OAKLAND, Calif. — Joe Flacco threw his first touchdown as a Bronco on Monday, and the score came on a near-perfect back-shoulder throw to Emmanuel Sanders in the right corner of the end zone.
Sanders, who burst off the line of scrimmage in his first regular-season game since suffering an Achilles injury, ran a precise route and then sealed off the defender.
In short, the play was likely everything the Broncos imagined when they traded for Flacco this offseason. It was indefensible, and it was badly needed.
But it came far too late.
By the time Flacco found Sanders for the score, the Broncos were nearly out of time in their 24-16 “Monday Night Football” loss to the Oakland Raiders.
And though they converted on that red-zone trip, it was the only time they would manage to score a touchdown in four red-zone opportunities.
In a game where the Broncos were shut out until the third quarter yet still had a chance late in the fourth, those missed red-zone chances proved too much to overcome.
“I didn’t see much that was good, obviously,” said Head Coach Vic Fangio of his team’s red-zone efficiency. “We didn’t make plays down there. I’ll have to look at the tape to see exactly for sure, but that was really a big difference in the game despite everything else. They scored touchdowns, and we didn’t.”
The Broncos didn’t lack explosive plays on Monday night. In fact, they had seven plays of at least 20 yards, three more than the Raiders. But for every Courtland Sutton catch, there was a back-breaking penalty. And for every Emmanuel Sanders reception, there was a costly sack.
“Obviously when you come in somewhere and you let them get a tackle for loss on the first play, they’re going to have some emotion,” said Joe Flacco, referencing the game’s first play. “The crowd’s going to play into that and all those things. But I really do feel like even on a couple of those drives, we got some things going. … We just weren’t able to put it together. We were a little sloppy in how we executed.”
Ultimately, that meant the Broncos settled for field goals instead of touchdowns. And because the Raiders scored touchdowns on three of their four possessions, it meant the Broncos settled for a loss instead of a win.
Perhaps what makes the inefficiency difficult to rationalize is that the Broncos seemed poised to score a touchdown on each of their first three red-zone possessions. And because Denver never trailed by more than two scores, a touchdown in any of those situations could have made a massive difference.
On their first possession of the third quarter, Flacco found Sutton for 24 yards and Noah Fant for 20 yards. Three consecutive runs then pushed the ball to the Oakland 6-yard line. But Denver wouldn’t get any closer. Royce Freeman rushed for no gain on first down and Flacco threw incomplete on second down before being sacked on third down.
After an Oakland three-and-out, Denver got the ball back and used a 26-yard Freeman run and 15-yard personal foul penalty to move the ball to the 13-yard line. Lindsay picked up 5 yards on first down, but DaeSean Hamilton dropped a pass in the end zone on third down.
“He knows he should make it,” Fangio said. “Nobody feels worse about it than he does, and he’ll make the next one."
Added Flacco: “I know how he feels about, but we’re a team and those things happen. That’s not why we lost the game. I have all the faith in DaeSean to do the right thing and catch the football.”
Then, trailing 21-6, Flacco hit Sanders for a 53-yard gain that could’ve gone for more.
“Even on the big play, I felt like I should’ve scored a touchdown,” Sanders said. “I felt like there were several plays I left out there. I feel like I let this team down. Am I wrong to say that? No. I put a lot of pressure on my shoulders to go out and perform each and every Sunday. I’ve got to get better, we’ve got to get better. Hopefully we don’t repeat the same performance against Chicago.”
On third-and-2 from the Oakland 14-yard line, Flacco was sacked and the Broncos again chose to kick a field goal.
Only on their final opportunity did Flacco and Sanders connect for a red-zone score. And though it gave the Broncos a sliver of a chance, it was simply too little too late.
“I could tell Emmanuel was a little frustrated as the game was going on, but games are long and you never know when it’s going to be your opportunity to step up and make some catches,” Flacco said. "I was happy to get him the ball in those situations and give ourselves a last little shot. Wish we would’ve been able to get some things done earlier, to put some pressure on them and help our team out, but it was good in that situation. We were still playing.”
In any football game, It’s difficult — and perhaps unwise — to boil the outcome down to a single factor.
Monday’s game was no different. There were game-changing penalties, near turnovers and mistakes from all three phases.
But as the Broncos head back to Denver with an 0-1 record and a short week before they host the Chicago Bears, it’s difficult not to focus on the red-zone inefficiency.
Because for as bad as it was at times, there was still the promise of what may have been.
“As ugly as it was for us in the first half, we fought really hard,” Flacco said. “But at the end of the day it ended up being [that] they were able to score when they had the ball down there and keep the momentum of the drive — and we weren’t.”