INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Palm trees, fiery sunshine, silver screens. For decades, people have chased careers in Hollywood. It's also where dreams go to die. Visions of becoming an actor dissolve into life as a barista.
The Broncos' arrived at SoFi Stadium, symbolizing the sobering reality of hope.
With a new coach in Nathaniel Hackett and a nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson, they were supposed to be football's new Top Gun. They have been closer to Naked Gun, struggling with penalties (an issue again on Monday, as the Broncos had 10 for 151 yards), while failing on execution of basic offensive principles. So it was they were a clear underdog against the Chargers with their season teetering on the brink.
Before a less-than-sellout crowd under the canopy, the Broncos stumbled 19-16 to the Chargers in overtime, a heart-in-a-blender primetime loss after rookie Montrell Washington muffed a punt, setting up the winning field goal. It marked the Broncos' ninth straight road defeat against an AFC West opponent, spanning three seasons.
"The reality is that’s just not good enough. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to play sharper. We’ve got to find ways to make plays, we’ve got to find ways to continue to get first downs, touchdowns. It’s a good football team out there but we’re just as good, if not better, we feel like," said Wilson, who lost the first three road games of a season for the first time since 2015.
"We’ve got to answer the call. Adversity is definitely challenging us right now.”
Washington and rookie corner Damarri Mathis — both stayed at their lockers and addressed reporters — suffered through games you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. But when assigning blame, two hands are required. The lack of discipline is a reflection on coach Nathaniel Hackett as is an offense that is averaging 14.8 points per game, worst in the league and a new abyss since Peyton Manning retired. Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowler, completed three of his final 14 passes for 15 yards over the final 38 minutes of game action.
Yet another week with the offense unable to score a second half touchdown left no margin for error for the defense or vulnerable special teams.
"This is very disappointing. We need to have a lot more urgency across the board. It starts with me as a coach," said Hackett, who has drawn the ire of Broncos' fans. "We had some opportunities and we’ve got to execute at a higher level. We’ve got to come up with some better plays.”
Concern about Hackett's future continue to fester because he was brought in to fix the offense. And Denver, inconceivably, is worse this season. It's fair to wonder if the first-time boss will lose the locker room given the frustration witnessed after this loss, which had multiple ramifications in terms of achieving a winning record and dealing with potential AFC tiebreakers.
"It starts with leadership, from a defensive standpoint, offensive standpoint, special teams. Something’s obviously not going right,” said Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons. “We need to find a way to fix it. Everyone knows the definition of insanity. We can’t keep doing the same thing week in and week out and think things are going to change. From that standpoint, we just need to figure it out.”
The Broncos have offered a master's class in finding creative ways to lose over the first six weeks. Head-scratching game management spoiled the opener that fizzled on a 64-yard field goal attempt, the defense got run over by Josh Jacobs in Las Vegas, Wilson threw two unspeakably bad interceptions against the Colts and Washington muffed a punt on Monday night.
"That's on me. I have to be louder and communicate better for him (to clear out)," said Washington of teammate P.J. Locke, who was blocked into him, causing the ball to jar loose. "Everything that happens back there, it's my job to make sure it's done right, the right way. We will bounce back from it for sure."
The Broncos had 11 days to try to solve their myriad of offensive issues and the early returns looked promising when Wilson completed his first 10 passes and hit 12 of 17 for 173 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Rookie Greg Dulcich, a former UCLA star, made his debut and found the end zone.
But the offense dissolved before our eyes. The Broncos posted five second half first downs with 72 yards. Wilson, under relentless pressure from the Chargers, completed 3 of 11 passes for 15 yards. Denver ran 55 plays compared to the Chargers' 93. Yes, you read that correctly. The Broncos boasted five players who logged every snap: Pat Surtain II, Mathis, Simmons, Kareem Jackson and Alex Singleton.
With the score tied at 13 in the fourth quarter, there was no elasticity remaining. Somebody had to step up. It was not the designated King, Wilson, but rather a Baron. Outside linebacker Baron Browning wrote a diary of havoc, registering his interception on a tipped pass by K'Waun Williams in the fourth quarter.
That sentence sells it short. He made the pick, ran around, fumbled and then pounced on the loose pigskin. It set up the Broncos at the Chargers' 30-yard line. The drive fizzled like so many, but Brandon McManus, working with a new long snapper, converted a 48-yarder, shoving the Broncos ahead 16-13 with 8:21 remaining.
"It's very frustrating. We can only control what we can," said Browning, who finished with a sack and two tackles for loss. "We can't fall apart. We have to stick together as a team."
The Chargers responded, a drive that included the fourth interference call on Mathis for 87 yards. They tied the score at 16 and took over at their 25-yard line with 1:51 remaining. But they failed to move the ball, and a last-second Hail Mary attempt was knocked down to send the game to overtime.
"I have to have better technique," Mathis said after his first start.
The Broncos took the ball to start overtime, running with Latavius Murray, who replaced Melvin Gordon who was essentially benched, for nine yards on first and second down before throwing the ball low and incomplete to K.J. Hamler on a 3rd-and-1 out of the shotgun.
After a Broncos punt, the Chargers again got called for holding on first down. Coverage by Pat Surtain II pushed Mike Williams out of bounds by inches on a deep ball, and more defensive pressure on third down led to an incompletion and another punt for Los Angeles.
The Broncos went three-and-out on their next possession and punted again, putting the Chargers just inside their own 20. Linebacker Alex Singleton, who finished with 21 tackles, broke up a pass on first down, and a false start on third down left the Chargers with a 3rd-and-15. A short dump-off pass left Los Angeles punting again with 5 minutes left in overtime.
But Washington muffed the punt after Locke was shoved into him, giving the Chargers the ball at the Broncos' 28-yard-line. It was Washington's third muffed punt in two weeks, which will inevitably lead to criticism of special teams boss Dwayne Stukes.
Los Angeles brought out Dustin Hopkins, who tweaked his hamstring earlier in the game, but who sealed the Chargers' win with a 39-yard field goal to end it. He was 4-of-4 on the night.
"We found a way to finish," Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert said.
Given a chance to put the game away late in the fourth, Wilson was sacked as the offensive line continued its difficult night. Wilson was 5 of 18 for 72 yards after starting the game 10-for-10.
"This one hurts," linebacker Jonas Griffith said, "I am not going to lie to you."
With cornerback Ronald Darby out for the season, Herbert attacked Mathis twice on the first drive, drawing a 30-yard penalty on the first play.
Mathis, however, showed no panic and rallied on a third-and-long rainbow down the left sideline, forcing an incompletion. The first sign Monday appeared different, if only briefly, was the response to the same old problems.
The Broncos promised to be better on first down, and the referees flagged center Lloyd Cushenberry for holding on the initial snap. On third down, right tackle Cam Fleming was called for a false start. However, on third-and-long where no team has been worst to start a season in 12 years, Courtland Sutton drew an interference penalty on J.C. Jackson.
Moments later, Wilson wiggled out of trouble, and threw a back-shoulder fastball on the move to tight end Eric Tomlinson, the 16-yard gain setting up a 51-yard field goal for first lead on the road this season. What happened next is what Broncos Country has been waiting for since the Broncos acquired Wilson in March. He slipped out of a sack, moved right and drilled a pass to Jerry Jeudy for a 37-yard gain. Dulcich capitalized on a busted coverage with a 39-yard touchdown.
The Broncos held a 10-0 lead, their largest cushion of the season.
The Chargers responded by imposing their will on back-to-back drives, totaling 151 yards on 29 plays. They logged a 15-play, 82-yard march, gorging 7 minutes, 40 seconds off the clock.
Eaton's own Austin Ekeler plowed in from six yards out for his sixth touchdown in his past three games. A 14-play meandering across the turf followed, resulting in a 37-yard field goal by Hopkins, who was not used on kickoffs. The score leveled at 10, the Broncos offense showed burst too often lacking this season.
With 54 seconds left in the half, Wilson lofted a 47-yard completion to K.J. Hamler and connected on a 11-yard out to Jerry Jeudy. A fastball zipped past Dulcich in the end zone, leading to a 27-yard boot from McManus. The Broncos opened a 13-10 halftime lead, a first this season.
A league wide overcorrection made its way to Los Angeles. The Chargers knotted the score at 13 after a sketchy roughing the passer call on Bradley Chubb against Herbert. Chubb was called for launching in an interpretation that NASA would struggle to reconcile. Herbert threw 57 passes, the most without a touchdown in NFL history.
Nonetheless, the Broncos now have as many games with at least 100 penalty yards in the last six weeks — three — as they did in the previous four seasons combined.
Too many penalties, too little offense and too much season gone to say it's early anymore.
"I think the sense of urgency has to go up now," Wilson said. "The season is not over."
Owners Rob Walton, Greg Penner and Carrie Walton Penner attended Monday's game and chatted with general manager George Paton on the sidelines before the game. This group has not missed a game. Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, part of the ownership group, attended his first game. ...
The Broncos activated All-Pro safety Justin Simmons (right quad) and rookie tight end Greg Dulcich (hamstring) and cornerback Michael Ojemudia (elbow) for Monday's game. Dulcich debuted with a bang, scoring a touchdown and playing heavily in 11 personnel.
New long snapper Mitchell Fraboni, making his NFL debut, and veteran safety Anthony Harris were elevated from the practice squad. Fraboni was solid on his field goal snaps and registered a tackle on a third quarter punt return. ...
Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam was a healthy scratch. Given Dulcich's potential, it's fair to wonder if the Broncos will look to trade Okwuegbunam before the Nov. 1 deadline. At this point, it's fair to wonder if multiple players will be on the trading block. ...
Calvin Anderson started at left tackle. But he was benched in favor of Billy Turner in the second quarter. ...