DENVER -- When something comes full circle, it should bring a smile. With the Broncos it brought a boomerang off their skull.
The Broncos opened the season with coach Vic Fangio bungling the clock, refusing to call timeouts as the Titans soaked the clock and left inadequate time for a late comeback. The Broncos finished the season with Fangio calling two timeouts on a fourth-and-1 and a two-point conversion, leaving Raiders coach Jon Gruden thanking Denver for the gift-wrapped life raft to to prevent them from drowning in their own confusion.
The Broncos started like they finished, with a numbing loss. The Raiders rallied for a 32-31 victory at Empower Field at Mile High.
The Broncos dropped to 5-11 and will pick ninth in the first round of the draft and eighth if the Eagles win Sunday night. Top-10 selections were never a measure of this organization for the better part of three decades. With five straight years without a playoff berth, the Broncos are tied for the second-longest streak in the NFL.
If Fangio doesn't improve as much as it required by several players, they will be sitting with their noses pressed against the postseason window pane again in 2021.
The timeouts, especially on the point after, proved costly as the Broncos went 2-6 at home this season.
"I wasn't sure what personnel they had and I wanted to make sure we had the ideal personnel in there for us," Fangio explained. "With that little time left, I felt it was important to burn the timeout so we were straight in what we were doing and what they they were doing."
The Broncos need to check the mail this week. There figures to be a thank you letter from the Raiders.
"We changed our mind three times on the 2-point conversion. Fortunately, they used their timeout," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said after sweeping the Broncos.
Added running back Josh Jacobs, "We would have been scrambling if they hadn't."
And so it is another Broncos season ends in disappointment, a telescope needed to see the 2015 season when Denver won Super Bowl 50. It has been a remarkable decline since. The Broncos finished 1-5 in the AFC West, and are 10-20 in their last 30 division games. For the Broncos to make up ground, they must close the gap in the West. An easier schedule next season will help, but only so much without dramatic leaps across the board.
"We are a team that's streaking forward. What are we the sixth-youngest team in the NFL?" said defensive end Dre'Mont Jones. "I think the sky is the limit for us."
Faith requires believing what cannot be seen. That figures to be necessary after this season. The Broncos have some terrific young players, but they are not good enough right now to beat good teams. They only posted one win vs. a team with a winning record and no victories against playoff teams.
The Broncos thought they had a win Sunday, leading 31-24 after Jerry Jeudy exploded. It didn't help that Melvin Gordon stopped the clock by going out of bounds a couple of times down the stretch.
As for Jeudy, he had the worst game of his life last week. It might turn out to the be the best thing to happen to him.
Against the Chargers, he went Folger's, good to the last drop. Against the Raiders, he was good to the last catch and popped. Responding to adversity admirably, the rookie produced a 92-yard touchdown reception --- the longest in the NFL this season -- as the Broncos made one last sprint for respectability.
"I had no doubt I would bounce back. The way I am wired, I knew that last game will be one of the last bad games I have my whole life," said Jeudy after having five drops vs. the Chargers. "I learned a whole lot from that. Coming into this game I was a lot more focused on the details and catching the ball."
Trailing by seven, the Raiders stormed down the field. They reached the 1-yard line with 24 seconds left after tight end Darren Waller went Xbox on the Broncos defense. Jacobs scored, setting up the point after. Derek Carr found Waller for the two-point conversion to seal the win as McManus had a 63-yard field goal blocked, one of three missed long field goals on the day.
It was the Broncos in a nutshell -- just good enough to lose, undermined by clock management and costly mistakes.
It matters little for 2021 that the Broncos lost. Sunday, Jeudy found redemption, and when broadening the lens his performance is significant. They need playmakers. They need a more dynamic offense.
Jeudy can play a role in answering both issues. He eclipsed 100 yards for the second time, and moved into second place in receptions (52) and yards (856) in franchise history by a rookie. With a little over seven minutes remaining, Jeudy caught a pass from Drew Lock in stride and burned nitromethane across the field for a blur of a score.
There are many layers to losing. For the Broncos' the fabric included turnovers, field goals and blown assignments. All were on display at different times Sunday. However, the Raiders were penalized countless times by early in the fourth quarter, and were allergic to tackling for long stretches, keeping the Broncos within striking distance.
Despite not going for it on fourth-and-1 at midfield in the third quarter, the Broncos trailed 17-16 with 3:07 remaining in the third. Then something weird continued to happen. Bridging the third and fourth quarters, the Raiders turned the ball over three times in five snaps.
The Broncos' defense made plays, including a huge hit by Michael Ojemudia on Henry Ruggs III and two interceptions from Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. They forced their fourth turnover early in the fourth, setting a season-high. With 16 takeaways, they no longer have the fewest in franchise history, an honor that belongs to the 2008 team.
The Broncos opened the game with an impressive drive, but not a touchdown. That didn't happen once on a first drive in 2020. Denver grabbed a 3-0 lead on a balanced, 11-play, 68-yard jaunt. Melvin Gordon rushed for 20 yards, while Drew Lock added 38 in the air. McManus booted a 22-yard field goal.
The Raiders responded as Nelson Agholor torched rookie Ojemudia for 57 yards. Ojemudia has shown flashes this season, but the Broncos really need to add two corners this offseason to protect for performance and injury. The Raiders settled for a 33-yard field goal from Daniel Carlson to knot the score.
This game brought back memories of covering September baseball in Major League Baseball. The evaluation becomes risky as players check out and rosters are the island of misfit toys. Las Vegas entered the game allowing 34 points per game since Week 11. Denver moved ahead 10-3 as Lock found a wide open Troy Fumagalli in the end zone from 1-yard out. They celebrated "Call of Duty" style, bringing Fumagalli back into the game.
While the Raiders defense appeared disinterested, the Las Vegas offense remained dynamic. Las Vegas responded as Carr connected on an over-the-shoulder 28-yard rainbow to Waller, who beat Will Parks for the score.
After McManus missed a 56-yarder -- he finished 10 for 15 on kicks of at least 50 yards -- the Broncos elected a different route later, going it for on fourth-and-1 from the Raiders 38-yard line. Tyrie Cleveland, taking over for an injured Tim Patrick, could not secure the quick pass as the Broncos fell to 4-for-15 on fourth down this season.
Have I mentioned Broncos need playmakers on defense? Their cornerback position is thinner than Flat Stanley and not dynamic when healthy. This point was driven home late in the second quarter as Parnell Motley, added from the 49ers practice squad, was beaten for a touchdown by Bryan Edwards on Carr's second touchdown.
The Broncos, unlikely to draft a quarterback, must seriously consider taking a corner like Patrick Surtain II in the first round.
Don't let your eyes fool you Sunday. Denver needs to add two corners, and likely a coverage linebacker. They need upgrades. And their coach must improve his timing as well.
"Playing quarterback is the hardest job in the world and I love doing it. I will shoulder all the blame for the guys in the locker room and this organization. I love playing this game and I love getting better," said Lock, who finished 25 of 41 for 339 yards and ended his 11-game turnover streak. "I am optimistic about next season. There's a lot that can change this offseason."
Opponents set for 2021
The Broncos played the second hardest schedule in 2020. No excuses, but an easier slate in 2021 should help. Next season, the will boast a more manageable 17-game schedule: at Steelers, Browns, Giants, Cowboys, Jaguars Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers and home against Ravens, Bengals, Eagles, Washington, Jets and corresponding finisher in NFC North, so the likely loser of Vikings-Lions and AFC West. It's unclear if the Broncos would get nine home games next season with the additional game.
The Broncos paid tribute to Hall of Famer Floyd Little with a pregame moment of silence and wore a No. 44 decal on their helmet. Beloved by teammates and an eternal optimist, Little helped put the Broncos on the map. ...
Broncos receiver Tim Patrick (foot) headed to locker room after his 30-yard catch in the first quarter and did not return. Patrick was quietly the Broncos' best skill position player in 2020. ...
Graham Glasgow exited early in the second quarter with a shoulder injury. Rookie Netane Muti, who made one start and played well at Carolina, replaced him. ...
Starting left guard Dalton Risner hurt his left ankle late in the second quarter. Austin Schlottmann replaced him. ...
Noah Fant tossed ball in a Raiders coach's direction after the coach shouldered him as he ran out of bounds. It was an amateur move by the coach. ...
Dre'Mont Jones reached 6.5 sacks for the season despite missing three games with a knee injury. He will be part of the retooled defensive line in 2021. ...
Bradley Chubb missed the final two games with an ankle injury, ending his season with 7.5 sacks. But he proved disruptive in the run game and on quarterback hits, resulting in his first Pro Bowl berth. No sense in risking an injury in the season finale when Chubb can benefit from a healthy offseason. ...
Jake Butt was active Sunday, marking likely his last game for Denver. ...
The Sunday incatives were: Chubb, OLB Anthony Chickillo, QB Jeff Driskel, S Trey Marshall and right tackle Demar Dotson.