NASHVILLE, Tenn. --Three issues that have plagued the Broncos lingered into their trip to Nissan Stadium on Sunday, and that was enough to doom them to a 13-10 loss that knocked the Broncos back into a tie for the final playoff position.
The Broncos struggled to run, failed to contain the Titans on the ground and got off to a slow start, falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter and 13-0 at halftime.
"It's really disappointing," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said. "We played really poorly in the first quarter. We missed two third-downs-and-six-inches."
Denver's running game struggled early. Starter Devontae Booker missed a blitz pickup on the first series, forcing Trevor Siemian to take a sack that led to a three-and-out. Newcomer Justin Forsett, claimed off waivers from the Lions last Monday, fumbled on his first carry, setting up the Titans for a field goal that put the Broncos into a two-score deficit that they would not narrow until the final quarter.
Denver had one last shot to tie the game in the final moments, but Avery Williamson stripped the football loose from A.J. Derby. Daimion Stafford recovered the loose ball at the Denver 40-yard line with 53 seconds remaining, ending Denver's hopes.
A look back at how the three keys to the game impacted the final outcome:
1. UNCLOG THE OFFENSE
It took a while -- and ultimately the offense's late revival was too little, too late to overcome a 13-point deficit.
The Broncos' third-down woes from last week continued, as Denver failed to convert any of its first six third-down attempts, stretching the skein that dated back to last week to 17.
In the second half, the Broncos finally got their offense going. On their second possession of the third quarter, the Broncos marched 69 yards to the Tennessee 4-yard line, but fell short on downs in goal-to-go. Denver's next two drives ended in a touchdown and a field goal, aided by good field position on drives that started at the Tennessee 26 and the Denver 45.
With 4:42 remaining, Bennie Fowler had a potential touchdown in his hands; with an extra point, it could have given the Broncos their first lead of the game. But the pass skipped off his hands and fell incomplete; two plays later, the Broncos settled for a 34-yard Brandon McManus field goal that represented their final points of the day.
"Poor start, really poor start," Siemian said. "At the end, if you have a chance to win it, you can't ask to be in better position after the way the first half went. We had our chances down the stretch and we didn't make the plays, but the start sure as heck didn't help us."
2. TAKE AWAY THE RUN FIRST
At this, the Broncos failed. Propelled by a consistently strong push off the snap by its offensive line, Tennessee ran early, often and downhill, gashing the Broncos for 180 yards on 42 carries.
The defense tightened up after halftime and was able to get off the field; prior to three game-ending kneeldowns, the Titans averaged 3.46 yards per carry in the second half -- 1.85 yards lower than their first-half average. Just two of their second-half runs moved the chains after nine of 26 first-half carries resulted in first downs.
"Defensively, we're struggling with the run," Kubiak said.
The Broncos surged back in the second half but dropped a 13-10 decision in Nashville to the Tennessee Titans. (Photos by Eric Bakke, unless noted)
- BRING DOWN MARIOTA**
The Broncos didn't have many chances to sack Mariota, as Tennessee ran early and often, but Shane Ray and DeMarcus Ware each got to Mariota once for sack, which cost the Titans 15 yards of field position.
Because of the sacks, Tennessee mustered just 47 yards from their first 20 pass plays -- including a Murray attempt to Mariota via a halfback pass.
But when the Titans needed an explosive pass play, they got it. With 3:37 remaining, Mariota found Rishard Matthews up the left sideline for 26 yards, moving the Titans into Denver territory in the final moments.
That allowed Tennessee's Brett Kern to drop a punt at the Denver 2-yard line, putting the Broncos in poor field position from which to start a final drive that ended with Derby's fumble.