SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As the catches and yards piled up, a churning in stomachs turned into a consensus: This was the Broncos' worst first half under coach Vance Joseph.
This team boasts ugly losses over the past two seasons, but given the time, place and stakes, this represented the abyss. Needing a win to keep playoff hopes flickering, the Broncos suffered a system-wide meltdown.
George Kittle had the second most first-half receiving yards in NFL history. He is the one player the Broncos could not let them beat them. That should tell you something. It was like the New York Giants game all over again when Evan Engram torched Denver after the bye week.
The benefits and confidence of a three-game win streak evaporated into a flurry of punts, penalties, and puzzling decisions on guarding Kittle as the Broncos stumbled to a brutal 20-14 loss to San Francisco.
"They are a talented team. They beat us today. For me personally, three false starts in the first half is ridiculous. I am a gambling man, and I am broke today. I was very undisciplined. That's on me," said Von Miller, who finished with three tackles and his 13th sack of the season. "We go back to the lab. We have been counted out before. I have been counted out before. It's nothing new to us."
The Broncos faced dim postseason prospects after a 3-6 start. The difference now is the calendar haunts them. They have three games remaining. Even with a perfect finish, there remains a strong chance 9-7 will result in noses pushed up against the playoff window for the third consecutive year because of tiebreakers.
The Broncos held their destiny in their hands and squeezed it to dust with a forgettable start. At halftime, the Broncos owned 65 yards to the 49ers' 311. Kittle had 211 receiving, four shy of Shannon Sharpe's record in a game for a tight end. It felt like Denver had the same number of missed tackles.
"It was unacceptable," coach Vance Joseph said. "We did not play well in the first half at all."
The incongruity was hard to reconcile. Levi's Stadium represented the setting for one of the Broncos' greatest memories. Now, they stained it with one of the worst 30 minutes in franchise history.
There were 10 penalties for 57 yards. Case Keenum completed 7 of 15 passes for 43 yards, 228 fewer than counterpart Nick Mullens. Supernova Phillip Lindsay owned three rushing yards on five attempts. And the offensive line -- so solid in its makeover of four tackles and a center -- struggled as San Francisco employed a front used successfully by the Chiefs. The Broncos punted on all five of their first-half possessions, and six straight to start the game.
"We didn't get into rhythm in the first half. We got a little more attitude going in the second half. And that's on us," said Lindsay, who finished with 30 yards rushing and a touchdown. "We have to start fast. We can't keep our defense on the field."
The Broncos revealed a faint pulse in the third quarter. Trailing 20-0 -- the halftime score -- they marched methodically for 56 yards on 11 plays. With no Emmanuel Sanders to lean on, Keenum connected with Tim Patrick on a pair of critical passes. And Lindsay bolted in from 3 yards to shave the deficit to 20-7 with 6:05 remaining.
A potential fumble score lit up the sideline moments later, but proved a tease. Officials ruled Mullens down -- Adam Gotsis and Domata Peko shared a sack -- rather than a touchdown for Justin Simmons. Perhaps, it would have proved a catalytic response. Instead, the Broncos offense, as it was wont to do, fizzled on fourth down on back-to-back possessions. The first arrived with 12:41 remaining. Needing three yards, Lindsay scampered outside and, unlike most of this season, could not get to the edge. Moments later, on fourth-and-3, Keenum connected with Lindsay out of the backfield. Unable to shimmy, he was dragged down after a 1-yard gain with 8:37 left.
"It's frustrating. I think we all feel that way," Lindsay said. "We have to win the rest of our games. There's no way around it."
With 3:53 remaining, Keenum connected with DaeSean Hamilton for a 1-yard score. It proved too late as the Broncos defense could not produce another stop despite blanking San Francisco in the second half and holding the 49ers to 78 yards. Kittle didn't catch a pass after halftime as the Broncos switched to more zone coverage.
"They are a lot better than their record shows. But we have to play better. We have to start faster. I believe in this team," defensive end Derek Wolfe said. "We knew Kittle was a weapon obviously. To have him wide open, it digs deep."
The Broncos bathed in desperation because of an embarrassingly failure to launch. Even before Sunday's first play, it was a bad day for the Broncos. The Colts and Dolphins won, adding more hairpin turns to Denver's road back to the postseason that looks like a dead end. There are four 7-6 teams in front of the Broncos.
"We didn't play well. I didn't play well. For whatever reason, we put ourselves in tough situations on third down," said Keenum, whose Broncos entered as the sixth worst and have converted a meager 32 percent on 165 attempts this season. "I felt we had the right focus and the right intensity. I don't know what it is. Maybe we need to slap ourselves in the face to get going."
Denver's problems began early. As in the first drive.
The 49ers surprised no one by leaning on their tight ends in the passing game. Yeah, Kittle is really good. His 31-yard reception against linebacker coverage set up Robbie Gould's 40-yard field goal.
In San Francisco's third possession, he continued his destruction. He won his route and shredded arm tackles for a 52-yard gain to set a single-season franchise record for receiving yards by a tight end. He had 987 at that point -- for the year, not the game. Similar to the Chargers game, the Broncos elasticity vanished in the red zone. Bradley Chubb's devastating sack of Mullen forced a second field goal. While ineffective through the first quarter-plus, the Broncos kept San Francisco within striking distance, down 6-0.
Frustration turned to humiliation in the second quarter. After the latest Broncos drive fizzled, San Francisco took over at its own 15. And oddly -- tongue firmly in cheek -- they used play action to free Kittle. With multiple players biting on the fake, the Broncos coverage was worse than your cell plan. Kittle ran across the field wide open, snared the pass and made one cut as he raced 85 yards into the end zone. With 9:47 remaining in the half, Kittle boasted 179 yards on five catches.
Multiple players said afterward that the two big plays were the result of blown assignments.
Remember the night Engram dominated the Broncos after the bye week last season? This was worse. Way worse.
Injuries will be mentioned. As will other issues. But the reality is sobering: The Broncos didn't show up in the first half leaving them in the last place they wanted to be: facing another potential playoff absence.
"We have to play better. You give any team 20 points, it's hard to comeback from that. We keep talking about making a playoff run, you can't come out like that," Shelby Harris said. "We have to come back to work on Tuesday. I saw it as must-win before. But it definitely it is now."
Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb netted his second sack in the third quarter, leaving him with 12. He needs 2.5 to tie Jevon Kearse's rookie record of 14.5 set in 1999. However, he owns the Broncos' rookie record, passing Von Miller and Rulon Jones. ... Brandon Marshall practiced this week. The bone bruise in his knee improved dramatically. He figured he would play against the 49ers. The coaches had different ideas. They believe he needs another week before he's ready. Marshall said after the game he hoped to play against the Browns. ... There were no surprises on the inactive list, and one disappointment. Second round pick from 2017, DeMarcus Walker remains unable to crack the gameday roster, placing his future in question after this season. He was one of the last players to make the team in training camp, edging out veteran Clinton McDonald. The other inactives include: Jeff Holland, Shaquil Barrett (hip, hopes to return this week), Tramaine Brock (ribs), Chris Harris Jr. (improving, hopes to return for season finale) and Nico Fallah. ... The Broncos lineup was unusual. They started six rookies for the fourth time in franchise history, and the first since 2008.