KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- **There was no sudden end, no shock at the end of the Broncos' attempt to become the league's first repeat champions in over a decade.
Their fall happened over weeks. Sunday night's 33-10 defeat at Kansas City simply provided the final push off the stage for the 2016 season, and the defeat bore some of the same marks of previous losses during a 1-4 stretch that took them out of the playoffs.
"We didn't play well as a team," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said.
Sunday's loss resembled others in that the Broncos started slow and failed to generate a consistent ground game, which ensured that opposing defenses didn't have to play them honest and could attack Trevor Siemian and Denver's receivers with impunity. Giveaways were also a problem, and three fourth-quarter turnovers slammed the door shut on any comeback hopes.
The result cemented the cold fact of Week 17: It will be the Broncos' first week in six years without postseason hopes.
"The way we played today, we don't deserve to go to the playoffs," said Chris Harris Jr.
Despite massive disadvantages in first downs and total yards, the Broncos kept the Chiefs within shouting distance, not falling behind by three scores until the fourth quarter. But once again, they dug themselves a deep early hole, falling behind 21-7 in the first quarter and continuing a season-long pattern that has left them with a league-worst minus-61 first-quarter point differential.
"We just came out flat," said Harris. "We weren't ready for what they had for us, with No. 10 [Tyreek Hill] running the ball outside. We weren't ready at all."
Which leads to an obvious question that will be surely be a focal point as the Broncos pick up the pieces and move on to 2017 -- why? Why did the 2016 Broncos keep putting themselves behind at the start?
In three of their last four losses, the Broncos were behind by two scores before they finally got on the scoreboard -- 9-0 at home to Kansas City, 13-0 at Tennessee and 14-0 in Kansas City on Sunday.
"It's something that we've done every game, so it's starting to be our characteristic -- just coming out flat," Harris said. "I don't know what it is. I don't know if we've just got to change our schedule up or something. I don't know what it is, but we've been flat all season."
"Last year was kind of the same. We won those tight games. We had close games that we pulled out," Harris said. "And this year we lost those tight games. That was the difference."
Last year, the Broncos went 11-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer. This year, they went 2-3.
But their hopes of a sixth consecutive division title and playoff appearances ultimately died after the offense went into a December stall following the 30-27 overtime loss to Kansas City. In four December games, Denver's offense accounted for just three touchdowns -- two of which came on drives of just 6 and 39 yards.
The Broncos' three offensive touchdowns in December were the fewest in the league, and they were the only team that didn't average at least one touchdown per game this month.
"We're not playing well enough offensively. I'm responsible for that. I've got to do a better job," Kubiak said. "Obviously we're not getting enough out of our opportunities, so I take responsibility for that. We've all got to work on it, but I take responsibility for it."
And the quest to ensure 2017 is not a rerun of what became a maddening, frustrating 2016 season starts this week.
"Next week's all geared to next year and our football team moving forward," Kubiak said. "We need to move on to the next year."
And once and for all, the afterglow of a world championship is now gone, replaced by questions and reflection that go with a third-place finish that no one in the locker room expected.
"This is not last year, as you can see," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "We've got work to do."