EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- No phantom calls altered the outcome. The weather was not a factor. The opponent offered zero reason for fear or concern, and featured a rookie quarterback.
The Broncos believe they are better after one of the most forgettable seasons in team history. Sunday revealed a more sobering truth: they aren't very good. At least not right now.
The Broncos squandered an early lead, and fell 34-16 to the New York Jets, spiraling to their 11th defeat in their last 12 road games. They have been outscored 200-72 in the first halves of these contests, including 21-10 against the Jets. They allowed 323 rushing yards, the fifth most in franchise history and the most since 2010.
"It's the same (bleep) every week. I am tired of talking about the same (bleep) for two years straight," said defensive end Derek Wolfe, who netted his first career interception. "Something's gotta change. Absolutely we can group. We tried. We had great energy at practice -- great energy coming out to the game, and we started hot. Something much deeper is happening here. I can't even understand it."
You can win with gaffes if Peyton Manning is your quarterback. When he walks into Dove Valley these days it is to show friends the place, not rescue a franchise that requires squinting to see its Super Bowl 50 trophy. Though only five weeks old, the Broncos have reached a crossroads after losing to a one-win team, the next few weeks potentially determining a playoff berth and the fate of many coaches and players involved.
So bad was this loss, Joseph was asked if he is considering making changes to his defensive staff after defensive coordinator Joe Woods' group allowed 512 yards.
"No, no. I don't think we are there. I thought we were sound schematically. It always goes back to coaching. We have to coach better so our players can play better," said Joseph, who fired former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy after the 10th game last season. "But we pay our players to play also. It's not just coaching. It's all of us involved."
The laundry list of doom included the usual reasons, perhaps most concerning, Isaiah Crowell shredding the Broncos for 219 rushing yards. Rookie Sam Darnold torched cornerback Bradley Roby for a pair of long touchdowns to Robbie Anderson, and Roby missed a tackle on Crowell's 77-yard touchdown romp in the second quarter that sent the game tumbling into the abyss.
"It's the life of a corner that plays man coverage all the time," said Roby, who declined comment when asked if the scheme should change. "I have confidence because I know my job is hard. I am always in man coverage without any help so I have to man up and win. We have to just play better. There's nothing we can say."
Quarter Case Keenum finished with a career-highs in completions (35) and yards passing (377), but remained unable to gain traction over a full game. He held the ball too long -- he was sacked four times -- and locked onto receivers early in the third quarter when the outcome still hung in the balance. And new punter Colby Wadman was no better than the last, his nine-iron kick setting up a touchdown drive and his 57-yard three-wood leading to a 51-yard return.
Did 2017 ever end?
"We gave up too many big plays. It's not our standard at all. We have to start from square one, " Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "We have to rally the troops and see who wants to be here. I am all in. I want to win."
Last year is remembered for the eight-game losing streak -- the worst in 50 years -- and a single road victory. Joseph survived his inaugural season, if only barely, because general manager John Elway said a firing was not warranted since he lacked a competent quarterback. He still might. However, that explanation won't appease grumbling fans after a third straight defeat.
The Broncos lost because they were gashed. At halftime, Arnold boasted 145 yards on five completions and, Powell had 112 yards rushing. It was only a hint of the damage created by six scoring drives.
Facing Darnold, the Broncos saw a rookie quarterback who was vulnerable, who would mistakes. Turns out it was the other way around. The artist formerly known as the Broncos defense was an easy mark, missing tackles, while going missing on coverage.
"It was a rough one. I have to do more. I have to play better. Right now, I am not doing enough for us to win just to keep it 100," Miller said. "I have to be better and bring some guys with me. I am not doing anything too good right now."
Think about this. The Broncos had their ears boxed on a day when they produced two takeaways. It ends a 32-game winning streak when winning the turnover battle.
It's not that the Broncos are losing, they got whipped. They have lost by double digits 10 times in their last 21 games.
"If we want to talk about being in the playoffs, we have to do that right now. If we don't, we will be home again," said receiver Demaryius Thomas, who caught five passes for 105 yards and a late touchdown. "And that ain't fun at all."
The Broncos sit 2-3 with the Los Angeles Rams waiting with drool on their chins. The last five quarters of the Broncos defense has been awful, yielding 48 points. When the Broncos fall behind, they fall down a familiar rabbit hole of problems and ineffectiveness.
It began well. A brief glimpse of competitiveness before the Jets turned the Broncos green with envy.
The Broncos ended an ugly streak with an impressive first-quarter drive. For the first time in three games, they produced a takeaway as defensive Adam Gotsis forced and recovered a fumble. What followed had not occurred since the opener. Keenum fired a touchdown pass, connecting to a streaking Courtland Sutton in the back of the end zone. It represented the rookie's first, and snapped an unsightly skid. Not since John Elway in 1986 had a Broncos quarterback attempted at least 20 passes in three straight games without a score.
The Broncos held a 7-0 lead, and looked confident. Then, as they did in Baltimore, they wilted.
It began with a series of events all too familiar over the last two seasons. A promising drive stalled following a Garett Bolles penalty. Officials flagged him for holding, his NFL-leading fifth of the season. Then came a sack followed by a poor punt from Colby Wadman in his NFL debut. He shanked a 20-yarder.
The Jets secured momentum on the next play as Crowell raced through and around the Broncos defense, galloping 77 yards for a touchdown as Roby missed a tackle. Crowell spared the Broncos the indignity of wiping his butt in celebration -- a routine he parlayed into a wipes endorsement (yes, really).
A second three-and-out by the Broncos set up the Jets' most electrifying score. On third down, Darnold, whom the Broncos considered taking in the draft, stood tall in the pocket end and unleashed a breathtaking spiral that reminded fans the No Fly Zone no longer exists. Roby bit on Robby Anderson's hesitation step, and never recovered as Anderson caught he ball in stride for a 76-yard touchdown.
Finally, mercifully, the Broncos applied a band-aid to the hemorrhaging. With the Jets overloading the line of scrimmage to halt the run, Keenum began making plays from the pocket, a concern all season. He completed back-to-back passes to Thomas and DaeSean Hamilton for 55 yards. The drive stalled.
Forget armchair quarterbacking. This was about first-guessing. Not after the fact. Why didn't Denver rush more? They had 64 yards at halftime on 13 carries. They attempted two plays on the ground in the third quarter for minus-two yards. Joseph said it was a reaction to the defense when the Jets began flooding the box with defenders.
Keenum's final numbers looked fine -- he was 35-for-51 for 377 yards -- but proved hollow. Keenum posted late yards after the Jets extended their lead to 34-10.
The Broncos' road issues are nothing new. But Sunday raised old issues -- like is this team, while more talented, like the last?
"I hate losing. It's not fun. Nobody likes it in that lockerroom. I don't see that there's any moral victories," said Keenum, blaming himself for some timing issues on passes. "We have to be better. And we will be better."
Cornerback Adam Jones, who has battled a nagging injury since signing with the Denver, did not return in the second half because of a leg issue. ... Defensive end DeMarcus Walker, a second-round draft choice last year, remained inactive for the fifth straight week. The coaches insist Walker is improving, but he's been unable to crack the defensive line rotation. Joining Walker on the scratch list: quarterback Kevin Hogan, safety Shamarko Thomas, linebacker Alexander Johnson, cornerback Tramaine Brock, right tackle Jared Veldheer and guard Sam Jones. ... When Garett Bolles submarined a first-quarter drive, it reinforced a troubling trend. It marked his fifth holding call of the season, tops in the NFL. ... The Broncos had an illegal formation on the kickoff and 12 men on the field on defense in the first half, revealing shades of last season. ... Derek Wolfe netted his first interception, snaring a deflected pass by Shane Ray. ... Courtland Sutton injured his left leg in the second half, but returned. ... Garett Bolles suffered an ankle injury.