The Broncos nearly found a little more fourth-quarter magic.
After falling behind 16-3 with 14:50 to play in the final frame, the Broncos unleashed another furious rally that rivaled their 21-point output in a Week 8 comeback against the Chargers.
On the shoulders of three fourth-quarter scoring drives and a pair of three-and-outs on defense, Denver tied the game at 16 with 2:42 to play. And even after the Chargers scored to take the lead with 41 seconds to play, the Broncos had their chances to force overtime.
Their Hail Mary was not answered, though, and the hopes for a second double-digit comeback fell short. In the end, the Broncos were simply left with one question from Sunday's game.
How do you marry the excitement of a potential comeback with the disappointment of again falling behind?
"I think that reflects well on the team — their effort, their toughness, their resiliency — but [we've] got to start making the plays and not do the things that cause you to lose a game like that," Head Coach Vic Fangio said. "[We] can't give up an opening kickoff where they return it deep into our end for a field goal. We got to make our field goals. We got to catch the ball when it's thrown to us. We got to throw the ball more accurately at times. We got to play receivers tighter, no matter who's playing corner and not just play scared. We've got to tackle when we have the opportunity to tackle. We've got to do all the things that winning teams do, but I'm proud of the guys we have. I'm proud of their effort, their toughness and their resilience, but we've got to do things better."
As Fangio mentioned, the Broncos had a litany of opportunities on which they failed to capitalize — and they started early.
After beginning the game with a 14-play, 71-yard drive that moved the Broncos from their own 13-yard line to the LA 16-yard line in just under eight minutes, Drew Lock made an ill-advised throw behind DaeSean Hamilton that was deflected and picked off by Casey Hayward Jr. Add in the interception from Lock's end-of-game Hail Mary, and Lock has thrown 15 interceptions this season. He's turned the ball over in every game but one.
"You can't throw red-zone interceptions, especially one that there really wasn't much there or [you] throw it sloppily out there," Fangio said. "If you try and hammer one in there and the defense makes a great play that's one thing, but if you make a bad choice, that's another thing."
Fangio said Lock's performance — a "lot" of good and some bad — was a "microcosm" of his season.
Lock said after the game that it was one of those plays that he has "to get out" of his system, and he did largely avoid mistakes for the rest of the game.
Brandon McManus' missed 37-yard field goal on the Broncos' next possession created another empty trip to the red zone.
Later in the first half, Jerry Jeudy dropped a pair of critical passes and had another drop in the end zone later in the game.
In all, the Broncos had the ball seven times in Chargers territory, racked up nearly 400 yards of offense, recorded 23 first downs — and scored just one touchdown.
"We've got to come up with points when you get into the other team's territory, and obviously we didn't do a good job of that today," Fangio said.
Defensively, the Broncos allowed just one touchdown, which came early in the second quarter. Fangio wasn't pleased with De'Vante Bausby's tackling, though, which led to Parnell Motley taking his spot.
"I didn't like the way Bausby was tackling — or not tackling," Fangio said. "I took him out earlier in the game, he begged for another chance, I gave it to him, and then he totally flagged on another tackle in the second half. So, the chance went out. I thought Motley came in and competed — he again played too soft there on the last drive. But for the amount of preparation he had and for where he's at in his career and just being here a couple days, I thought he went in there and competed and tried his best."
That last drive was perhaps the defense's worst, as the Broncos responded to tieing the game at 16 by allowing rushes of 11 yards and 23 yards to Austin Ekeler.
"Yeah, the first call we were in a coverage to help the corners and they ran it and squirted it out of there for 11 yards," Fangio said, "and then I believe on the second one we made an adjustment — we lined up incorrectly and the ball cut back there and then he steam-carried us for a few extra yards there at the end."
Dre'Mont Jones recorded a sack on the Chargers' final third down to give Denver a chance, but a missed throw by Lock and a drop by Jeudy forced the Broncos to try for a deep Hail Mary.
It came within a couple of yards of the end zone before being picked off. It was close, as were the Broncos.
And unlike the team's electric Week 8 win, this time that wasn't quite good enough.