DENVER -- Well, that was a kick in the gut. And the face. And in the pants.
With a chance to keep their season relevant, the Broncos found a new way to churn their heart in a blender. Brandon McManus missed wide right on a 51-yard field goal as time expired, sending the Broncos to an excruciating 19-17 defeat at chilly Mile High Stadium.
"Bad kicks. Terrible kicks. The guys gave me a chance to win the game, and I was terrible," said McManus, who offered no excuses for the snap or the wind. "It sucks because you come into the game kicking pretty well, and I didn't give us a chance. I let these guys down."
Trailing on the final drive, quarterback Case Keenum converted a pair of fourth downs on completions to Emmanuel Sanders and Jeff Heuerman. However, with 20 second remaining, the Broncos ran the ball up the middle, leaving a serious degree of difficulty for McManus. The Texans iced him, and he hustled over to the sideline and kicked into the net. He entered the field to a loud roar, known for his clutch kicks, dating to the Super Bowl 50 season.
This one wasn't close. He hit it right, and it never moved, sending the Texans, including Demaryius Thomas, into jubilation. The Broncos felt resignation, their playoff hopes all but dashed with a 3-6 record as they enter the bye week.
"It's gut-wrenching," said coach Vance Joseph, whose employment status will be subject to question with his 8-17 overall record, though he's expected to survive. "I know how hard the guys work. I want to win for them."
Entering Sunday, the Broncos needed to deliver on a mandate: Own Your Job. It plastered the TV screens in the locker room on Thursday and Friday in block blue letters on a white backdrop.
With the defense smothering Houston like a python -- Von Miller and Bradley Chubb added to their sack totals -- the Broncos responded with a 12-play, 81-yard drive to secure a 17-16 advantage. It represented the second longest drive of the season, six shy of a first-half march Sunday.
"My knee felt better as the game wore on. Rushing the passer is like being a prize fighter. You have to be ready to go 12 rounds," Miller told me in the tunnel after the game as he hung out with former teammate Demaryius Thomas. "I will be fine after the bye. It's just tough to lose."
Keenum's dime to Heuerman shoved the Broncos ahead by a point, but it felt uneasy. The Broncos' inability to finish has been an issue since winning Super Bowl 50. They have shown they can compete, but crossing the line with the lead remains a difficult skill to recapture.
The Texans pulled ahead 19-17 on Ka'imi Fairbairn's 37-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. And they made it stand.
"The margin for error is so small for our team. We can't mess up and win," said veteran cornerback Chris Harris Jr., frustrated that the Texans didn't challenge him more in the passing game. "We have to find a way to eliminate those little mistakes that kill us every game."
It didn't start well for the Broncos because it started with a bubble screen, as it so often does with Thomas. It was his signature play for eight-plus seasons. OK, not so much the past two years as Thomas leaned out, going vegan, and playing roughly 10 pounds lighter, leading to his yards after contact to vanish. But Sunday, after a Jumbotron tribute, he went to work. He broke inside, slipped a missed tackle by Tramaine Brock, and skated 31 yards. He followed with an 18-yard reception -- it was impressive he was running entire route tree after three practices -- setting up an easy score.
"I loved my time here. It was just a different bond. You had guys you would think would never shed a tear that were shedding tears. I had a great time. We won a Super Bowl," said Thomas, who finished with three catches for 61 yards. "But it's up and done, and on to the next.
DeShaun Watson, clearly a player who has Thomas feeling young again, connected with tight end Jordan Thomas for a a 7-yard touchdown, who beat Josey Jewell in coverage. He became the third quarterback in NFL history with at least 35 touchdowns in first 16 games, joining Hall of Famers Kurt Warner and Dan Marino.
"It was good for Demaryius," Watson said. "He did a great job of making catches when we needed him, and he had a leadership role on the sideline. I just kept the faith."
The Broncos responded with his replacement Courtland Sutton. He delivered a critical 21-yard reception, breaking a tackle. Then, it went wrong. He was called for a block in the back and dropped a touchdown in the end zone. Brandon McManus salvaged the drive with a 44-yard field goal, shaving the deficit to 7-3 with 4:42 remaining in the first.
A fourth down stop ignited the crowd moments later. This was the type of play to change a Sunday. Instead, it altered nothing. Devontae Booker fumbled as Justin Reid pawed out the ball and recovered it on Denver's 22-yard line. Watson made the Broncos pay with a 16-yard score to DeAndre Hopkins on a communication breakdown. It brought a sobering reality that players not guarded by Harris would be open too often.
The game, if not the season, sat a crossroads. Embattled Keenum, who has been only marginally better than last season's carousel at the halfway point, engineered his best and longest drive of the season. In four plays, the Broncos raced 87 yards.
Who knew the Broncos had a tight end passing weapon? Matt LaCosse caught a ball in the flat and broke down the sidelines like a kid running from class to recess. His 44 yards on the play led the Broncos in receiving in the first half. Jeff Heuerman, who delivered his best game as a pro with 10 receptions for 83 yards, followed with a 14-yard reception, and Booker found redemption with a 14-yard scamper for a score, his first since Oct. 30 last season.
An encouraging half turned dark in the waning minutes. Center Matt Paradis left the field on a cart after fracturing his right fibula. He said he will be fine, believing the break will heal. He had played every snap since 2014 -- 3,850 entering the game -- before exiting for Connor McGovern. Brandon McManus followed with a missed 62-yard field goal, leading to Houston's final score. Paradis is expected to miss the remainder of the season as he enters free agency, joining left guard Ron Leary (Achilles).
"I am gonna be fine after some time," Paradis told Denver7.
Added Keenum, who completed 26 of 42 passes for 290 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, "He's top notch, as solid as they come. It's a tough deal."
At the end of the first half, Denver's field goal decision backfired. Watson completed two quick strikes, setting up Fairbairn's 46-yard field goal. It swelled in importance as the game inched toward a conclusion, and was made worse by the fact that he missed his first attempt. Joseph, it turns out, de-iced the kicker.
It captured the season. The Broncos found a way to do just enough to lose.
"If I could put my finger on it, we'd be winning," Miller lamented. "It's a tough league. We give teams hell each and every week. We just have to find ways to come out on top."
The Broncos honored Demaryius Thomas before the game with a 1-minute long video tribute. Thomas thanked the fans, who gave him a warm welcome. The Broncos also added "Thank You" to the banner of Thomas hanging outside the south end of the stadium. ... Von Miller looked limited because of a brace on his left knee. But he entered the sack column for the four consecutive game, corralling Watson in the third quarter. ... Shane Ray limped off late in the third quarter, favoring his right ankle. ... The Broncos' inactive list included five injured players and two healthy scratches, linemen Sam Jones and Nico Falah. ... Bradley Chubb's eight sacks represent the most by an NFL rookie at this point of the season since Von in 2011.