DENVER -- The Broncos lost more than a game Saturday when they fell 17-16 to the Cleveland Browns. They lost an 11-game winning streak against the Browns that dated back to 1991, a chance for their sixth winning season in the last seven years and, in all likelihood, any realistic chance at the playoffs, as their hopes now rest on winning their last two games and receiving a cornucopia of help from other results around the AFC.
Why did the Broncos fall?
Because the Broncos could not run on the Browns' stacked box
For a second consecutive week, a defense built its game plan around containing Phillip Lindsay, and for the second consecutive week, Lindsay and Royce Freeman struggled to find room to roam amid a thicket of defenders.
The rookie running backs combined for just 31 yards on 18 carries Saturday, with just two of their attempts moving the chains. That forced the Broncos into a short-pass-intensive game plan that worked early, but eventually stalled.
“They were going eight in the box. You all see it; everybody is there," Lindsay said. "It’s hard when you have eight in the box, we’ve got to come up with different things and that comes down to me and that comes down to the whole offense.
"We’ve got to make plays and that’s what it is."
The Broncos are now 0-6 this season when their running backs fail to combine for 100 rushing yards.
Because Keenum's streak of passes without an interception ended
Forced to emphasize their short passing game, Keenum found a groove after two three-and-outs to open the game, guiding the Broncos on drives of 88 and 61 yards to 10 points that put the Broncos in the lead.
Keenum seemed poised to add to that on the subsequent possession, guiding the Broncos to the 29-yard line. But after a pair of incompletions, Browns safety Jabrill Peppers intercepted his attempt to Courtland Sutton in the end zone, ending the Broncos' scoring threat.
The pick snapped his streak of 201 consecutive passes without an interception.
"Heck, when we’re in field-goal range, I’ve got to be more careful with the ball," Keenum said. "[I was] trying to give them a chance and the kid made a heck of a play, coming from the middle of the field, intercepting that one. I need to get that ball up and down a little bit sooner."
The first pick cost the Broncos points. But the second one was more damaging, coming early in the fourth quarter when the Broncos desperately needed their offense to mount a solid drive with their defense down to just one healthy and available cornerback in the wake of injuries and the ejection of Jamar Taylor.
T.J. Carrie's theft gave the Browns possession at the Denver 48-yard line, and forced the Broncos to use safeties Justin Simmons and Dymonte Thomas as two of their three cornerbacks in their sub package. Cleveland pounced, driving 48 yards in six plays to a 2-yard Baker Mayfield-to-Antonio Callaway touchdown past Simmons to take a lead they never relinquished.
"We were feeling good, wanted to take a shot, and they did a good job disguising the coverage," Keenum said. "They rolled to a different form of cover two, and I didn’t see the corner. It’s not an excuse, but it’s ultimately what lost us the football game because they went down and scored right after that.”
Because two potential game-winning drives stalled
Denver's offense fought back after Cleveland took the lead in the fourth quarter, marching into the red zone via double-digit gains on Keenum passes to Tim Patrick, Lindsay and DaeSean Hamilton.
But the Broncos advanced only to the Cleveland 6-yard line after their running game stalled, gaining 2 yards on back-to-back runs after having second-and-3. With 4:39 remaining, the Broncos settled for a 29-yard Brandon McManus field goal that whittled the Browns' edge to one point, but left the defense in need of a stop.
"I wanted points there," Head Coach Vance Joseph said. "We had about 4:35 to go in the game and we had one timeout and the two-minute warning. I trust our defense to get a stop there."
Denver's defense did eventually get the stop when defensive end Adam Gotsis engulfed Browns running back Nick Chubb for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1, giving the Broncos possession at their 13-yard line with 1:49 remaining and no timeouts.
Completions to Matt LaCosse, Hamilton and Devontae Booker moved the Broncos to midfield with just over one minute remaining, but with the clock ticking down, the Broncos opted to spike the football and stop the clock, leaving 52 seconds remaining but costing the Broncos a down.
The drive petered out from there, with a pair of incompletions -- including one forced by a Myles Garrett pass rush -- and, finally, an 11-yard sack by Peppers on fourth-and-10 that ended the Broncos' hopes of a comeback.
Because Cleveland bolted to a fast start
The hopes of putting Cleveland in a hole from which they couldn't recover evaporated in the wake of two three-and-outs by the offense that sandwiched a 51-yard sprint to Mayfield's first touchdown pass, a 31-yard strike to Breshad Perriman just 3:11 into the game.
Although Denver managed to stop the bleeding with a 13-play, 88-yard march to Keenum's game-tying 1-yard touchdown run, the Broncos' offensive inefficiency and the early punch dealt by Mayfield ensured that Cleveland, not Denver, would get the fast start that proved crucial.
Denver did manage to lead after three quarters, but Cleveland rallied for just their eighth win in the last 10 years when trailing going into the fourth quarter.
#CLEvsDEN: In-game photos
Photos from Broncos photographers from the Broncos' Week 15 game against the Browns.
Denver Broncos action against the Cleveland Browns during the game at Broncos Stadium at Mile High in Denver, Colorado, December 15, 2018.