MINNEAPOLIS — Fueled by slights, motivated by losses, the Broncos arrived at U.S. Bank Stadium angry. Phillip Lindsay provided a glimplse as he screamed encouragement at teammates as they headed to the locker room before kickoff. Sunday was going to be different. And it was for 30 breathtaking minutes. Then it wasn't. The best half of the Broncos' season was followed by a staggering collapse.
The Broncos squandered a 20-point lead, falling 27-23 to the Minnesota Vikings before a record crowd of 66,883. The Broncos Fast start only left them Furious with a hollow ending after three incompletions from the 4-yard line as time expired.
"We didn't finish. We had our chances," coach Vic Fangio lamented. "It was tight down there. Guys our hanging onto each other and they are going to let them play."
Denver showed resolve after falling behind 27-23 with six minutes left. The Broncos converted on an third-and-13 with Royce Freeman juking a defender, and on a fourth-down, 11-yard reception by rookie Noah Fant. At this point, a Brandon Allen first half interception and a Brandon McManus missed field goal lingered as the defense couldn't match its dominant first half.
One more big play from Courtland Sutton could have changed the outcome. But Allen said the star was double covered in the final sequence with Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo shadowing him.
"That's the respect him deserves. I thought other guys separated," said Allen, who completed 17 of 39 passes for 240 yards, a touchdown and an interception. "I was trying to give guys a chance, and it didn't work out."
It came down to this: The Broncos in possession on the 30-yard line with 2:01 remaining. Allen misfired on a long pass to Fant down the sideline. Allen connected with Patrick on fourth down to bring the pulse back. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the 15-yard with 27 seconds remaining, the Broncos called timeout. They wasted 10 seconds deciding the play because Allen couldn't hear the signal in his helmet. Allen faked to Lindsay and scooted 11 yards for the first down at the 4-yard line, but it left only 10 seconds left. The first play was an incomplete pass to Patrick, leaving six seconds.
"They swallow the flag, but when it has something to do with me seeing the ball, you can’t swallow that," said Patrick of potential interference on the play. "Did you see it?"
Allen took the shotgun snap and fired incomplete to Fant. Two seconds remained. One play for one of the biggest victories since Super Bowl 50. Allen failed to connect with Fant as time expired for another heart-in-a-blender defeat.
The collapse might have hurt worst than the losses to the Bears, Jaguars and Colts combined.
"When you lose it sucks," said running back Phillip Lindsay, who finished with 67 yards rushing on 16 carries. "But we have to find ways to stay on the field. We have to learn to finish. We are a young team learning how to do that. As you can see we are not far off from these teams. We have to finish. We had these games in the book."
Why did this one leave an indelible bruise? The start sat in contrast to the fourth quarter when Denver dissolved into tears.
The first 30 minutes teased of one the league's biggest upsets this season.
Broncos let down their hair and went to the air, scoring 10 points on their first three drives. That's rather remarkable considering they average 16 points per game. They used heavy personnel to loosen up Minnesota's interior with bursts from Lindsay and Freeman for 31 yards on those possessions. It created openings down the field with an effective aerial strategy: throw to Sutton, use the tight ends and have Allen focus on one side of the field. Allen connected with Fant for a 31-yarder to set up a 47-yard field goal by Brandon McManus, marking the fifth time the Broncos have scored on an opening drive this season.
On Denver's third drive, Allen recognized a simple truth: throwing to your best receiver brings benefits. Allen connected with Sutton on a 48-yard pass down the left side. The beauty? Sutton was covered and Allen gave him a chance to make play. Moments later, Sutton beat Xavier Rhodes in man coverage, drawing a 24-yard penalty. After Allen chunked a changeup at the feet of a wide open Fant in the end zone, he redeemed himself. He drilled a scoring pass to Troy Fumagalli, who emerged from witness protection for the fist career touchdown.
With the Broncos angry over their underdog status – it was a 10.5-point line – it triggered an avalanche of excellence. With a secure lead, the Broncos marched 69 yards on 10 plays, capped by Andy Janovich's 1-yard mudflapping plunge into the end zone.
Rather than put hands at their waist, the Broncos kept swinging, embracing the role of the ugly guy in the fight. Shelby Harris spearhead a breathtaking defensive effort. He recorded two first-half sacks and finished with three. He caused a fumble with his first one that Alexander Johnson recovered.
"I want to win," Harris said. "My stats don't matter."
McManus drilled a 29-yard field goal, swelling the advantage to 20-0, Denver's largest first half shutout lead since 2013. It what was hard to believe, but Denver left points on the board. The Broncos recovered the ensuing kickoff, but Allen's inexperience showed. His eyes shifted late to the middle of the field, and he threw an easy interception to Sendejo on a ball headed for Fant in the end zone.
"We were on the same page, it was probably a bad throw by me," said Allen of a mistake that grew in significance in the second half. "I tried to force it, and made a bad play."
It failed to take the shine off the Broncos' best 30 minutes under Fangio. The stats: Denver outgained the Vikings 217-47, produced 12 first downs to four, and limited the Vikings to 47 total yards. Sutton not only caught a 48-yard pass, but completed a 38-yarder to Tim Patrick on reserve pitch from Lindsay out of the wildcat formation.
The embarrassed Vikings -- booed off the field at halftime -- responded with vigor. They zoomed 75 yards on nine plays in their opening scoring drive. Stefon Diggs did the heavy lifting with a 44-yard reception as the Vikings began picking on cornerback Davontae Harris. Kirk Cousins finished the march with a 10-yard strike to tight end Irv Smith Jr., shaving the deficit 20-7. This is the moment where the Broncos showed elasticity, if not weakness throughout this season. They found strength with a counterpunch. With their drive extended by a silly Vikings neutral zone infraction as Broncos lined up for the punt, Denver capitalized. They gorged 7 minutes, 6 seconds off the clock. McManus nailed a 41-yarder as the lead inflated to 23-7.
It wasn't enough.
Using a suspect interference call on Duke Dawson against Smith, the Vikings showed life and burst. Dalvin Cook, who entered the game as the NFL's leading rusher, finally appeared in the fourth quarter. He bounced outside on a 2-yard run, shrinking Denver's lead to 23-13. A two-point conversion and stand followed. Cook attempted to find the edge again, but Derek Wolfe smashed him short of the goal line, leaving it a two-possession game with 13:25 remaining.
The Broncos' inability to adjust and their special teams came back to haunt them. A Colby Wadman 36-yard punt was muffed by the returner, a possible turnover that could have sealed the Broncos' upset. Denver failed to recover in the pile, and Wadman's latest inconsistency led to good field position. The Vikings responded with a 35-second scoring drive as Diggs caught a 54 yard touchdown on a backside post pattern where there was a breakdown. Help called, Fangio said, didn't materialize over the top.
The halves offered a jarring juxtaposition. The Vikings outgained Denver 274-177, including 251 through the air as they used more uptempo and no-huddle. The Vikings posted 15 first downs to Denver's four, and the Broncos were 2-for-10 on third down compared to 4-for-6 for Minnesota.
"In the second half we just didn't execute," Harris Jr. said. Asked about how good the Vikings are, he turned his head and blurted, "Next question."
The crowd reached 114 decibels on the Broncos' next possession as Denver clung to a 23-20 lead.
With Fangio and offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello showing they learned from the flawed turtle-in-shell philosophy against the Colts, they opened up. Allen connected on a 43-yard pass to Sutton down the middle of the field. Sutton jumped up and motioned for crowd to be quiet. They weren't for long. The Broncos drive fizzled with a third down run to Devontae Booker and a missed 43-yard miss by McManus. It was Denver's season in a snapshot.
"That miss potentially cost us the game. I probably got too excited with the energy in the air, probably went at it a little too quick. I kicked the ground. It was a bad kick," said McManus, who is 18-for-22 on field goals this season. "It's tough, especially when a bad play by me is part of the loss. We have to finish like we used to. I can't miss a kick like that with how well I have done from inside the 40."
The Vikings roared down the field with Vikings picking on Duke Dawson. Diggs beat him for a first down and a miscommunication led nowhere near Kyle Ruldolph on a 32-yard score that shoved the Vikings ahead 27-23 with six minutes remaining. The scoring toss was a Gary Kubiak special. The former Broncos coach now Vikings offensive czar called for the bootleg. Cousins fooled everyone and could have run the ball to Rudolph.
Sunday provided a reminder of how close the Broncos are, but how they operate with no margin for error. The Broncos had their chance. They started fast, and exited to the team bus furious yet again.
"There are no moral victories," Miller said. "It sucks."
Three and out
The Broncos faced the Vikings shorthanded. They played without three starters -- right tackle Ja'Wuan James (left knee), tight end Jeff Heuerman (right knee) and defensive end DeMarcus Walker (right shoulder). James and Heuerman were not expected to play based on their practice participation. James strained his MCL in the season opener then "set back the healing processs" when he re-injured it against the Colts. He told Denver7 he expects to play again soon in a what has been a frustrating season limited to 32 snaps. Heuerman has battled injuries throughout his career. Walker thought he would be ready to face the Vikings after the bye week after gaining increased mobility in his shoulder. Walker looked forward to going against former Florida State teammate DeMarcus Walker. "I really wanted to face that man," said Walker, who hopes to end his two-game absence by being active against the Bills.
Players refute report of strife
Broncos players were surprised at the national CBS report Sunday about strife among the Broncos and issues with Fangio.
"That's bull(bleep). I love playing for him," Harris said. Von Miller added to Denver7, "Troy I wouldn’t lie to you. If I didn’t like him I would be first to tell you. I love the way he coaches and calls games.”
Players did not dispute that Emmanuel Sanders was unhappy before he was traded to San Francisco, something that was reported when he was shipped to San Francisco. But none publicly or privately were critical of Fangio.
"There are most definitely not any issues. I personally love that man and I know as an offense we respect the hell out of that man as a coach," rookie left guard Dalton Risner said. "We have bought into his system. I know I speak for the entire offense on that. We all appreciate him, respect him and will continue playing hard for him."
There is fear fullback Andy Janovich's season could be over. He hyperextended his elbow on a pass reception, awkwardly pressing into the turf. In obvious pain, he hustled off the field and into the lockerroom and was immediately ruled out. Andrew Beck replaced him, but he's not a blocker of Janovich's ilk. ... Not long after Tim Patrick caught a 38 yard pass from receiver Courtland Sutton, he injured his right shoulder, and underwent exams at the stadium. He returned in the second quarter, a sigh of relief after missing the previous eight games with an injury. ... Former Highlands Ranch High and Wyoming star Mike Purcell hurt his ribs on the Vikings' first offensive play. He appeared to get struck by a teammate. He was carted to the lockerroom for tests. With Purcell out -- and he has spearheaded Denver's improved run defense over the previous five weeks -- Shelby Harris shifted to nose tackle and Adam Gotsis took over at defensive end. However, he returned in the second quarter and made a stop for a loss on his first play back. ... The Broncos' gameday captains: Von Miller, Andy Janovich and Joe Jones. ... Broncos rookie Dre'Mont Jones recorded the first sack of his career in the third quarter.