DENVER -- Fourth and wrong.
All the talk of dancing, talking and gaining confidence dissolved into a puddle of disappointment Sunday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Dome.
There was not enough pixie dust left to sprinkle in the fourth quarter after a second straight retina-burning start created a troubling sinkhole.
The Broncos arrived at relevancy's doorstep, needing a win to reach .500 for the first time since 2018. Instead, a "terrible" beginning became impossible to overcome as the Falcons eclipsed the Broncos 34-27 in a game that puts talk of the postseason firmly on pause.
"Our pass defense wasn't good enough from the play-calling to the pass rush to the coverage," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "I do think we are getting better, but it's hard to see that when you have a game like we did today. We need to become more consistent."
Hey, at least the Broncos were not booed off the field. Several players took umbrage with the criticism last week from their home fans. They might want to stay off social media and tune out talk radio after Matt Ryan riddled the injury-ravaged secondary and Denver's offense again hibernated for three quarters.
Other than a stat padding fourth quarter and Jerry Jeudy's career performance (seven catches, 125 yards), there was little redeeming value in losing to a team that had not won a home game this season.
"There are no excuses," said Broncos quarterback Drew Lock. "We have to figure it out."
The Broncos teased with 9:56 remaining in the game. They trailed 27-13, and had produced a stop. What followed was an offensive line breakdown -- Lloyd Cushenberry and Austin Schlottmann have had rough moments -- and a costly decision by Lock. Drifting backward and off balance, Lock threw a ball up for grabs in the middle of the field to Jeudy. The Falcons picked it off, and Todd Gurley scored moments later.
"Drew's a fighter like all of our guys," Fangio said. "But as an offense we just looked out of sort until we went no-huddle."
Added Lock, "That's a throw i should make."
That play is ultimately what finished off the Broncos, despite fourth-quarter scores from Lock, Jeudy and Tim Patrick.
Where to start with what went wrong?
The Falcons did not punt in the first half, racing to a 17-point first half advantage. Ryan toyed with cornerback Davontae Harris, moved into the lineup with Bryce Callahan (ankle) and A.J. Bouye (concussion) out, picking on him for a huge chunk of his 216 first-half yards. Ryan finished 25 of 35 for 284 yards and three scores.
"We didn't compete enough. It wasn't good enough," safety Justin Simmons said. "We just didn't make enough plays. We didn't give ourselves a chance. That first half was terrible."
The Broncos countered the Falcons with another sleepy opening. Denver totaled 112 yards, and converted one third down in the first 30 minutes.
There's a reason the 21-point rally last week ranked fourth best in franchise history. Comebacks like that rarely happen. Any realistic chance of a furious finish evaporated early in the third when Ryan found Julio Jones for a 21-yard score. He functioned as a decoy before locking up rookie Michael Ojemudia's ankles.
At 3-5, the Broncos need a telescope to see the playoff race with their first-ever game in Las Vegas against the Raiders looming Sunday.
Not saying it was tough day, but talk show host Colin Cowherd tweeted asking for an update on Lock's dancing. Those jabs come with playing the most high-profile position in sports. I love Lock's exuberance, but it brings added scrutiny. The NFL is not a try-hard league. It's about results, and the Broncos fell into sinkhole in the first halves the past two weeks.
Not only have they been outscored 34-6, but Justin Herbert and Ryan completed 38 of 50 passes for 405 yards, four touchdowns, one sack and one interception. Denver countered by going 2-for-12 on third down in that stretch.
The Broncos showed life by scoring on the opening drive of the second half. It was still clumsy, and spoiled by third string right tackle Jake Rodgers blowing an assignment on third down. Facing a 20-6 deficit, Simmons showed why he's the best center fielder in Denver (sorry Kevin Pillar). He read the post route and raced across the field for the leaping turnover.
Now the question hung in the air: Could the offense, which had 112 first half yards, make it matter? In a word, nope. Not until it was too late.
"In first half we stunk," Lock said. "We have to be better. There's no magical potion for that to happen. It's going to come with work. We are all over, 'it's part of the process because we are young guys.'^"
The Broncos went three-and-out, the offensive line bending under pressure and no big plays materializing. Atlanta ended Denver's delusions of another miracle finish when Ryan found Jones for the too-easy 21-yard score. It was a forgettable stretch as officials flagged the Broncos for two personal fouls on Bradley Chubb and Kareem Jackson, and Jeremiah Attaochu whiffed on a sack.
Those watching closely from this point viewed from the lens of morbid curiosity: could the Falcons, as is their wont, page Dr. Heimlich again?
Lock finished 25 of 48 for 313 yards, two touchdowns and the cringeworthy fourth-quarter interception. He also led the team in rushing with 47 yards on seven carries and a score. However, the bulk of his stats came over the final 15 minutes. The Sparknotes summary of the Broncos' offense through Lock's numbers over the past two weeks screams they should use more uptempo.
Fourth quarter vs. Chargers, Falcons: 25-for-39, 272 yards, 5 TDs passing, 1 rushing score, 1 INT. Other six quarters: 26-for-50, 293 yards, 0 TDs, 1 pick.
"I will never admit to it not being our day on offense. We have to figure out how to get it done (better early). Not just me, everybody," Lock said. "Maybe it's an extra 10 minutes on the field. ... But a loss is a loss. Quite honestly, I am comfortable taking the blame every Sunday if we lose. I think I am good enough to take on (that responsibility)."
The Broncos began Sunday by exchanging their hiking boots for Crocs. Callahan was a surprise absence after his ankle did not respond in pregame warmups. It left the Broncos facing Ryan in his 208th start with rookies starting at cornerback: Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey.
To protect the kids, Fangio leaned on zone coverage. The Broncos showed elasticity on the opening drive -- Ryan completed five passes -- but heated it up with a safety blitz by Simmons to stifle the Falcons.
Younghoe Koo drilled a 52-yard field goal to give Atlanta a 3-0 lead. The Broncos offense flickered on its initial drive. Lock connected with Noah Fant on a 32-yard catch and run. It quickly dissolved as Fant left with a right ankle injury and the Broncos, after calling a timeout, eschewed a 58-yard field goal from Brandon McManus in favor of a punt. Fangio said special teams coordinator Tom McMahon talked him out of trying the field goal.
It was poor clock management and a worse result. Punter Sam Martin, who had huge week against the Chargers, netted 26 yards on the punt. Ryan, wearing a bib because he was slobbering at the prospect of facing Denver's young corners, went to work. With the Broncos getting gashed on the run and late on the outside pressure, Ryan floated a 52-yard rainbow strike to Olamide Zaccheaus for a touchdown as he raced past Harris.
Harris was kept on the team in place of De'Vante Bausby, who helped the Broncos beat the Jets, because of his special teams acumen. Bausby elected not to return to Denver's practice squad, tired of the juggling, and joined Arizona's active roster.
Broncos shaved the Falcons' advantage to 10-3, but it felt hollow. Lock overthew a touchdown pass to Patrick, who believed was held on the play. McManus nailed a 43-yarder, which proved a mere waterbreak for the Falcons' offense. Ryan went right back to work picking on Harris. Zaccheus eclipsed the 100-yard mark with a 42-yard reception on Harris, who appeared to be bench for a time in favor of Kevin Tolliver.
Ryan then lasered a 9-yard completion to Brandon Powell for a score as the Falcons widened their cushion to 17-3 with 9:18 remaining in the first half. After a three-and-out, the Falcons kept simmering. They scored on all of their first half possessions, though Denver took some solace in Dre'Mont Jones sack forcing Atlanta into a field goal.
Trailing 20-3, the Broncos began their fourth drive with 1:48 remaining in half. It ended fruitlessly, a symbol of the Falcons' mauling. The first half stats conjured memories of the Chargers' game: Ryan completed 18 of 23 passes for 216 yards, part of an Atlanta attack that collected 258 yards and went 6-of-8 on third downs. The Broncos countered with Lock going 7-for-14 for 98 yards, as Denver's run game became a rumor (25 yards) and the team converted 1 of 5 on third down.
"There are times we show that we are a hell of a football team in all three phases. And there's games we just don't put it all together," Simmons said. "Defensively, you are not going to win any games playing like we did in in the first half."
Added Jeudy, taking no joy from his huge stats, "We are all tired of losing. We just have work harder."
The fourth quarter provided a glimmer of the offense's potential. But the promise feels empty after a loss that could sting for weeks, if not months.
"We have to hit our stride earlier in the game," Lock said. "There's a lot of football left. If we come out and win the next two and go to 5-5, who knows? But we have to do something in the first half."
Defensive end Shelby Harris should return from COVID-19 restricted list on Monday. ...
CEO Joe Ellis and GM John Elway are remaining in communication with officials in the organization and are feeling good. They are hoping to return to work in person, if possible, later in the week if cleared. ...
Right tackle Demar Dotson injured his groin, missing half the game. ...
Rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam hurt his right knee, limped off the field and did not return.