two games has come with a deficit.
The first-series woes have become a staple for the defense this year. In six games, opponents have scored on their first possession five times -- four touchdowns and a field goal. The only exception was at Tampa Bay ... when the Bucs scored on their second possession.
The Broncos have surrendered an average of 5.2 points per game-opening possession -- and then just 1.3 points per possession the rest of the game. They've also allowed touchdowns on 66.7 percent (4 of 6) of their opening possessions -- and 10.5 percent of the rest of them (6 touchdowns in 57 non-kneeldown series).
The work from the second possession onward will win you a title. The number from the first possession will get you the No. 1 pick.
With such a chasm separating their performance at the game's outset to the rest of it, it's fair to ask the question: Why are the Broncos so slow out of the blocks, especially on defense?
From Brandon Marshall's perspective, it's a matter of opposing game plans.
Thursday night, the Chargers bunched their targets and fanned them out at the snap on crosses and rub routes to defuse the Broncos' man-to-man-coverage, necessitating a split-second defensive adjustment that provided enough of a window for Philip Rivers to exploit repeatedly -- particularly to tight ends Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry.
"They run a lot of crossers and things to mess up man," interim head coach Joe DeCamillis said.
On the first two possessions, Gates, Henry and fullback Derek Watt combined for more than half of San Diego's yards (88 of 160) and first downs (five of 11). On the eight series that followed, the Chargers had just 105 yards, with those three combining for just 19 yards.
After falling behind early, the Broncos battled to regain the lead and their mojo on the road in the division, but came up short. (Photos by Eric Bakke unless noted)
"Every offense's first 15 plays are going to be scripted. I think that's when they showed the most unique things," said inside linebacker Brandon Marshall.
"After the first 15, I think we're doing a hell of a job, but they're scheming us well to start. I think we have to do a better job combatting that."
That's the logical cause of the slow starts for the defense. There's an emotional side, as well.
"Personally, I think it's just the lack of intensity coming out and starting the game," safety T.J. Ward said.
"I think it's more about effort on our part in that first drive," he added. "I think we're coming out too slow. We're not being aggressive and fiery enough, and teams are taking advantage of that."
Eventually, the defense found its footing; the Chargers averaged just 3.4 yards per play on their last eight series and mustered just three field goals from their possessions.
By the fourth quarter, the offense found its form, although, it, too, has been plagued by slow starts; it has just one score on its first series all season, and that was on an 11-yard drive set up by an interception.
"The one thing about this team is resilience. That was a staple of us last year, as well," Siemian said. "All the guys in that locker room, even that whole game, the sense was [that] we were going to figure it out and we were going to get this thing going and make a run at it."
But when you dig yourselves a hole, you leave no safety net when you try to climb out of it. And by the fourth quarter, that deficit had ballooned to 21-3, it means you can't afford to have a crushing three-snap sequence that included a holding penalty that wiped out a touchdown, a sack and a lost fumble.