CLEVELAND — It is fall in Cleveland, which means the temperatures are sinking and the wind is swirling. The walk to First Energy Stadium brought optimism so long a stranger in this city with this professional football team.
The darkness of decades has been replaced by hope even with their starting quarterback, top two running backs and right tackle sidelined with injury.
In a previous life, with Peyton Manning or John Elway, the Broncos would have treated this compromised Browns team like a bug on their windshield in the race to the playoffs. Now, their games look like someone sneezed on the Mona Lisa.
Showing why they were given only one prime time game this season, the Broncos were outclassed by the beat up Browns in a 17-14 loss, casting doubt on coach Vic Fangio's future and any number of his assistants.
"We've got to rally. We have to get back to playing better football. We have to convert more third downs on offense. We have to stop the run. We have to coach better. I don't want to be remiss in that," said Fangio, who indicated that he's not planning on changing any of assistants' duties
The Broncos lost their fourth consecutive game, tying the longest skid under Fangio in his third season. And it came with the typical genetic markers. Another first possession touchdown allowed by his defense, a slow start offensively and a double digit deficit at halftime.
The Broncos are winless in 12 games under Fangio when trailing by 10 points. The reasons are as simple as they are painful. The defense, which has his fingerprints all over it, cannot produce takeaways or third down stops with any regularity.
Worse, in a game Von Miller vowed to kill the Browns offensive tackles, the former All-Pro left in the second quarter with a left ankle injury after colliding awkwardly with teammate Dre'Mont Jones. Von finished with no sacks or wow moments.
"I brought on the animosity. I liked the space I was in. My pride is more hurt than my ankle. But I want to continue to make it personal," Miller said.
The Broncos defense had a chance, if only briefly, to change the outcome twice. The Broncos offense finally showed fight in the second half, scoring a pair of touchdowns on Teddy Bridgewater connections to Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. A slip screen to the rookie shaved the Browns cushion to 17-14 with 5:12 remaining.
And Denver got the ball back.
Cleveland leaned on third stringer D'Earnest Johnson to evaporate the clock as he eclipsed 100 yards for the first time in his career. He deserves credit for his performance, but the awful tackling on the final drive — it wasn't just limited to this march — was eye-opening as every one in the stadium knew they were running. They finished with 182 yards on the ground.
"I love the guys in our room. We will stick together and figure this out," promised Bridgewater, who finished 23 for 33 for 187 yards and two touchdowns and Fangio said he never considered replacing him. "We have a sense of urgency not just to save the season, but for a win."
A better chance to balance a teetering season arrived earlier.
On fourth-and-3 with 56 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Broncos had a ripe opportunity to reframe this season. A stop here, and the delusions of adequacy would no longer be mocked. This was a defining moment in a season that has gone sour more quickly than carnival lemonade.
Instead, Browns backup quarterback Case Keenum — yes the former Bronco — took the snap with an empty backfield. With no one open, he scrambled up the middle. Backup linebacker Curtis Robinson, in for the injured Micah Kiser, and Justin Strnad failed on tackles as Keenum ricocheted to the 1-yard line. He fumbled into the end zone as a Cleveland player pounced on it. That didn't count. His lob to fullback Johnny Stanton did, swelling Cleveland's cushion to 17-7 after three quarters.
"You are not going to be perfect everygame," Shelby Harris said. "That is the measure of a good defense, How you respond."
The significance of this deficit could not be overlooked when aware of Fangio's history.
In their only stand alone game, the Broncos began the first drive determined to show why they don't belong in prime time. This is the first time in three decades Denver will not be featured on Monday night.
They made a compelling argument that it was the right decision. The Browns shredded Broncos defense, otherwise known as the only reason Fangio is the head coach.
The Broncos promised better communication would limit big plays. They were gashed through the air — a 34-yard screen to tight end Austin Hooper — and the ground — Johnson ripped off a 20-yard run. Johnson, looking like Terrell Davis circa 1998, put his foot and the ground and cut in for a 4-yard score as the Browns became the fourth team in seven games to score against Denver on the opening possession.
The Broncos would respond — had to, right?
Not on the first drive. It was run, run, pass, punt, a meek three-and-out, foreshadowing an awful first quarter. Cleveland opened up a 10-0 advantage, controlling the clock for 9 minutes, 44 seconds. It was too easy as the Browns pushed the Broncos off the ball with alarming regularity.
Needing an answer to open the second quarter, Bridgewater made arguably his worst pass of the season. With Denver in field goal range on third-and-9 from the 31-yard line, he forced a deep pass to John Brown into the fanged teeth of the wind. Safety John Johnson III made the easy interception on the underthrown pass, squashing the drive.
The first half proved a case study on why it is foolish to build around a defense in the modern NFL. Every rule favors the other side of the ball. It showed Thursday. With backups, the Browns riddled the Broncos once hyped defense. They held the ball for nearly 22 minutes in the opening half.
Only a Shelby Harris block of Chase McLaughlin's 41-yard field goal late in the second quarter provided a glimmer of hope.
Just when it looked like it couldn't get worse, Miller was hurt with 1:02 left in the half. He walked off gingerly and after a quick examination exited to the locker room and never returned.
It was a crowbar to the shins in a painful, if not humiliating first half. The Broncos finished with two first downs, failed on four third down attempts and posted 76 yards. The Broncos had three first downs and 107 yards at Pittsburgh in the first half, both games indictment of embattled offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
Speculation persists that Shurmur could lose his post — quarterbacks coach Mike Shula has called plays in the past — as the Broncos have nosedived. The Broncos have been outscored 61-17 in the first halves of the past four games.
Everything about this game gave Denver a chance. But the Broncos lost to a coach-less team last week. So falling to a team without its quarterback was frustrating, but not surprising.
The Broncos are not a good team, their 3-4 record reflecting as much. They find ways to lose even when given a path to victory.
Now the quesation remains, will this team rally for pride or simply play out the string waiting for what feels like sweeping changes?