DENVER -- In a ragged game that saw more turnovers between two teams than any other NFL contest this season, the Broncos concluded a frustrating season with a 23-9 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Broncos appeared to have momentum early with two first-quarter interceptions of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers – two of four takeaways they logged — but squandered it with miscues, including four turnovers, the most for the team since a 29-19 loss to the Kanas City Chiefs on Oct. 30, 2017.
So bizarre was the game at times that a single play resulted in two turnovers, beginning with a Case Keenum pass to Matt LaCosse at the goal line that skipped off the tight end's hands and into the grasp of Chargers safety Jahleel Addae. He promptly returned it 19 yards before right tackle Jared Veldheer knocked the football loose, allowing guard Elijah Wilkinson to recover at the Los Angeles 20-yard line.
The Broncos ended up salvaging a field goal from the drive -- and those three points were the only ones the Broncos extracted from their four takeaways in a game that encapsulated all of the struggles that mounted during a season-ending four-game losing streak.
Denver's stalwart defense held the Chargers to just 14 points -- seven of which came on a 16-yard drive that followed a Tim Patrick fumble in the third quarter. But it was far from enough on a day when the other phases immolated themselves in mistakes.
"Once again it was a close game and we couldn’t close," safety Justin Simmons said. "It’s the story of our season."
Beyond the four giveaways and an inability to capitalize off Chargers mistakes, why did the Broncos lose?
Because everything went wrong on a single drive
The game was still scoreless midway through the second quarter, but the offense showed some life on a drive that began at Denver's 20-yard line. It got out of a first-down holding penalty against Billy Turner that put them back in first-and-20 at their 25, using a 5-yard pass to Royce Freeman and 7- and 9-yard tosses to DaeSean Hamilton to keep the drive alive.
For a brief moment, it looked as if the burst would result in a touchdown, as Devontae Booker galloped off left end for a 54-yard score on the next play. But back upfield, four penalty flags rested on the grass, the result of two holding calls -- both of which made Booker's sprint possible. The Chargers declined the penalty against Tim Patrick, but accepted the infraction against Garett Bolles, and the Broncos were in second-and-20.
That became first-and-30 after Bolles dragged Joey Bosa to the ground, resulting in another holding penalty. Then, on first-and-30, a bad drive bypassed "worse" and went to "damaging" when Freeman could not field Keenum's lateral. Since the ball did not go forward, it was a fumble, and Los Angeles' Kyle Emanuel pounced on it and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. The score put the Chargers in front to stay.
Denver committed 11 penalties for 99 yards in the game, but none were more damaging than these, as they destroyed a promising drive that briefly looked like it could put the Broncos in front for the first time in two weeks.
Because a two-point conversion try went awry
The worst-case scenario on a two-point conversion happened for the Broncos with 10:10 remaining in the game, when Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. intercepted Keenum's attempt to Courtland Sutton, returning it the length of the field for two points that effectively served as a four-point swing, turning a potential three-point deficit (14-11) into a seven-point hole (16-9).
"We were trying to throw a fade ball to Courtland, and I’ve just got to put it a little higher, a little more outside," Keenum said. "I tried to just muscle it in there and [Hayward] made a great play. It was a tough play."
The play turned momentum to the Chargers once and for all. Los Angeles marched 75 yards in six plays on the ensuing possession, putting together a drive that netted more yards than their previous four series combined. Running back Austin Ekeler provided the primary thrust with a 41-yard run, and then finished the job with a 1-yard touchdown.
Because receivers couldn't haul in two potential touchdowns
Early in the second quarter, Denver drove into Los Angeles territory, and with third-and-6 at the Chargers 44-yard line, Keenum found Sutton streaking down the left sideline and led him perfectly, but the ball sailed through his arms and fell incomplete, forcing the Broncos to punt.
Two possessions later, the Broncos had their best drive of the first half, marching 84 yards to the Los Angeles 6-yard line, with the primary thrust coming on a leaping 44-yard grab by wide receiver River Cracraft. But on first-and-goal, Hamilton could not reel in a pass from Keenum in the right flat.
Two plays later, Keenum looked for LaCosse in the end zone, but the ball bounced off his hands, leading to the aforementioned interception and fumble. Denver salvaged a field goal from the sequence, but it kept the Broncos behind in a game in which the Chargers never trailed.
#LACvsDEN: In-game photos
Photos from Broncos photographers from the Broncos' Week 17 game against the Chargers.
Denver Broncos action during the NFL game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Broncos Stadium at Mile High in Denver, Colorado, December 30, 2018.
Photo by Gabriel Christus