The Broncos took a different path to a familiar destination

Sep 17, 2023, 10:08 PM


(Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

DENVER — Well, in a manner of speaking, this defeat was different for the Broncos.

After years of narrow losses in which the defense held down an opponent, only for the offense to wheeze its way to a point tally somewhere in the teens, this 35-33 loss to the Washington Commanders saw the offense strike fast, strike deep and strike early, staking the Broncos to their first three-score lead in any game since Dec. 12, 2021.

Of course, “strike early” reveals part of the problem.

Because after the Broncos opened with three touchdowns in as many possessions, they didn’t find the end zone again until a miraculous, two-deflection “Hail Mary” touchdown reception by Brandon Johnson that put the Broncos within a two-point conversion of an overtime that seemed impossible just moments earlier.

Alas, Johnson’s touchdown — and the pass-interference non-call on a two-point conversion attempt to Courtland Sutton — are footnotes.

And for those who want to pin the loss on the flag that never came, well … just ask Sutton himself, who gestured for a penalty in the seconds afterward, but struck a more reasoned tone in the locker room after the game.

“You can’t leave it in the hands of the uncontrollables,” Sutton said. “Just gotta find a way to make a play.”

The Broncos, once again, did not.


Denver is now a league-worst 5-16 in one-score games since the start of the 2021 season. When you lose close that often, it’s not that there aren’t glimmers in almost every game. Rarely do the defeats reach the total-meltdown stage like the Christmas Day Massacre in the shadow of LAX last year.

Games like that are the exception.

Sunday’s game is more the norm — even though more sparks came from the offensive side of the football than Broncos Country is accustomed to seeing. Often those sparks have come through the pass rush, a lockdown effort from Pat Surtain II or a Justin Simmons interception.

Sunday, they came from vertical strikes to Marvin Mims Jr., an accompanying ground game that found early momentum, and adroit play design that led to a touchdown on the Broncos’ first drive.

It seemed like it was all clicking.

“We’ve shown the sparks that we can have the success,” Sutton said.

And then …

“If we can just mimic what we’ve done in the first half of both of these games and put that into the second half,” Sutton added, “who knows where we would be at right now?”

Certainly not 0-2.

But after those three game-opening touchdown drives, the Broncos didn’t find the end zone again until the miracle pass. They came within one yard of it on their next-to-last series, but that drive collapsed like the protection itself.

Things looked different for the offense after those early marches. Passing plays went awry. The pre-snap process bogged down in inefficiency — by the fourth quarter, with an 11-point deficit, the Broncos seemed sluggish, as though they needed just one score rather than two.

“Offensively, we were slow with our communication,” coach Sean Payton said. “That was frustrating. That has to start with us, with me.”

And it wasn’t just on that drive, either.

“There were a number of drives where we were late with personnel,” Payton said. “Getting out of the huddle we took a while. That has to change. We had to burn timeouts in the first half, and I’m not used to doing [that]. We have to be better. I have to be better. Russ (Wilson) has to be sharper with getting the play out, and then we have to look at how much we have in.

“If we need to wristband it, we will.”

The Broncos gained 226 net yards on their first three possessions in storming to a 21-3 lead.

Their next four series had a total net of 2 yards. Six feet. Seventy-two inches.

Meanwhile, the Commies controlled the means of production. Over the course of those four inert drives, Washington scored three times to tie the score.

And in retrospect, that’s where the game was lost.

“We didn’t do enough to win the game today, and that’s just because we just weren’t executing at a high-enough level for two-and-a-half quarters,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “That’s just not acceptable.

“And when you have a lead like that in this league, you’ve got to capitalize on it.”


It’s a lament that continues to define the Broncos. Sunday’s loss was the 16th one-score defeat absorbed by Denver since 2021 — the most in the NFL in that span.

And while the final moments were full of unexpected sound and fury as the most unlikely of “Hail Mary” attempts nearly allowed the Broncos to force an unlikely overtime … it was telling that, by that final throw, the stands had nearly emptied out.

Even with over two minutes remaining, the Broncos driving and in possession of all three timeouts, many in the crowd of 70,557 were already headed home. The trickle of fans for the exits became a flood midway through the fourth quarter after Washington took a 35-27 lead.

Once can’t blame the fans. Six-straight losing seasons have shattered the hopes of the Broncos Country.

The 5,551 no-shows Sunday were the most for a September home game since at least Super Bowl 50. (Sorry, folks, but that’s as far as my Excel file goes.) And it was more than twice as many as for Week 1 — and with better weather, too.

The path is different.

The results remain the same.

And even though the new coaching staff and eighteen of the players in uniform didn’t arrive until this year, they’re now part of what Emmanuel Sanders famously called the “world of suck.”

Sanders said that three games into the 2019 season.

Nearly four years later, the Broncos are still searching for a way out.

“We’ve gotta flip things around here,” offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey said. “Things haven’t gone right around here for a long time.

“But the first thing you have to do is stop losing before you start winning.”

And until they prove otherwise, the faith of their supporters will continue to wither. Because on Sunday, all they did was take an alternate route to the same destination.

It might be new to all the recent arrivals. But for those who’ve been around for the last several years, it’s old hat.



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The Broncos took a different path to a familiar destination