DENVER -- After a fourth one-score loss in the last six weeks, the Broncos had few answers.
This one, a 19-17 defeat to the Houston Texans at Broncos Stadium at Mile High, was perhaps the toughest to swallow, coming on the heels of the previous three close losses. It also saw the Broncos have the game in their hands in the final moments, only to let a promising late drive slip away, just like in the Week 4 loss to Kansas City.
"I don't know, man. I don't know what to say no more," safety Will Parks said. "Just continue to work hard, continue to do all the things right to help you on the field. We've been in four close games [in recent weeks], and all have been losses.
"We've won close games too, so we know how to do it. We've just got to do that."
But those close wins over the Seahawks and Raiders in the first two weeks of the season seem a thousand miles away for the Broncos in the wake of a 1-6 stretch that places them at 3-6 heading into the bye. Since the NFL went to multiple wild-card teams for each conference in 1978, only four teams have overcome 3-6 records to make the playoffs.
"The [margin for] error is so small for our team. We can't mess up like we did today and have a chance to win," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "We've got to damn near play perfect, so we've got to figure out what we can do to eliminate those little mistakes that just kill us every game."
Why did the Broncos fall?
Because of a 6-point swing at the end of the first half
With 47 seconds remaining before halftime, the Broncos had the football, momentum and a chance to force a halftime deadlock. Quarterback Case Keenum had three consecutive completions for 31 yards, and a 15-yard unnecessary-roughness penalty gave the Broncos first-and-10 at the Houston 45-yard line with two timeouts remaining.
What followed was perhaps the most damaging sequence of the season to date. On first down, center Matt Paradis suffered a fractured fibula; he left the field on a cart and will be "out for a while," Head Coach Vance Joseph said. A 1-yard completion and an incompletion followed, leaving the Broncos with fourth-and-9 at the Houston 44-yard line with 27 seconds remaining.
The Broncos sent kicker Brandon McManus onto the field to attempt a 62-yard field goal. He missed wide right, which gave the Texans possession of the football at the Denver 48-yard line with two timeouts and 18 seconds remaining.
Deshaun Watson hit Ryan Griffin for 13 yards, and Houston used a timeout. Then he found DeAndre Hopkins for 7 yards, and the Texans called their final timeout. Ka'imi Fairbairn then drilled a 46-yard field goal to extend Houston's lead.
In a game that was ultimately decided by two points, that sequence was crucial in determining the outcome. Joseph accepted the blame.
"That's totally on me," Joseph said. "I'm trying to be greedy and get three more points there, and it cost us three. I get that."
Because the job on the final drive went unfinished
Everything was set up for Keenum and his receiving targets to be the heroes on the final drive. Together, they got the Broncos out of a first-and-25 hole created by a pair of penalties that knocked the Broncos back to their 28-yard line after Keenum had hit Heuerman for 11- and 5-yard receptions on third- and fourth-down plays to move the sticks and get the Broncos rolling.
From first-and-25, Keenum hit Tim Patrick for 17 yards. Then, with the Broncos facing fourth-and-8 after a pair of incompletions, Keenum connected with Emmanuel Sanders for 18 yards to the Houston 37-yard line. Another 5-yard pass to Heuerman got the Broncos to the Houston 32.
At that point, with the clock ticking down under 40 seconds the Broncos stood pat, huddling and running Phillip Lindsay up the middle for a 1-yard loss, setting Brandon McManus up for a 51-yard attempt.
"We were in range there and the time was ticking down, so we want to kick it in the middle for B-Mac," Joseph said. "Our line was the 35, we were there, so it was time to kick the ball."
Heading into Sunday, McManus was 9-of-13 from 50 to 53 yards, a 69.2 percent success rate that placed him in line with the league-wide average of 69.8 percent. But this was one of the kicks that he missed, and he sliced it wide right as time expired.
The misses from 62 and 51 yards were both "terrible" kicks, McManus said. But he did not lament the lost opportunity for more yards in the final minute of the game.
"Obviously, they got it down there and gave me a chance at it," he said. "I can't complain about anything like that."
Because the game's only turnover became six points
After turning the ball over five times in their last three games, Houston played it close to the vest, minimizing risk. The result was a game in which they had just one gain of 20 or more yards -- their lowest tally of the season -- but no giveaways.
Meanwhile, Devontae Booker's lost fumble in the second quarter set up Houston at the Denver 22-yard line. Three plays later, Watson found Hopkins for a 16-yard score that put the Texans in front 13-3 after Fairbairn missed the extra point.
"That should never happen," Harris said.
"We can't just give people easy touchdowns when they're double-teamed," he added. "We just can't do stuff like that. We've got to play smarter football and cleaner football. That's going to give us the best chance to win."
Houston is now 25-3 under current head coach Bill O'Brien when it wins the turnover battle.
The giveaway also ensured that Keenum's first game as a Bronco without an interception went for naught.
Because Watson escaped from pressure to keep a Houston drive alive
The Broncos had already sacked Watson four times when they cranked up the pressure on him deep in Houston territory on first-and-15 from the Texans' 5-yard line with 6:44 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Facing duress and a potential safety, Watson stepped forward and located running back Lamar Miller to his left. Miller sprinted forward for a 16-yard gain that not only got the Texans out of awful field position, but moved the chains.
Houston ran on its next four plays, moving the chains once more and advancing to its 40-yard line before a false-start penalty knocked them back five yards. They punted one snap later.
Instead of getting a quick three-and-out or a potential game-tying safety, the Broncos did not regain possession of the football until 3:29 remained -- three minutes and 15 seconds after the Watson-to-Miller connection.
Denver also began its drive with much worse field position -- at its 14-yard line -- that it could have expected if the defense had managed to prevent Watson's completion.
The Broncos sacked Watson four times for 21 yards in losses, but in a narrow defeat, it's the ones that got away that stick with you.
Photos from Broncos photographers from during the Broncos' Week 9 game against the Houston Texans.