DENVER — The end result has not been good enough.
The Broncos' 7-10 record in 2021 is a far cry from where the organization hopes to be, and the key members of this year's team know that must change.
But on an afternoon where the Broncos led the two-time defending AFC champions in the fourth quarter, there were signs that the core pieces and the foundation of the team are strong.
With a depleted secondary, the Broncos largely held up against a Chiefs offense that has been among the league's best. Denver's offense regained its ability to run the football, and they churned out yards on the ground and picked up chunk plays through the air. Were it not for a fourth-quarter fumble that was returned for a touchdown, Denver may well have broken the now 13-game losing streak to its division rival.
"I'm just really proud of our players," Head Coach Vic Fangio said. "That's a team that may win it all. They've obviously won a lot of games in the last four or five years since Mahomes has taken over. Those guys went out there and fought them and competed with them, and we had a chance to win that game. Not winning it is the bottom line, and we didn't get it done, but I'm extremely proud of our players and proud to be associated with them."
And while the wins have not followed over the last several years, Fangio said he believes the foundation is in place for the Broncos to "close the gap" in the AFC West and return to the postseason.
"I think we — the whole organization — take pride in that," Fangio said of the foundation. "Is it what we want? Is it good enough? No. But you can't think the things we're doing well aren't good enough because other things aren't good enough. Those have to stay there. When you get good enough at other things, that's your foundation."
That foundation, which Fangio believes will help carry the team to wins in the future, was evident in the way the Broncos played despite having nothing to gain from a win on Saturday against a Chiefs team fighting for the first-overall seed in the AFC.
"[I'm] not proud of our record," Fangio said. "I know it's not good enough. I get it. But I'm proud to be associated with our players."
Those players also sense a foundation in place, and several of the team's leaders suggested a turnaround could be close at hand.
"I think the foundation is there," safety Justin Simmons said. "No one wants to hear that, but it is. You have to have that. When you have that and you have the right guys in the building, the right guys leading, the right guys following, from top down it just works. I really believe that's what we have going on. We have talented guys with Javonte [Williams], Pat [Surtain II], Quinn [Meinerz], Baron [Browning], and all of our first- and second-year guys — Jonas [Griffith]. What they did when they came in and played, [it was] plug and play. The way that they were able to perform most of the season, you can't tell me we don't have a good foundation moving forward.
"I'm thankful for those guys. They make it easy to come to work and to work with. I know it hasn't been easy on the winning perspective of things, but I know this is trending in the right direction, and that's why I keep reiterating that it's our job as leaders, myself obviously included — we have to find a way to continue to jell and make sure that foundation is there and win the close ones. That's what's going to get us over the hump. It's not always going to look pretty, but we have to win the close ones."
The question that follows isn't so difficult: With a strong foundation, how do the Broncos make the needed plays to win games and return to the postseason?
"I need to find ways to make a couple more plays here and there," Simmons said. "Help put guys in a better position to make plays here and there. We play in a tough division, but I like it like that. That's where greatness comes to fruition, comes to the surface. You play against guys like Justin Herbert, Derek Carr [and] Patrick Mahomes twice a year. You have to find ways, as a defense, to generate takeaways and win the game for your team. It's tough. My role as a leader is [that] you have to put more on your plate. ... The guys that are leaders on this team, that's what's demanded of you and that's what is expected. That's what I expect out of myself — I'm going to be my toughest critic. The success of this team will go as far as the players leading it. It's up to the leaders to do that."
When the calendar turns to the 2022 season, the Broncos will have a chance to capitalize on the pieces they have in place. For now, though, they're left with just potential — and the hope that brighter days are ahead.