NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Disappointment. Anger. Despair.
Country hits written on Music Row or humming from The Stage on Broadway have required less material than the Broncos provided in an agonizing 13-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
Denver looked the part of an old proud pickup with hazard lights flashing, its road to the playoffs littered with potholes with remaining games against New England, Kansas City and Oakland. Those are the three best teams in the AFC.
Desperation took hold Sunday, ware of the final schedule, and the Broncos grabbed the game by the nape of the neck. But it was too late, leaving Denver in a precarious spot after tight end A.J. Derby was stripped of the ball with 53 seconds remaining.
"I know from the outside looking in, a lot of people will say it doesn't look good. But I have been part of a hell of lot worse and come out it," coach Gary Kubiak said after his team fell to 8-5 in a race for the final playoff spot. "We are going to keep battling. I am a battler. Those guys in the locker room are battlers. We fought to the end, but we weren't good enough to win."
Quarterback Trevor Siemian’s return to the starting lineup was supposed to rev up the attack. Or was it Riley Dixon? Trailing 13-0 with 4:35 remaining in the third quarter, the rookie punter took the snap and completed a 16-yard pass to Cody Latimer. The Broncos stalled on fourth down, but the offense finally awoke from a nauseating hibernation.
After three scoreless quarters, 18 yards rushing and 17 straight failed third down conversions, the Broncos took over at the 2-yard line with just under 3 minutes remaining with a chance to win. On third-and-3, the crowd on its feet, Siemian connected with Demaryius Thomas for a first down. Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders combined for 21 catches for 226 yards. Siemian finished 35 of 51 for 334 yards and one touchdown.
But there was no walk-off home run. Only Derby left to pound the ground in frustration after his costly turnover.
"Of course we are concerned," Sanders said. "Every team is fighting for a spot. We have three tough opponents. If we want to make the tournament we have to get our mind right and show up."
The Broncos' final drive mattered because of the earlier work in the fourth.
After Kalif Raymond's 21-yard punt return and a Titans' 15-yard roughing penalty, the Broncos hit stride. Siemian guided a five-play, 26-yard drive, completing a 3-yard touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos followed with an 11-play, 39-yard drive with Brandon McManus shaving the deficit to 13-10 with 4:28 remaining. Receiver Bennie Fowler dropped a potential touchdown on a laser off his chest on the drive, leaving the defense needing yet another stop. Fowler had a chance to move the Broncos into field goal range against Kansas City in overtime, but couldn't haul in a diving catch.
If that sounds familiar, it's because it is.
Denver remained in idle, running its streak to 17 straight failed third down conversions before converting to end the third quarter.
It began where all of the Broncos’ forgettable games can be traced: the first quarter. The haunting numbers resurfaced in a worst-case scenario. Determined to stop the run, the Broncos left with tire tracks on their chest in the first quarter. The Titans rumbled for 47 yards on their initial possession as the Broncos allowed their 48th point on opening drives, third-worst in the NFL.
The group operates with no elasticity because of a sputtering offense. The Broncos rank dead last in first quarter points with 23. The script continues to fail with the opening period exposing gnawing concerns – the Broncos failed on third-and-1 twice and increased their league lead in three-and-out drives. Their running game was little more than a rumor as rookie Devontae Booker struggled and newcomer Justin Forsett fumbled on his first carry.
"That brings down the whole day for me," Forsett said.
Only multiple stands kept the Broncos within reach, trailing 13-0 at half. Tennessee outgained Denver 138 to 12 on the ground and ran 41 plays to the Broncos’ 24.
What the Broncos lacked in execution, they showed in passion. The defense, a percolating volcano, spewed lava when Titans receiver Harry Douglass dived at cornerback Chris Harris’ right knee in with 3:10 remaining in the second quarter. Harris escaped injury, but Douglas did not elude wrath. Harris began pointing in his direction, calling him out, as Broncos players jawed with the Titans.
"It was dirty. He should be fined. That's not football," said Harris of the block that occurred on the opposite side of the running play. "I have never had a guy try to end my career like that. I can't tell you what I was yelling at him. It wasn't good. He's a sorry receiver."
On the next play, cornerback Aqib Talib tangled with Douglas -- and half of the Titans' roster. Talib exchanged words, then began fighting downfield, spilling onto the Titans sideline. Douglas and Talib wrestled to the ground before they were separated. Talib was taking up for Harris -- "We are family, especially on defense," safety T.J. Ward said -- and made threats to Douglas in his postgame interview.
"It was a dirty play by a sorry player," Talib said. "He's got the same agent as me so when I see his (rear-end) in Atlanta I’m going to beat his (rear-end)."
Douglas defended himself afterward.
"I am a tough player. I am a gritty player," Douglas said. "I'm not a dirty player no matter what anybody says."
The league is expected to review the actions of Douglas and Talib for potential fines and discipline.
Denver’s defense appreciated the frontier justice, the only reprimand a 15-yard unnecessary penalty on Talib. The Titans finished the 19-play drive with a 41-yard Ryan Succop field goal with 1:27 remaining.
In the victorious locker room last week, Kubiak saw beauty in the imperfections, saying “We. Can. Do. This.” His optimism aside, Denver can’t win with an offense functioning with such ineptness. The Broncos remain off schedule, off track and off the field, leaving the exhausted defense to fight endless battles.
"I think we have the right guys in the room to get it done," Siemian said. "I am excited about the challenge ahead."
With 4:22 remaining, the game fell into the defense's lap again. With the Titans keeping Denver's hope alive with bizarre play calling -- passes on third-and-shorts to fizzle third quarter drives -- the Broncos zeroed in on Marcus Mariota. He looked every bit the star when running the ball. But passing? Not so much. When he took over at 1:50 p.m. in Colorado, Mariota was 5-for-17 for 62 yards. He finished 6-for-20 for 88 yards. The Titans had 178 yards on the ground at that point.
Mariota made his best throw of the frigid afternoon, lofting a 26-yard completion to Rishard Matthews. As they did the entire second half, the Broncos defense held firm. But when the football was ripped from Derby, it tore away any chance of a victory.
"It's do or die now," outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "That's our mentality."
Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall missed Sunday’s game with a strained left hamstring, and there’s no guarantee he will be ready for the Patriots.
“I need to rest up. It hurts,” Marshall said.
Marshall has suffered through a difficult season, failing to meet his own expectations. He owns 52 tackles, but has not been disruptive with caused fumbles or tackles for loss. Corey Nelson started in Marshall’s place.
Already thin at linebacker, Todd Davis hurt his hip in the second half and did not return. With Davis out, Zaire Anderson received additional reps. Davis told Denver7 his injury was more related to his oblique and predicted he will be ready for the Patriots game.
Based on their performance against Jacksonville, the Broncos captains were safety T.J. Ward, linebacker Dekoda Watson and receiver Demaryius Thomas.