DENVER — As Russell Wilson's last-ditch Hail Mary attempt settled into Brandon Johnson's arms, it seemed the Broncos had done the unthinkable.
For a moment, it appeared that despite relinquishing an 18-point first-half lead, the Broncos would still have a chance to scrape out a win and even their record at 1-1.
It wasn't to be.
As the ball fell to the grass on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt, so too did Denver's hope of winning its first game of the season.
And yet, as a slew of players said inside the Broncos' locker room following a 35-33 defeat at the hands of the Washington Commanders, Denver should never have found itself in that position.
"There's no way that that game should have ever come down to that and where we needed a miracle to get it done," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "We just let this game slip away."
The result should not have been in question after scoring touchdowns on three consecutive drives to start a game for the first time since 2010.
Or after sacking Sam Howell — making his first career road start — three times in the first three drives and holding Washington to three points until the late stages of the first half.
Or certainly after holding a 21-3 lead and facing a second-and-5 at the Washington 35-yard line.
A Russell Wilson fumble two plays later, though, gave Washington a spark.
"The number one key in this game with [Washington], and we looked at it — …every one of their games last year where they didn't have a takeaway, they lost the game," Head Coach Sean Payton said. "We give them the ball at midfield, and that momentum shifts at that point with the fumble."
Howell and the Commanders offense scored a touchdown and notched a two-point conversion to cut the lead to 10 points. Then, following an unsuccessful two-minute drive, Washington got the ball back in time to tack on a 49-yard field goal before the break and cut the halftime lead to 21-14.
A quick Denver three-and-out to start the second half preceded another Washington score, and the Broncos faced a tie game just minutes after leading by nearly 20 points.
"I think that was a big transition moment in terms of just [during the] two-minute drive, we didn't really get anything going right before the half, unfortunately," Wilson said. "Then coming out in the second half, we get the ball, they made a few good plays and the next thing you know, it's three-and-out. That was a point swing there."
Denver briefly retook the lead on a 31-yard field goal late in the third quarter, but Washington responded with a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
Washington — which added another touchdown drive on its ensuing possession — finished three-of-three in the red zone and scored touchdowns on three of its first four drives of the second half.
"I thought we were poor," Payton said of the defensive performance. "We didn't help them with the field position, with the turnover, but our red-zone defense was poor. First-down defense — we're not fitting certain pressures. We have to look at how much do we have in, defensively, [the] same way [as the offense]. I didn't think we played well, and we're going to see a lot better offenses than that. I think in the second half, I didn't like the rushing numbers that I thought we played well with in the first half, if that makes sense."
Denver gave itself a chance late, but the team couldn't quite rebound from a stretch in which its offense went scoreless on five-of-six drives and its defense struggled against Howell and Co.
"I don't think we were sound enough, I don't think we were composed enough when things were going wrong, because you can't let that linger for as long as we did in this football game," McGlinchey said of the offense. "We started way too good. We had them on the ropes right from the jump and we stalled, and we stalled way too long. That's just not OK."
As a result, the Broncos allowed perhaps a statement win to become the biggest lead they've lost at home since 1995.
"There aren't going to be a lot of people that are on our bandwagon," wide receiver Courtland Sutton said. "I'm pretty sure you can put on any of the … ESPN shows. They're going to be talking bad about what we did and what we need to improve on. … It's on us."
Yet while history has not looked kindly on 0-2 teams — just one of 23 teams to start 0-2 has made the postseason since the playoffs expanded in 2020 — the Broncos have no alternative other than to keep pressing forward.
"I get it, and I get that we're going to write and talk about it," Payton said. "I can't change that we're 0-2, but I can certainly change how we approach the next game and prepare to play the third game.
"That's all we can do."