HOUSTON — The Broncos' latest attempt at late-game heroics fell just short in a 22-17 loss to the Houston Texans.
After trailing by 12 points in the early stages of the fourth quarter, the Broncos cut the lead to five points with 12:04 to play and then mounted a late-game drive that spanned nearly five minutes and ended with an end-zone interception.
Despite a pair of fourth-down conversions on the final drive, Denver was unable to convert on a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line as Russell Wilson's third-down attempt to Lucas Krull was picked off by Jimmie Ward.
"It's frustrating of course, but I still know that we have a lot of heart and a lot of confidence in this locker room, and guys know we can go out and compete with anybody," wide receiver Courtland Sutton said. "We had a chance. Guys went out there and played their butts off to give us a chance, and I think that shows the character in this locker room. It should give everyone … the confidence to know that moving forward we have a chance."
Denver, though, made a few too many mistakes to earn its sixth consecutive win.
"Obviously, [a] disappointing loss," Head Coach Sean Payton said. "I felt we were sloppy for most of the game. Obviously [on] third down, we struggled. I don't think we converted a third down offensively. We converted a fourth, maybe. … We'd been a team that's played well with the takeaways and the giveaways, but that script flipped today. We had three [turnovers]. We didn't get any. Gave up explosives. We'll look at this tape tomorrow. Look, it starts with us coaches, it starts with me. We've got to do a better job. Credit [Texans head coach] DeMeco [Ryans and] Houston.
"Those guys earned a hard-fought win. We didn't play our best football, and we're going to have to down the stretch here."
The Broncos punted on their first four possessions and trailed 13-0 before tacking on a field goal before the end of the half. The Texans' offense, meanwhile, posted a pair of passes of at least 52 yards in the first quarter and took a 10-0 lead after an unnecessary roughness penalty on Alex Singleton wiped out a fourth-and-7 and gave Houston a first down in the red zone.
In the second half, Denver followed a deep touchdown pass from Wilson to Sutton with a third-down Ja'Quan McMillian strip-sack, but the Broncos were unable to recover the fumble deep in Texans territory. On the Broncos' ensuing offensive snap, Wilson was intercepted on a deflected pass and the Texans scored five plays later to push the lead back to 12 points.
Wilson was also intercepted on the Broncos' first attempt at a fourth-quarter go-ahead drive, as Derek Stingley Jr. recorded his second interception of the afternoon with an impressive undercut of a Sutton route.
Denver's defense, though, forced four punts in the second half. The final stop came after a P.J. Locke tackle for loss and ensuing sack.
"That was significant," Payton said of the defense's improved second-half play. "We kind of rebounded from the slow start at the beginning of the game, but again, tough loss."
The double-digit deficit — which extended into the fourth quarter — was still too much for the Broncos to overcome. Denver's offense finished 0-of-11 on third down, and the team lost the turnover battle 3-0.
"I'll give it to our guys, we continued to battle," Payton said. "We just put ourselves in a little bit too big of a hole today."
Though the Broncos' offense posted a pair of second-half touchdown drives, tackle Mike McGlinchey said the Broncos' early struggles fell on the entire offensive unit.
"It was kind of a collective effort of all 11 of us on the offensive side of the ball needing to be better," McGlinchey said. "We're going to look at this film. We're going to learn and see all the missed [opportunities] that we had and see what we're truly capable of. I don't think we've even come close to touching that yet. We've got to clean it up fast, because we've got a run to make."
As the Broncos look to move forward at 6-6, they remain in the thick of the playoff hunt. And yet, they must find a way to capitalize on the opportunities that remain.
"With the way the season started and where we're at right now, the margin for error, obviously, is slim," Payton said. "And yet, man, we're playing for a lot. We're playing for a lot. I think [the players] know that."