INGLEWOOD, Calif. — As the Broncos prepared for overtime, Justin Simmons gathered his teammates around him.
A chance to even their record at 3-3 and snap a five-game division losing streak hung in the balance.
"I pretty much just was saying, 'We can't leave here without a win,'" Simmons would say after the game.
And yet, despite a stifling defensive performance and a number of opportunities to put the game away, the Broncos indeed trudged away from SoFi Stadium with another defeat.
The final nail was a muffed punt that set the Chargers up for a 39-yard game-winning kick. It was the fourth field goal of the night by Dustin Hopkins, who battled a hamstring injury to push the Chargers to victory.
But the muffed punt, which resulted from P.J. Locke being blocked into Montrell Washington, was just the final error on a night during which the Broncos made too many mistakes.
After racing out to a 10-0 lead on the back of a 39-yard Greg Dulcich touchdown, the Broncos' offense struggled for much of the remainder the game. In the second quarter, the Broncos responded to a 15-play Chargers touchdown drive by going three-and-out.
Denver did add a field goal before halftime after Wilson found KJ Hamler deep down the field, but the Broncos would score just three points on its final seven drives of the game.
"This is very disappointing," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said after the loss. "We need to have a lot more urgency across the board. It starts with me as a coach, going to all the other coaches and then the players. Players need to be just more urgent. We had some opportunities there, and we've got to execute at a higher level. We've got to come up with some better plays."
After posting eight first downs in the first half, Denver tallied just five first downs in the second half and overtime — and the group went three-and-out on both of its overtime possessions.
"We could've been cleaner in the second half," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "I think the reality is, that's not good enough. We've got to be better. We've got to play sharper. We've got to find ways to make plays, we've got to find ways to continue to get first downs, touchdowns. It's a good football team out there, but we're just as good, if not better, we feel like. We've got to answer the call. Adversity is definitely challenging us right now, but the only way I know through it all is just continue to work hard, continue to believe. It felt like we should've won that game tonight. We've got to look at the film and see what we can do better."
After starting the game 10-for-10 for 116 yards and a touchdown, Wilson completed just five of his final 18 passes for 72 yards.
The Broncos' offensive struggles were only enhanced by the performance of Denver's defense. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert entered the game having thrown at least three touchdowns in his last three division games — and he'd tallied tossed seven touchdowns and no interceptions in two "Monday Night Football" appearances.
Against the Broncos, Herbert looked human. He completed 37 passes but averaged just 6.4 yard per completion, was sacked twice and threw an interception. His 66.3 quarterback rating was his lowest of the season, and he was held without a touchdown pass for only the second time in his career.
On three consecutive drives to end regulation and start overtime, the Chargers needed just a field goal to win the game. And on three consecutive drives, Denver's defense got a stop. The unit was foiled only by the muffed punt — and even in that situation, the defense did not allow the Chargers to pick up a first down.
"When you win, you find a way to win," Dre'Mont Jones said. "When you lose, you find a way to lose. Together, the team, we found a way to lose. Did a good job of sending it to overtime, but we didn't win. So it doesn't matter to me."
Denver, ultimately, could not find a way to turn dominant defensive play into a win. After a Baron Browning interception — and fumble and fumble recovery on the same play — in the third quarter, the Broncos' offense could not punch the ball in for a touchdown and settled for a 13-10 lead. The short field led to the Broncos' only points of the second half.
"These tough matchups, head-to-head matchups, you've got to have that knockout punch," Wilson said. "You've got to have those one or two plays. … We didn't have that tonight."
No matter how they view the issues that led to a loss, it's clear the Broncos must find some way to alter the trajectory of their season. As Simmons acknowledged after the game, the Broncos can't simply continue forward without adjustments.
"It starts with leadership, from a defensive standpoint, offensive standpoint, special teams," Simmons said. "Something's obviously not going right and we need to find a way to fix it. Everyone knows the definition of insanity, and we can't keep doing the same things week in and week out and think things are going to change."
And after three consecutive losses that have sent the Broncos tumbling from a 2-1 start to a 2-4 record, the urgency could not be higher with two games remaining before the bye week. Denver sits 1.5 games back of the seventh-seeded Colts in the wild-card race, and the Broncos currently hold a 1-3 conference record. Each of the Broncos' next two opponents sits above them in the standings, including the sixth-seeded Jets.
"The only thing that matters is us winning," Wilson said. "I'm not going to sugar coat it. The only thing that matters is us winning and finding a way. I've been through tough times before. I know we can come out on the other side. We've got too many good football players and guys who work their butts off every day, so we've got to make that happen. There's no excuse for it.
"We've got to find a way."