DENVER --The moment the football popped loose 5:29 into the second quarter, you knew the night was going to end badly for Ronnie Hillman.
You knew because you'd heard the no-uncertain terms mandate of Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase, who stood on a box after practice three days earlier and declared that fumbles were "unacceptable," his repetition of the term clearly putting the entire offense on notice, his tone more forceful and urgent than had been the norm for his question-and-answer sessions.
"He kind of eased into it, but you know that it is and he was right," Hillman said. "Turnovers, especially when they result in a touchdown, are bad for the offense, and it's poison."
You knew because Hillman, even in the second year of his career, was not much more of a known commodity than rookie Montee Ball, and both have experience levels that pale next to Knowshon Moreno, whose body of work, ability to diagnose and pick up blitzes and experience make him a comfortable option the Broncos know they can trust -- even though his name is listed on the third line of the depth chart.
"When you put the ball on the ground and you have guys like Montee and Knowshon running the ball as well as they did tonight and Lance (Ball) -- it kind of affects your competition," Hillman said. "Those guys did a great job today. It's unacceptable, what I did, and I just have to work on it."
That Hillman's second fumble in as many games happened via a splendid strip from Alec Ogletree, who made the play when Cortland Finnegan held up the second-year running back, wasn't going to matter much. Nothing torpedoes a running back's reputation like fumbles, and Hillman's had directly accounted for 14 points against the Broncos -- and in the case of his fumble at Seattle a week earlier, it cost them seven.
Had Hillman not fumbled, his night would have been defined by decisive cuts through gaping holes, and a 5.7-yards-per-carry average that will satisfy anyone. Instead the football flying loose was his final act; the rest of the first-team snaps belonged to Ball and Moreno. Ball wasn't perfect; although he did well in pass protection, he dropped a catchable pass in the left flat that undercut the Broncos' march to a potential touchdown, forcing them to settle for a field goal.
But after some early jitters, Ball was the authoritative, pounding back that the Broncos saw on the game tapes from the University of Wisconsin. He gained just three yards on his first six carries, then racked up 40 on his next eight, including a 1-yard touchdown that saw him plow through Rams linebacker Josh Hull as he barged up the middle for the score. Moreno was even more efficient; he averaged 6.6 yards on his five carries, and led the Broncos with 75 yards from scrimmage -- five more than Ball -- on just eight touches.
They made their statements for the job -- and being competitors, each wants to be the primary part of any platoon that exists.
"That's my goal, just to be the featured back the Broncos need," said Ball. "We have a healthy competition in our running back room so we're going to see who steps up to the plate."
A crestfallen Hillman knew that despite his best early efforts, his final touch of the football would be the one that defined his night -- even though Head Coach John Fox said he still had "great confidence" in him. The boss's words will help ease the pain, but won't take it away, and no one understands that better than Ball.
"That's the worst, just mentally it digs in your head all day just because it's one of the easiest things to correct," Ball said. "But it's all mentality. It messes with you."
It didn't take long for Ball to seek out Hillman and reassure him. The two are competitors for the job, but are friends and teammates first.
"Let the best man win. We're grown men; we understand that," Ball said. "But once you see a man's head go down, you want to bring him back up.
"I said, 'Once it happens, there's nothing you can do about it now. The best thing you can think about now is to make people forget about it and keep playing and do everything you can right.'"
Forget it and keep playing. That seemed to encapsulate the entire offense's performance from start to finish Saturday.
Moving at a breakneck speed and running 49 plays in the first half, it was capable of hitting trans-warp drive -- and in fact moved faster than the up-tempo Patriots did in Week 5 of the 2012 season. In the first half, the Broncos ran one play every 24.04 seconds it held the ball; last year, the Patriots ran one snap per 24.15 seconds of clock time elapsed.
But the fumble by Hillman, the bobble by Ball and interceptions thrown by Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler also demonstrated how such an efficient machine could be short-circuited by a few faulty nuts and bolts deep within the engine. That was the case in Seattle, when two fumbles and an end-zone interception cost the Broncos between 17 and 21 points, and gave the Seahawks seven more of their own.
If not for the giveaways in Seattle, the Broncos would have been in the game until the end. If not for the same kind of mistakes Saturday, the game wouldn't have been close.
Of the giveaways, Manning's interception was the least worrisome, and he admitted he might not have thrown the pass in another situation.
"I'm not sure I wouldn't have thrown it 99 out of 100 times," Manning said. "I thought my decision to throw the ball was a good one. The ball might have been just a tad behind Julius Thomas. But, (Ogletree) made a pretty good play."
Osweiler's fourth-quarter interception was his second in the last two games. So was his fumble on an exchange with center Steve Vallos. But, as was the case for Hillman, there were positives to which he could point: a touchdown drive, decisive steps up in the pocket under pressure from the edges and smart checkdowns to the running backs.
For the entire offense, there will be a tomorrow, and chances to ensure that what kept the offense from utterly overwhelming the offense won't be repeated. But for Hillman, who was in the thick of arguably the most competitive position on offense, there's no guarantee that the will offer the same chance as the present, not with Ball and Moreno charging fast and successfully platooning on the possessions that followed.
But in recent years, Moreno proved that you can overcome moments like this and lead the pack again. Over the last two years, he's passed the test that the offense did Saturday; both overcame mistakes and eventually flourished. Hillman, with time, can do the same.
"(I can) just use it as a tool to get better, prevent this from happening again," Hillman said.
And if he does, he won't have another night that ends like this one.