CHARLOTTE — For weeks, the Broncos have suffered agonizing, one-score losses.
Again and again, Denver has been close to success and seen it slip away in the final moments.
That wasn't the case on Sunday against the Panthers.
Yet while the Broncos' eighth loss of the season wasn't particularly close, it was still just as painful.
Denver suffered its largest defeat of the season, as the previously 3-8 Panthers earned a 23-10 win. The Broncos had not trailed by more than 10 points all season, but a third-quarter Carolina touchdown pushed the lead to 14 points — and only a late touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Brandon Johnson cut the deficit from 20 points to the final margin.
"When you lose, you're always upset, and we have to be better," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "… In the end, we've all got to be better. It starts with me. We've got to be better, and we've got to find a way to win some of these games."
The Broncos leave Charlotte with a 3-8 record, matching their poorest start since the 2019 season. They've also lost seven of eight games for the first time since 2017, when Denver suffered an eight-game losing streak and lost nine of 10 contests.
"We've got to get the losing out of our system," Wilson said. "Winning is a habit; losing can be too. We've got to make sure we have winning habits throughout the process, not just throughout the week, but throughout the whole game."
As has been the case for much of the season, the Broncos' offense struggled to gain momentum. The Broncos had -1 net passing yards until the late stages of the first half, they turned the ball over near the red zone and were 4-of-14 on third down.
Denver finished with just 125 net passing yards and has now failed to score more than 10 points in four of their 11 games this season.
The struggles were particularly evident in the third quarter, as the Broncos ran 12 plays and posted just 24 yards and one first down. Hackett said Denver scripted the opening plays of the second half to try to find more success, and yet they were left without points on all three of their possessions.
"They didn't work well," Hackett said. "We've got to find better ones. We've got to find a way to come out in the second half and have an opportunity to move the ball some."
But, as Wilson said after the game, the struggles go beyond the third frame.
"We've got to be better in every quarter," Wilson said. "It's not just the third quarter. From here on out, that's got to be our mentality. First quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter. There's so many moments in there. We've got to capitalize on those moments. It's not just one particular moment. It's the whole game. The whole game's got to matter. Every play's got to matter. Every moment, we've got to be in-tune. There's going to be tough times. There's going to be ebbs and flows like any other game; it's sports. There's going to be ebbs and flows throughout the game. We've got to learn how to overcome those ebbs and flows. We've got to learn how to overcome the tough times, and when something doesn't work out or whatever it is, how do we capture that? That's what we're searching for. That's what we're trying to learn."
On a day when Wilson should have been able to celebrate a career milestone — his touchdown pass was the 300th of his career, tying John Elway — he instead was left with the reality of a loss.
"I'd rather win than anything else," Wilson said. "At the end of the day, the only record I really care about is winning. So we've got to find a way."
Defensively, the Broncos weren't their dominant selves, either. They allowed a pair of touchdown drives of at least 70 yards, and they allowed D'Onta Foreman to run for more than 100 yards.
Cornerback Pat Surtain II, who has been perhaps the Broncos' best player this season, allowed his second touchdown of the season and also gave up a 52-yard reception to D.J. Moore that set up a fourth-quarter field goal that put the Panthers up by 17 points.
"We didn't play good enough to win today," safety Justin Simmons said. "We didn't stop the run. When it was time to stop the explosives, we didn't do that defensively. There's no way you're going to win games like that."
And as the Broncos move forward, they know that sort of performance cannot be the standard.
"It's unacceptable — bottom line," Wilson said. "This organization, this tradition here, everything else — we've got to honor it. We've got to honor it by winning."