LOS ANGELES -- At kickoff, the sound told the story.
The game's broadcast boasted all the energy of play-by-play of a city council meeting.
Even the Chargers, with rookie sensation Justin Herbert, could not electrify this matchup. It was more buzzkill than buzzworthy. The Broncos entered with losses in three of their past four games, a stretch that clobbered their playoff dreams for the fifth consecutive year. Coach Vic Fangio will receiver another season to execute a rebound, but Sunday showed the daunting climb to relevancy.
It was ugly, uneven, briefly inspiring and ultimately unsatisfying.
"I know Broncos fans are tired of me saying it, but it's the little things," said quarterback Drew Lock.
The Broncos stumbled just enough in a 19-16 loss that helped Denver's draft selection, but revealed a team short on talent with sobering issues among key young players. They were trounced by a division rival with pride on line. The Broncos went years without playing games like this — now it's the standard in December.
A victory mattered little (Denver can draft as high as sixth overall if it loses next week and several other teams fall). Sunday was about evaluation, leaving repeated gaffes by Lock, the staggering drops by Jerry Jeudy, and stretches of poor tackling difficult to digest. The final score only hinted of a team that has ground to cover in the AFC West, where the Broncos have dropped 11 straight against to the Kansas City Chiefs and are 1-4 in the division this season with one game remaining against the Raiders.
Lock aimed to make a statement that he should remain The Man entering the offseason. He failed to create confidence in the first half, extending his turnover streak to 11 straight games on an awful interception on the game's first drive.
"It's a play where I have to throw it away. They picked it off. That's what I saw," said Lock, who finished 24 of 47 for 264 yards and two interceptions. "That's one of those plays I have to get out of me."
It spoke to Sunday's issues when Jeudy dropped a touchdown in the end zone. Lock missed him on a wide-open bomb and then Jeudy clanked a bomb that could have won the game on the final drive. Humbled and frustrated, Jeudy admitted he had never performed this poorly in his life.
"There were plays I was supposed to make, and I dropped them. Sometimes drops happen. Like I said (on the last one), I watched it come in and dropped it. It was unacceptable," said Jeudy, who finished with six catches for 61 yards on 15 targets. "I can't dwell on it. I have to fix it."
Because their defense forced three three-and-outs in the second half, the Broncos rallied. Brandon McManus knotted the game at 16 with a 52-yard field goal with 2:42 remaining. However, the Broncos could not stifle Herbert a final time. Michael Badgley shoved the Chargers ahead, and the Broncos watched with mouths agape as the final drive dissolved before their eyes.
"You can be good all day, but if you have a couple of bad plays that's going to overshadow everything," linebacker Alexander Johnson said. "That's how it is in this league."
Struggling teams possess staples. The Falcons cannot hold a lead, the Jets have no situational awareness, and the Broncos sabotage themselves on special teams. Denver saw no reason to wait as the Chargers' Nasir Adderley romped 53 yards on the opening kickoff, shoved out of bounds by McManus. The Broncos' stiffened in the red zone as Badgley drilled a 37-yard field goal.
The glare brightened on Lock, even in an empty stadium, as he took over trailing. A plodding drive showed promise with connections to Tim Patrick and Jeudy before Lock again fell for the banana in the tailpipe. Scrambling to his left, Lock had chance to run out of bounds on third-and-6 from the 16-yard line. Instead he threw off balance, off script, missing inside on a ball intended for DaeSean Hamilton.
"You can't throw interceptions in the red zone," Fangio said.
It's startling that Lock cannot learn from previous mistakes, making his performance against the Panthers appear as an outlier. Lock began the week saying he still believes he's "The Guy," but ball security is job security in the NFL and the inability to protect the rock has placed his status going into the offseason in doubt.
The Broncos' attempt to tie the game early in the second ended in disbelief. McManus boinked a field goal off the left upright, and after a Chargers' offside call, repeated the feat on a 37-yarder, leaving him fuming on the sidelines after his first miss from inside 40 yards since 2017.
McManus chunked two extra points against the Panthers, then sat out last Sunday's game while on the COVID-19 restricted list as Taylor Russolino was "terrible" in his absence.
Because the Broncos cannot have nice things or leads, the Chargers capitalized. Chests bowed out after ending their nine-game AFC West losing streak last week, Los Angeles inflated its advantage to 10-0 as Austin Ekeler won his matchup with linebacker Josey Jewell, squirting in for a 9-yard touchdown with 8:23 remaining in the half. Herbert -- who is going to be a problem for years to come -- set the single-season NFL rookie record with his 28th passing score.
Another Badgely boot widened the cushion to 13-0 with 2:38 left. Broncos controlled the clock, but stared at a goose egg after their first three possessions ended in a turnover, missed field goal and punt.
The poor first half performance left few unscathed. Jeudy, eager for more targets after posting four catches in his last five games, dropped back-to-back passes late in the second, undermining a potential scoring drive.
"Take it from a guy that's messed up here and there -- you've just got to keep pushing, keep fighting. I'm going to keep getting you the ball," Lock told Jeudy. "He's too good of a player to hang his head and be frustrated."
It was a forgettable day for the prized rookie, and a moment that will only become memorable if it defines his rebound.
The same could be said for the team.
"We've got to make our FGs, we've got to catch the ball when it's thrown to us, we've got to throw the ball more accurately," Fangio said. "I was proud of the way we competed, but we have to do better."
Broncos receiver K.J. Hamler left in the first quarter after sustaining a concussion on a reverse. ...
Broncos' inactive list featured no surprises with Phillip Lindsay (hip/knee) placed on injured reserve Saturday and outside linebacker Bradley Chubb (ankle) ruled out. The other inactives included Tyrie Cleveland, Sylvester Williams, Jeff Driskel and Demar Dotson. ...
Broncos coach Fangio said Shelby Harris considered going home before the game to be with his wife for the birth of their son, but chose to stay. The Broncos provided a chartered flight to get Harris home a few hours before the team. ...
Rookie running back LeVante Bellamy, backing up Melvin Gordon with Lindsay out, hurt his left ankle in the second quarter. ...