DENVER — Two kicks may have made the difference in a two-point, 19-17 loss to the Houston Texans.
The first — a 62-yarder — came as the clock wound down in the first half. The Broncos, trailing 13-10, pushed the ball to the Houston 44-yard line before the drive stalled.
With 22 seconds to play before the break, Head Coach Vance Joseph had a decision to make.
Option A: Send kicker Brandon McManus out for a 62-yard field goal. Though the fifth-year player has a career-long of 57 yards, he's shown coaches in practice that he can make longer kicks.
Option B: Send punter Colby Wadman out for a punt to pin the Texans deep in their own side of the field.
Joseph and the Broncos elected to try to tie the game with the hopes of grabbing an extra score before getting the ball after halftime.
"That's one of the reasons you defer, is so you can have [a] two-minute drive, score some points and then come out right after halftime and score more points before their offense is ever on the field," quarterback Case Keenum said. "You can double up, get 10, 14 points without them even seeing the field. There were two situations we got on the fringe, kind of the high red area where we're almost in field-goal range. And one of [the drives] I take a sack and a couple others, it's just poor management, poor decision making on my part. I want to go back and look at what I could've done better in those situations."
In this situation, McManus pushed the kick wide, and the Texans took over on Denver's 48-yard line with 18 seconds to play. Deshaun Watson completed two quick passes before Ka'imi Fairbairn trotted on to attempt a 46-yard kick.
He missed the first attempt, but the Texans were saved by a Denver timeout. Fairbairn then made his second attempt.
"[Before the] half, that's totally on me," Joseph said. "I'm trying to be greedy and get three more points there, and it cost us three. I get that."
The Broncos nearly made that miss irrelevant. On the final drive of the game, Keenum and the Denver offense converted two fourth downs — including a fourth-and-8 that resulted in an 18-yard gain — to move the ball to the Houston 37-yard line with 43 seconds to play.
But the Broncos wouldn't get much closer to the end zone. On first-and-10, Keenum found Jeff Heuerman for 5 yards and the Broncos then allowed nearly 30 seconds to tick away before handing the ball off to Phillip Lindsay, who lost a yard centering the ball for a McManus attempt.
Joseph said once the Broncos got the ball within McManus' range, they were focused on setting him up for the kick, rather than take a chance downfield.
"We were in range there, and the time was ticking down, so we wanted to get it to the middle for B-Mac," Joseph said. "Our line was the 35[-yard line], so we were there. So it was time to kick the ball."
McManus missed the 51-yard attempt to finish the game 1-for-3 on field-goal attempts.
When Keenum addressed the media after the loss, he hadn't yet talked to Joseph or Bill Musgrave about the calls in the situation.
Keenum did say, though, that he looked to take a shot down the field before checking the ball down to Heuerman on first down.
"You'd have to talk to Bill, [Vance Joseph]," Keenum said after the game. "I think we had our line that we wanted to get to, to make sure we got there. The play after the fourth-and-8, we had a shot called, but they gave us something underneath, and I wanted to take the yards when I [got] the chance. You'd have to talk to those guys about the operation and what they wanted to do. I haven't talked to them about it yet. We haven't debriefed on it yet."
Von Miller referenced the series after the game, saying the Broncos could've put McManus in a better situation to succeed, but Denver's kicker didn't fault the time management as the game wound down.
"Obviously, they got it down there and gave me a chance at it," McManus said. "Like I said, I can't complain about anything like that."
McManus also dismissed the possibility of a poor snap or a swirling wind at field level. More to blame, McManus said, was his own effort at two kicks that loomed large in a one-possession game.
"Both kicks, the 62-yarder and the [51-yarder] were both terrible kicks by me," McManus said. "I didn't even give them a chance. Like I said, it's tough for these guys to fight so hard and just to have two terrible kicks and not even give myself a chance to make them."
Though the Broncos certainly had other chances, the 51-yarder was their last. And as the kick again moved to the right, it left only questions of "what if?" and a sixth Denver loss.