ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Thirty minutes is not a long time. But in the first half Sunday, the Broncos transformed from a potential playoff team to a club facing a bleak final stretch with angry fans providing an unsympathetic soundtrack.
One defeat can change everything.
The Broncos own a losing record, and in three of their seven defeats have suffered historical defensive failures. The Jets and Rams ran for a combined 593 yards, most ever allowed in back-to-back games. Denver fixed its rush defense, and entered Levi's Stadium with one job: slow tight end George Kittle. Instead, he delivered one of the greatest first halves in NFL history, catching seven passes for 210 yards.
Kittle racing untouched for 85 yards will be melted into the Broncos' brains if they miss the postseason or fail to avoid the franchise's first back-to-back losing seasons since 1972.
With the Browns arriving on Saturday night, a look back at my Denver7 takeaways from the loss:
Kittle posted three chunk plays of 31, 52 and 85 yards. One? OK. Three serves as an indictment on the scheme and the players. Multiple players said the 85-yarder was a blown assignment, not the wrong call. But questions about the game plan permeated the locker room, with some openly wondering why they didn't play more zone. Regardless, the result was unacceptable.
Case Keenum morphed into an effective game manager during the three-game winning streak. Over his last six games, he has seven touchdowns and one interception. Not bad. Except for this salient point: The Broncos were so determined to play not to lose Sunday they prevented any chance of winning. Keenum completed 24 of 42 passes for 186 yards. It calculated to 4.43 yards per attempt, easily his lowest of the season. Not having Emmanuel Sanders hurt. The Broncos refused to throw downfield, playing into the hands of a vulnerable 49ers defense.
Run and hide
The Broncos insisted they were prepared for the San Francisco defensive front. They said they knew they would stuff the box. The 49ers employed a tactic used by the Chiefs. Center Connor McGovern blamed himself, saying he did not make the correct adjustments at the line in the first half. The Broncos finished with 103 yards in the ground, but could not find balance once San Francisco stopped Phillip Lindsay.
I said Friday it would be harder for the Broncos to cover for cornerback Chris Harris' absence than any player lost this season. It proved true. He is the quarterback of the secondary, and his coaching on the field was sorely missed. The good news? Monday, Harris told Denver7 the chipped bone in fibula has all but healed. He needs to build strength in muscles around it. Regarding a return this season, he insisted, "I should be back."
First off, rookie DaeSean Hamilton played fine in his first extended action. He caught seven passes for 47 yards. Tim Patrick added seven receptions for a team-best 85 yards. That was it for the passing game. Courtland Sutton, battling a quad issue, caught two passes, and struggled to gain separation in the fourth quarter. There was no deep threat like Sanders to create spacing. No big plays led the Broncos to open the game with six consecutive punts.
Chasing points, lacking discipline
The Broncos continue to chase points. It is a byproduct of trailing often and four straight horrible first quarters where they have scored a total of three points. Going for it on fourth down twice early in the fourth proved unnnecessary. It made sense in this way: The Broncos had to wonder how many scoring opportunities they would have given how poorly they performed. But the desperation bit them. Falling behind 20-0 in the first half doomed them. They might win if not for the 49ers final scoring drive in the first half. It was fueled by five defensive penalties. Five. That's just silly.
Vance Joseph has won a single replay challenge in two seasons. He lost one on San Francisco's final drive, costing the Broncos a timeout. Given the eyes in the sky and the analytics available on game day, it remains hard to fathom how poorly this has gone for Denver. The Broncos possess no margin for error, so mistakes on the coaching side become amplified as much as blown assignments.