DENVER — The chamber of commerce ordered this postcard: Sun splashed on Empower Field at Mile High, bathing a sellout crowd in 76-degree temperature. It was the perfect setting to paint a picture of relevance.
Instead, the Broncos splattered Ragu on their Mona Lisa, smothered by the Ravens in a 23-7 loss, the indignity made worse by an injury to Teddy Bridgewater.
"It wasn't good enough," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "We are onto the next game. We can't have a hangover."
The Broncos quarterback excited with a concussion at the end of the first half, a painful reminder of a forgettable Sunday. Denver understood the narrative before kickoff.
The Broncos had not played or beaten anyone of consequence. Nationally, their undefeated record was viewed with more skepticism than appreciation. Baltimore wandered into town as an opponent capable of providing legitimacy to the Broncos' eye-opening start.
From the second quarter on, it was clear the Broncos moved up in weight class, and weren't capable of winning this fight. When Bridgewater left, the Broncos were down eight starters from the opener. Problem is the Ravens have logged nearly as many injuries, and when it comes to the NFL, 90 percent of people don't care about a team's problems and the other 10 percent are glad they've got them.
"They had their way with us," Miller said. "It’s disappointing. We let this sting for a couple of hours and then get back in the lab and get back to work. We've got a lot of tough guys and we have to respond."
At 4:07 mountain time, Drew Lock entered the game. Eleven minutes later, Bridgewater was ruled out, making it a race for him to play at Pittsburgh given the hurdles that must be cleared. Bridgewater left with ugly numbers -- 7-for-16 for 65 yards -- and a myriad of bruises.
"He said he was doing better as the day (advanced)," said Fangio of Bridgewater.
The Ravens sacked him twice and hit him five times. The last one was vicious. Odafe Oweh beat right guard Netane Muti and his helmet smashed Bridgewater in the facemask (pictured above). Officials refused to flag Oweh -- he could face a fine -- as Bridgewater walked off slowly never to return.
How bad was it? Sam Martin punted for the 10th punt with 8:27 remaining. No team had 10 punts in a game this season. The Broncos nearly pulled it off in three quarters. Credit to the Ravens defense, which entered with questions about its secondary, for making life miserable for Denver. The Broncos finished 3-of-14 on third down.
"I am really angry with myself. I am my biggest critic," left tackle Garett Bolles said. "Today I took a punch to the face. I have to get back off the mat and figure it out and fix the things."
The idea was to scatter the sawdust and throw punches. Instead, the Broncos went UFC, defined by kicks. And punts. After three fizzled drives proved the passing game out of sync, the Broncos hooked up the mudflaps in their only redeemable moment offensively.
Javonte Williams left the crowd of 74,132 in full throat as he refused to take a hint. He ran through five tackles, the only thing missing in his 31-yard Earl Campbell run was the tearaway jersey. Williams and Melvin Gordon finished with 77 rushing yards, the lone highlight in a forgettable first half. Williams' run set up Bridgewater's 3-yard scoring pass to Noah Fant against the blitz.
And that was it, the cheers suddenly drown out by sad trombones. Early in the fourth quarter, the crowd booed Lock and the sputtering offense, which had only 35 yards in the third quarter.
"It was a collective thing," Fangio said.
The Ravens rolled up their sleeves and began landing jabs to the throat in the second throat. Trailing 7-0, the Ravens raced down the field, Lamar Jackson starting to percolate in what became one of the best first halves of his career with 184 yards through the air. Latavius Murray provided the response with an 11-yard score.
Everything changed moments later. Baltimore's Jackson continued to play with glossy enthusiasm, jumping off the page. He stood in the pocket and delivered a touchdown strike. No longer is he Inglewood Brown, call him Hollywood as the receiver hauled in a 49-yard diving score. Jackson finished 22 of 37 for 316 yards.
"It's just disappointing," safety Justin Simmons said of the deflating loss after the pregame hype.
The play grew in significance as the Broncos offensive line boarded the struggle bus. Playing without starting guards Graham Glasgow and Dalton Risner, Denver could not prevent leaks upfront. Bridgewater absorbed big hits, getting up slowly three different times before Oweh's crushing blow.
Needing to win in the margins, the Broncos special teams continued running mental lapse. Denver allowed a 44-yard punt return late in the second quarter. Baltimore is always in field goal range and future Hall of Famer Justin Tucker drilled a 40-yarder with 31 seconds remaining. It's unfortunate it did not end the half. Bridgewater walked from the field to the locker room to the concussion protocol and never returned.
The chances of the Broncos winning, already shrinking, stayed with him. Lock finished 12-for-21 for 113 yards and an interception.
"I got word before I came out onto the field and got as many throws as I could," Lock said. "I am not going to make an excuse. I am not sure there are not many reps during the week when you are the backup. That's my job right now. And it wasn't good enough."
The Ravens chipped away, leading 17-7 at half and 20-7 after three quarters. Only a respectable defensive outing kept hope flickering. The Broncos kept the Ravens ground game in check, notched three sacks, including two from rookie safety Caden Sterns on blitzes, but could not contain Jackson.
He's unorthodox. The Broncos had no answers. Only more injuries. It was only one loss in a terrific first quarter of the season. But with upcoming games against the Steelers, Raiders and Browns, they have to show more.
Sunday, the Ravens took the measuring stick and beat the Broncos over the head with it.
Risner's streak ends
Dalton Risner began Monday with a boot on his foot. By Friday, he practiced, creating optimism he would play. In the end he did not make enough progress, declared inactive, ending his streak of 35 straight starts to begin his career. Risner played through ankle and shoulder injuries in his first two seasons. His absence creates the starting debut for rookie Quinn Meinerz, the third round pick from Division III University of Wisconsin Whitewater. Meinerz worked at center during training camp, but is more comfortable at guard.
He logged 25 snaps last week after Risner's injury. Netane Muti, a second year player from Fresno State, will start in place of the injured Graham Glasgow (knee) right guard. The Broncos began Sunday without seven starters: Risner, Glasgow, Ronald Darby, Josey Jewell, K.J. Hamler, Jerry Jeudy and Bradley Chubb.
Caden Sterns produced a breakout day. He notcked two sacks and a pass breakup. ...
Cornerback Pat Surtain II was getting treatment on his ribs late in the fourth quarter. .. .
There were 2,358 no shows.