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Broncos stagger vs. Chiefs in Vance Joseph's potential final game

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Posted at 5:13 PM, Dec 31, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-31 22:36:20-05

DENVER -- In the early winter of 2017, Vance Joseph stood in front of a gaggle of reporters and described the challenge of reviving the Broncos.

"This is a reboot," Joseph said, "not a rebuild."

After one of the most forgettable seasons in team history, the possibility exists there will not be a rerun. Joseph faces the sobering reality of being a one-and-done after the Broncos finished their season with a 27-24 loss to Kansas City Sunday in bone-chilling conditions at Mile High Stadium.

Joseph walked into the postgame press conference not knowing his fate, but hopeful of returning. He expects to speak with general manager John Elway on Sunday night or Monday morning regarding his status.

"I want to be here," Joseph said after the Broncos finished 5-11 overall and 4-4 at home. "It's a football team that's close. We have to make some adjustments in some places but our football team has not stopped working. It was a hard year. Everyone kept fighting. I want to be here to fix it."

Typical of their season, the Broncos found another unique way to lose. Trailing 24-10, they staged an uncommon rally, tying the score. However, Kansas City rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes re-entered and led the Chiefs on a game-winning drive with Harrison Butker nailing a 30-yard field goal as time expired. 

It was a final crowbar to the shins in an awful season. Players offered support of Joseph afterward.

"It's just sad (regarding Joseph). It's just a sad story if it happens," said Marshall of the first-year coach, whose voice was halting as he spoke to the team in his postgame speech. "I think the season in general was a sad story. Our lack of -- I don't know -- we just couldn't get it done in all phases. It's not like us. It's so different to go through this."

Added All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, "VJ has been great for us. All the coaches have been. But his job is not in my hands. You would like to see those guys turn it around (he specifically mentioned he wants outside linebackers coach Fred Pagac return), and we go to the playoffs or the Super Bowl next year."

The Broncos tied the game at 24-all with receiver Demaryius Thomas' 6-yard scoring catch from Paxton Lynch with 2:53 remaining. They were in position to come back after linebacker Zaire Anderson's scoop and 38-yard score shaved the deficit to 24-17 with 6:52 left.

In the end, it only made the game more interesting, not satisfying. The Broncos, however, won by losing. They hold the fifth pick in the draft, their highest selection since selecting Miller second overall in 2011.

In 17-degree weather, the Broncos' fifth-coldest home game, Joseph bundled up in a gray sweatshirt and ski jacket. He appeared braced for the conditions, both during the game and afterward. Prior to kickoff, Joseph's status hung in the balance -- he admitted he was aware of the reports -- and that's where it stood in the first hours after the game's conclusion. Confidence in Joseph's future began to dissolve as the weekend progressed, and it remains to be seen if the Broncos will trust him moving forward. Joseph did not speak with Elway regarding the uncertainty before kickoff, an uneasy feeling given Elway's unpredictability. 

As written earlier, it was not the losses, but the nature of them that reflect poorly on Joseph. Of the Broncos' 11 defeats, eight came by double digits. The Broncos were shut out for the first time since 1992, a cringe-worthy defeat at the Chargers, tied a 50-year-old losing streak with eight straight losses, and won only one road game.

The Broncos ranked 31st in turnover margin, which often left them trailing, mitigating their best defenders (Miller, Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib) and creating a parade of issues with their quarterbacks and pass protection. Denver changed quarterbacks six times from Trevor Siemian to Brock Osweiler to Paxton Lynch to Siemian to Osweiler, and on Sunday, back to Lynch.

"Nobody is safe," Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said, adding he wants Joseph to return. "We all have to figure out what happened. We are all at fault."

The Broncos began the season 3-1, and looked like a contender. Then came the bye week. So long relevance.

"That is on the players (finishing 5-11)," running back C.J. Anderson said. "That is on us. We put all our coaches in hard situations. It stinks to not know if (Joseph) is returning. It would hurt me if he lost his job."

The Broncos started their historic losing skid with a pathetic home effort against the previously winless New York Giants. A month later, Elway called the team soft, an indictment of the players and coaching staff, saying complacency had taken root after the first four games. Later, as the losses mounted and the team fell out of the playoff picture, Elway called the season "embarrassing," and promised the team would rebound next year.

It did not help that the draft class, outside of left tackle Garett Bolles, failed to contribute, blame that can be assigned to Elway and also Joseph and his coaches.

Sunday's outcome did not play into the Joseph decision. And the game, like many before it, did not start well. The Broncos responded in a way more reflective of their season than their desire to save their coach. Playing several backups, the Chiefs raced down the field on their opening drive. Kareem Hunt, a rookie of the year candidate, bolted 35 yards for a touchdown. The Broncos answered with a three-and-out drive and the latest poor punt from Riley Dixon. 

As both teams emptied their benches, using reserves, it became a compelling watch. In the first half, Lynch delivered his best performance since entering in relief at Tampa Bay as a rookie. In a well-executed play that raised the question of why it wasn't used all season, Lynch connected on a screen to rookie De'Angelo Henderson for a 29-yard score. He received the ball from his first touchdown. The impressive run after the catch shoved the Broncos ahead 10-7. Mahomes, the godson of former Colorado Rockies closer LaTroy Hawkins, demonstrated why he once threw 94 miles per hour as a high school pitcher. With elite arm strength, he rifled the ball into tight spots against Denver's backups. Mahomes' scramble set up an easy score, leaving the Chiefs ahead 14-10 at half. 

Lynch, 13-for-18 for 159 yards and one touchdown in the first 30 minutes, lost traction in a second half that mirrored this season. A strip sack represented the low point. Linebacker Ramik Wilson picked up the loose ball and rumbled 11 yards to increase Kansas City's lead to 24-10.  Zaire Anderson pulled the Broncos back within reach with his touchdown.

From there, the goal was simple: see more of Lynch and chase a milestone for C.J. Anderson. Anderson rolled up his sleeves and delivered. He bumped and bounced for a 10-yard gain in the fourth quarter, leaving him with 61 yards on 18 carries. It lifted him to 1,007 for the season. He became the first Broncos running back since Knowshon Moreno in 2013 to reach the mark.

"It was huge. It felt really good," said Anderson, who received a game ball. "I probably will give (the game ball) to my mom. I wouldn't be in this position without her."

Anderson has one year remaining on his contract at $4.5 million, and might not return. However, he showed durability for the first time in his career after an offseason of cycling. He will have suitors if he becomes a free agent. Bad seasons narrow the focus on individual achievements. It is an odd spot for the Broncos, who measure themselves in AFC Championships and Super Bowl crowns.  Lynch finished 21 of 31 for 254 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, one fumble and five sacks. He was asked afterward about the team already looking at potential high draft picks like Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen.

"I am focused on who is in the building," Lynch said. 

Missing the postseason for the second consecutive season proved jarring. That the losses were so gruesome ultimately left Joseph on a frozen island.  

"It stinks when you only win five games. There are going to be changes, but can only control what you can control," said nose guard Domata Peko. "It sucks because you come to the Broncos, and you think of playoffs, you think of championships. You have to look in the mirror and come back stronger and better. We really have to attack this offseason big time."

Footnotes

I spoke exclusively with quarterback Trevor Siemian on Sunday before the game. With his arm in a sling, Siemian told me he will receive a second opinion on his non-throwing left shoulder. Surgery is a possibility as they look into an issue with his labrum. Siemian's future with Broncos remains uncertain. Staying healthy has been a problem for him. Toughness has not, as he has earned respect from his teammates for battling through injuries. . ... Former Broncos All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady was honored during the game. He retired as a Bronco on Saturday. "I missed football the first month of the season, but not in October. I loved waking up and feeling great on Mondays," said Clady, who is dabbling in real estate, golfing and doing Yoga in his retirement. ... Safety Will Parks, who had tough day, exited with a neck injury in the second half. ... The Broncos' tickets distributed: 75, 928. The actual attendance: 67,111. That represents a healthy number given the frigid conditions and the meaningless nature of the game for both teams. ... Receiver Demaryius Thomas finished 51 yards shy of reaching 1,000 for the sixth straight season. He averaged 11.4 yards per reception, the lowest of his career. 

 


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Want Broncos news? Denver7 Broncos insider Troy E. Renck is your source. He talks to the players, covers the games and reports scoops on Denver7 and the Denver7 app. He is a CU grad who has covered pro sports in Colorado since 1996, including 14 years at The Denver Post. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and TheDenverChannel.com’s Broncos page. Troy welcomes most of your emails at Troy.Renck@kmgh.com.