DENVER — When the Broncos walked into Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday afternoon, the opportunities seemed nearly endless.
Despite a four-game skid earlier in the season, Denver entered Sunday's contest against the Eagles on a two-game win streak. Last week's win over the Dallas Cowboys seemed to change expectations for what was possible this season, and all that stood between the Broncos and a 6-4 record at the bye were the 3-6 Philadelphia Eagles.
In Sunday's 30-13 loss, the Broncos failed to meet that challenge.
The sting of the loss was only amplified late in the game, as the Minnesota Vikings knocked off the Los Angeles Chargers. With a Kansas City win over the Raiders, the 6-4 Broncos would have held a share of the division lead on Sunday night. Instead, Denver remains stuck in fourth place in the AFC West and lost ground in the wild-card race.
"We missed an opportunity completely," defensive lineman Dre'Mont Jones said. "We dropped the ball, like straight up. They were on a losing streak. We just saw the Chargers do what they did, and to come out there and we get our [expletive] kicked, 30-13, it hurts a little bit."
The Broncos' loss fell squarely on all sides of the ball, as the team made critical errors in each phase of the game.
Denver's offense went three-and-out on four occasions and scored just one touchdown. It wasn't for a lack of chances, as the Broncos had first-and-goal opportunities on three different possessions. After punching the ball in on their first opportunity, Denver couldn't convert on a first-and-goal from the 4-yard line on the next possession. Later in the game, Denver had a first-and-goal from the 10-yard line before moving backward. On that possession, which seemed to be a promising opportunity to cut into the Eagles' 10-point lead, the Broncos had their 22-yard field-goal attempt blocked.
In all, the Broncos would score a touchdown on just one of their five red-zone opportunities. Penalties plagued one of the chances, as the Broncos were whistled twice on the drive and had a 20-yard Javonte Williams touchdown called back.
"A couple of times it was just executing," tight end Albert Okwuegbunam said of the red-zone struggles. "It's [about] being better all around — everybody blocking their guys, finishing plays. Another time it was penalties. We mess ourselves up and hurt ourselves on offense. We didn't give ourselves a chance with the fumble and penalties, myself included. I had penalties in the red zone. That's where we can easily be better and not shoot ourselves in the foot."
The biggest error, though, came on fourth-and-1 with the third quarter winding to a close. As the Broncos went for it at the Philadelphia 23-yard line, Melvin Gordon III lost control of the football. Eagles cornerback Darius Slay picked the ball up, and after establishing possession, he weaved his way 83 yards for the game-altering score.
"I don't know quite what happened," Gordon said. "I have to go back and watch film. I thought I had it good, but fourth down with everybody crammed in there, you're better off to just put two hands on it and go get it. With Slay, we [were] trying to get the ball and he's a great player and he made a great play."
The Broncos, in a heavy formation with multiple tight ends, were unable to bring Slay down. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said he tried to force Slay back into the field of play, but he did not attempt a tackle of his own. Instead of potentially tying the game, Denver trailed by 14 points in a matter of moments.
"I'm just thinking maybe I can force the ball back inside and one of our guys will make the tackle," Bridgewater said.
The offense, working without Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur, had a hard time establishing a rhythm — the team was just 1-of-11 on third down — and ultimately could not keep pace.
"I think [Quarterbacks Coach] Mike [Shula], as a whole, did well," Fangio said of the Broncos' fill-in play-caller. "It was kind of a weird game for him calling plays. In the first half, we weren't playing good enough defense. We had that big play to Albert. It wasn't like we had chances. We went three-and-out. We were never able to get into a flow offensively from a play-calling standpoint. That's not a knock on Mike. That's kind of how the game went. But I think Mike did a good job."
They needed more production, because the Broncos' defense struggled to contain Jalen Hurts and the Eagles' offense. Philadelphia's zone-read offense found success against a rushing defense that has struggled at times this season. The Eagles recorded 214 rushing yards, which was the highest total Denver had allowed this season.
"We just had a hard time stopping them in the first half with a combination of Hurts on the [shot]gun-run game and [running back Jordan] Howard," Fangio said. "Then they made a play deep against us for a big one. We struggled stopping their run, obviously. They've been running it well against most everybody they've played. We've struggled to stop the run consistently this year. I was worried about that coming into the game, and that proved itself out. Hurts scrambling hurt us in the first half. When we rushed four, we weren't getting enough, and when we rushed more than that, we had some success, and other times we didn't."
When Hurts did throw the ball, he was effective. The second-year player completed 15-of-20 passes for 176 yards, two touchdowns and a 134.6 quarterback rating in the first half. Both scores went to rookie DeVonta Smith, who made a spectacular play in the first quarter against his college teammate Pat Surtain II to give the Eagles an early lead.
Safety Justin Simmons did record a critical third-quarter interception with the Eagles leading by a touchdown, but the Broncos would fail to capitalize, with Slay scoring his touchdown to thwart the ensuing Denver drive.
Denver's special teams allowed a momentum-shifting play, as well. The blocked field goal wasn't the most critical moment of the game, but it left the Broncos with nothing after a promising drive.
"I don't think we were solid in our technique between the tight end and the wing on that side," Fangio said.
Now, as the Broncos move past this lost opportunity, they'll try to find a way to re-capture the magic they found in Dallas.
"We've got to learn from this and come back and be ready to play," Fangio said. "[We have to] take each day one day at a time and play each game one game at a time moving forward. But ultimately, we've got to learn from it, fix what's fixable from a learning standpoint, and move forward. We've got to get past this. We've have seven big games left, and we need to take each one of them as its own entity."
With five division games after the bye week, Denver can remain in the thick of the AFC West race. The team knows, though, that it must be better at nearly every level.
"It sucks, man," Simmons said. "We set ourselves up in prime position to hit this bye on a hot streak — going into the bye with a win and then close out our season with divisional games, with the exception of I think maybe two. The reality is, just like last week, we'll watch this film — and I'm speaking defensively. ... It's going to be a hard [watch] — you have to look yourself in the mirror [and know there's] some plays you should've made. We have to fix it. By no means is the season over. We still have a lot of ball left, and the bye is coming at a good time. Some guys are banged up. We'll get them back healthy.
"There's no excuses. We have to close this season out the right way."