An hour before the game, a request came upstairs. More coffee was needed in the visitors locker room. If ever a team required a caffeine boost it was the Broncos. They were coming off an embarrassing loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, one so ugly it threatened to stain the entire season.
Sunday, Denver responded with pride, resolve and just plain nastiness from the defense, but even admirable characteristics make it hard to overcome an underwhelming offense that makes fans wail in frustration.
For the third time this season, the Broncos fell on a last-second goal, their knees chopped off by the Colts Sunday in a 15-13 defeat.
As mad as fans were, the players were equally upset. Quarterback Joe Flacco criticized the play-calling of offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello in the final quarter, openly wondering why team wasn't more aggressive.
"Come on, I look at it, we are a 2-6 football team and afraid to go for it in a two-minute drill. Who cares if you give them the ball back with 40 seconds left. They obviously got the field goal anyway," said Flacco, who finished 20-for-32 for 174 yards, despite a stiff neck that was still bothering him after the game. "And once again, we are a 2-6 football team, and it kind of feels like we are afraid to lose a game. It's third-and-5 at the end (in the second-to-last possession and Denver ran the ball up the middle), who cares if they have timeout there at the end. Getting into field goal range isn't that hard."
He is spot on. Those watching could feel the game slipping away yet again, mirroring losses to Jacksonville and Chicago. It came down to this: After two horrific drives that netted minus-3 yards from midfield in the fourth quarter -- think on that for a minute -- the Broncos needed one march to stop the madness and restore hope. They couldn't do it, leaving the defense on the field watching helplessly as Adam Vinatieri drilled a 52-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining.
"We should have won that game," said Chris Harris Jr., who might have played his last contest as a Bronco, but he hopes is not dealt with he and his wife expecting a child soon.
It should not have come down to this.
Punt returner Diontae Spencer set up the Broncos with strong field position to Ziplock the victory. The Broncos took over with 3:37 remaining. Phillip Lindsay went to work with an 8-yard burst. Then Royce Freeman pushed the pile for a first down, forcing the Colts to spend timeouts. A win beckoned. Then the Broncos refused to take it, tucking their head back into their shell like a timid turtle with a boring third-and-5 running play. They punted. The credits might as well have started rolling.
Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett escaped a potential safety on sack from Miller with a 35-yard completion to T.Y. Hilton, and well you all knew how this movie was going to end. The Broncos are 14-26 over the past 40 games, matching their worst 2 1/2-season stretch since 1970-72.
While fingers have pointed at Flacco for his lack of emotion and energy, the focus shifted Sunday to Scangarello. He has never called plays at the professional level, and his inexperience has become glaring the past two games.
"Ultimately, we need to be more aggressive. Our quarterback said it and he's our leader," Lindsay said. "At the end of the day, we do what they say. We are right there. We are in all these close games. We have to find a way to stop hurting ourselves. It's the little things. Our defense should not have been out there. They are doing their job."
If you had any doubt why Emmanuel Sanders wanted out, Sunday drove it home. Through eight games, the Broncos are averaging 15.6 points per game. That was an average half when Peyton Manning was running the show in his prime.
The second-to-last drive mattered so much because of what transpired before it.
Denver handcuffed itself with zero creativity in the fourth quarter. Not leaning on Courtland Sutton, who was productive in receptions and drawing penalties, was indefensible. Give him a chance to make a play. It never came as the Broncos played not too lose and the football Gods rewarded them with a punch in the throat. The expectation is that Flacco, and possibly others, will speak up this week leading into the Browns game, requesting the team be more assertive offensively. There's no reason not to at this point.
Credit the defense for making this a competitive game. The Broncos pressured, pushed and prodded Brissett (15-for-25, 202 yards) into an uncomfortable performance. They held the Colts to 130 first-half yards. Von Miller returned to star status with 1.5 sacks and pressure that caused a turnover. Derek Wolfe was a menace. And Harris Jr. turned T.Y. Hilton into Casper The Friendly Ghost for Halloween until the scramble catch on the Colts' final drive.
"It's tough. I am just sick," said Miller, who became emotional when talking about Harris, who he hugged in the locker room, possibly being traded this week. "I wish I could have done more. It makes it worse."
It was needed because the offense under Scangarello maintained delusions of adequacy even as the victory was dissolving before the Broncos' eyes.
The Broncos' first half can be summed up thusly: they got a date, they rented the tux and failed to go to prom.
Denver's offense was no longer lifeless, but could not finish. Given a reprieve after Colts' 46-year-old Vinatieri missed a 45-yard field goal in the first quarter, the Broncos delivered a drive that lasted longer than some Hollywood marriages. Denver plodded 86 yards in 17 plays, eating 7 minutes and 45 seconds off the clock, but managed to leave a red dot on the white cashmere. A pair of gift penalties provided the Broncos three shots from the 3-yard line, and Flacco delivered three incompletions. The Broncos settled for a 21-yard field goal, the type of red zone failure that proved haunting.
"We needed to score there," Lindsay said. "That hurt."
Punter Casey Wadman, whose leg was likely sore from last week, remained a stranger on the next drive. The Broncos, using a mix of penalties and a 33-yard reception from Sutton that included a nasty stiff arm, moved into within arm's reaching paydirt. Again, the Broncos fizzled after 13 plays, the result a 29-yard boot from McManus.
The offense playing keepaway paid divdends in one way: it kept the Broncos fresh and menacing on defense. With Miller producing pressure and the line active upfront with Shelby Harris, Dre'Mont Jones and Derek Wolfe, Denver muted Brissett. The reigning offensive player of the week, Brissett failed to gain rhythm until the final possession of each half. He moved Indianapolis 55 yards in 43 seconds, resulting in a 55-yard boot from Vinatieri, his career-high with the Colts.
Denver dominated the first 30 minutes, yet the scoreboard offered only a hint. The Broncos outgained the Colts (166-130), ran 36 plays to 25 and held the ball almost 4 minutes longer. Yet, The Broncos held a 6-3 advantage.
"We just aren't doing enough to win these games," Fangio said.
The opening drive of the third was embraced like a long lost friend by Broncos Country. The Broncos entered Sunday with 19 third quarter points this season, tied for 25th overall. With the help of Rock Ya-Sin's fourth of five coverage penalties -- Sutton tangled him in knots repeatedly -- Denver produced a red zone score as Royce Freeman stepped in from 4 yards out. The Broncos held a 10-point lead for the first time since smothering the Titans.
The Colts, as expected, showed resolve. They had won 13 of their last 16 games entering Sunday, so the idea they would sink like a stone to the bottom of the pond was unlikely. Vinatieri split the uprights on a 45-yarder, shaving the deficit to 13-6 early in the third. Then, the Colts began their slow suffocation routine, trying to squeeze the life out of Denver's dream. Helped by a roughing the passer penalty on Mike Purcell, Marlon Mack darted 10 yards for a touchdown at the end of the third. Then the Broncos caught another break. Vinatieri, whom many thought might retire after a poor start, shanked his fourth extra point of the season, leaving Denver holding a 13-12 lead entering the fourth.
One first down. A field goal. A big play. That's all that stood between the Broncos and a victory. Instead, they found another creative way to unravel with playcalling that seemed unfair at worst and passive at best.
"We continue to put our defense in these bad situations," Flacco said. "What do we have to lose?"
Harris on move?
Chris Harris Jr. ranks as one of the most accomplished cornerbacks in franchise history. But will he add to his resume? The Broncos are not shopping Harris, but will listen if a team wants to give them a second-round draft pick or a high third rounder before Tuesday's 2 p.m. deadline. His situation, however, remains different than Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders asked to be dealt and was accommodated. Harris has made no such request (Neither has Derek Wolfe, who said he wants to retire a Bronco). And while there is a chance Harris could re-sign as a free agent, there is no guarantee after how last season's successful play for a longterm deal led only to a salary boost this season. Harris is expected to have several suitors, possibly the rival Kansas City Chiefs. This offseason.
"Hey man, I tried to get a deal done. It didn't work out. The rule is I am I am under contract," Harris said. "I have to play it out until the end."
Harris, an udrafted free agent, is a four-time Pro Bowler and made first-team All-Pro in 2016. As for the trade market, the Eagles and Texans have been the most interested, though Houston acquired a cornerback back last week.
"I am not going to lie it was the hardest week for me to focus. But I got through it. I thought I played solid today and gave us a chance to win," Harris said. "I definitely wonder if it's possible because of all the reports you have out there."
James out again
Right Ja'wuan James returned after a six-game absence to provide caulking for a leaky offensive line. He lasted one quarter, limping off the field after a run play, favoring his previoulsy injured left knee with 11 minutes remaining in the second quater. James tore his MCL in knee on his 10th snap of the season-opener. He worked his way back into shape, and was cleared to play Sunday. James, the team's biggest offseason signing with $32 million guaranteed, was replaced by Elijah Wilkinson. James has played equivalent of a half and cornerback Bryce Callahan (foot), another top signing, has not played this season.
Simmons part of core?
When the Broncos reworked Joe Flacco's contract, creating salary cap this season that can be used or rolled over, it raised eyebrows. But there is flexibility that could prove valuable. Flacco's dead cap hit if he's not on team next year is $13.6 million, And it would save $20 million if his salary comes off the books. So could it free up money to keep players and sign free agents? Possibly. The Broncos agreed to a new deal with Andy Janovich this month. Could Justin Simmons be in line next? The Broncos have interest. Simmons will be a free agent at season's end, and has excelled in Fangio's defense, pacing the team with 38 tackles, two interceptions and eight pass breakups. Will it be enough to make him consider an offer or will he go into free agency? Simmons entered Sunday with the longest active streak of snaps played (1,443) among defensive players, extending over 23 games.
The Broncos' inactive list no longer features big names, save for cornerback Bryce Callahan. Callahan saw a specialist recently to examine his ailing foot. For now, he has not had an additional surgery, but Fangio allowed that it's a "50-50" proposition that free agent addition from the Bears plays this season. The inactives included: tackle Calvin Anderson, tight end Troy Fumagali, defensive end Adam Gotsis, who could be traded if team is offered a late-round pick, recently-claimed defensive end Jonathan Harris, tackle Jake Rodgers safety Will Parks, he expects to be back after the bye from a broken thumb. Injured reserve players Drew Lock (thumb) and tight end Jake Butt (knee) worked out with the early group. It marks the first time Butt has participated in pregame since undergoing knee surgery in August. ... The Broncos ranked 31st in opponents' kick return average, and failed to help that stat Sunday as the Colts unleased a 47-yarder on the opening kickoff. ... Broncos linebacker Todd Davis injured his left knee in the first quarter, and was replaced by Josey Jewell, who combined on a sack with Von Miller moments later. Davis returned shortly thereafter. ... Tight end Jeff Heuerman was rolled up on in the first half, injuring his knee. He was limping after the game. He will undergo more tests in Denver as will Todd Davis, who missed a series, but played with a sleeve on his knee.