DETROIT – The Broncos jogged onto Ford Field to raucous boos on Saturday night.
They began with a 40-yard pass to Jerry Jeudy. It should have been an open flap to breathe. Instead, there was no relief as the Broncos spent the first 30 minutes gasping for air and getting clobbered over the head.
The Broncos fashion themselves as contenders, but clumsily return to Denver in raw pain, facing a sobering reality. After their embarrassing 42-17 loss to the Detroit Lions, the Broncos must win their final three games and receive some help to reach the postseason for the first time since 2015.
"They kind of kicked our butts tonight. They outplayed us. They outcoached us," said Broncos coach Sean Payton. "There was not a lot positive.”
The Broncos dreams are flickering, lacking clarity. Are they the team that has gone 6-2 over its last eight games? Or are they the one that flails against speedy opponents, missing tackles and stringing together the type of listless offensive plays that produced a 1-5 start?
“We got smoked and that’s what it is," left Garett Bolles said. "You got to move forward and there’s no lost faith in this locker room."
The Broncos proved no match for the Lions, a series of slogans coming to life at their expense. All Grit. Defend the Den. Restore Roar. One Pride. Pick one and put it on a t-shirt because the Lions are on the verge of clinching a playoff berth.
Denver requires victories against the Patriots, Chargers and Raiders, all playing backup quarterbacks, and the last two featuring interim coaches. It is possible, but not if the Broncos play like they did Saturday.
There is no profit in being a prophet. Despite overseeing the league’s best unit since Week 6, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph admitted he saw shades of Miami with Detroit’s athleticism, saying, “If you are not in position chasing that speed, it’s going to be bad.”
The Broncos trailed 21-0 at half, defined by mistakes and punts. The Lions out-everything’d the Broncos, outgaining them 279 to 75 and posting 17 first downs to Denver’s four.
"We sucked tonight," linebacker Alex Singleton said. "We will watch it. Move on. We have to get ready for New England. Watch it. Learn from it. We have to get better."
Denver showed fight by opening with a third quarter touchdown, their first in 12 attempts on the first drive of the second half. Wilson lofted a 3-yard strike to Lil’ Jordan Humphrey for his initial score as a Bronco. It was a band-aid on a compound fracture.
Detroit responded with its redline offense. Jared Goff was not off, rebounding from an uneven month to carve up the Broncos. Goff completed a 75-yard drive with a 3-yard laser to Sam LaPorta, inflating Detroit’s lead to 21 points. With 7:01 left in the third, Goff was 21 of 30 for 244 yards and four touchdowns, one shy of his career-high set with the Rams. He tied that mark late in the fourth, finishing 24 of 34 for 278 yards and a 134.6 rating.
The Broncos’ comeback attempt took a crowbar to the shins late in the third quarter. On second down from the nine, Jaleel McLaughlin caught a pass and smashed into a defender at the goal line. He thought he was in, but the Broncos did not challenge it. On a pitch to Javonte Williams, he appeared to cross, but no review. Then on fourth down, fullback Mike Burton scored, but the play was nullified by an offensive offsides on guard Quinn Meinerz.
"It was unfortunate," Meinerz said. "I was confused. I didn't even know what was called. I went to the ref and asked what was the call, and who was it on and he said offsides and pointed at me."
Payton began spewing lava at the officials, and then directed his ire at Wilson as Denver settled for a field goal. Pressed on the screaming, Payton said, "I was upset about the call. Simple. That's it. What I talk to Russell about is none of tour business." Wilson, who finished 18 of 32 for 223 yards and a touchdown pass, followed at his presser, explaining that Payton "was frustrated we didn't score."
The scene captured a forgettable evening.
This loss was not devastating because it came against an NFC opponent. The AFC record is the first tiebreaker, and the Broncos remain 4-5 in conference. The Broncos could have had a cleaner path with help Sunday, but the Browns and Texans rallied to wins.
Regardless, the Broncos must focus on their own room, cleaning up their own gaffes.
The teams came out throwing punches like Marvin Hagler and Detroit’s own Tommy Hearns. It amounted to cotton candy, empty calories. The first quarter summary: one Broncos fumble and four combined punts. Wilson’s mistake cost the Broncos three points and a chance to open the scoring.
After a scoreless first quarter, Goff found his rhythm as the Lions slowed the pass rush with a methodical run game. He connected with Josh Reynolds for 21 yards then shrewdly used misdirection to deliver a strike to LaPorta. The rookie made Josey Jewell miss and plowed into the end zone, continuing the Broncos’ issues against tight ends this season. At this point Goff was humming.
Trailing 7-0, the Broncos unleashed their worst drive. A blitzing corner slammed into Wilson as he threw, Williams went nowhere on a rush and left guard Ben Powers whiffed on his block, leading to a sack.
Joseph attempted to provide a spark with blitzing linebackers, but Goff found Reynolds for 21 yards, a catalyst in a six-play, 61-yard scoring drive. Goff capped it with a nine-yard bullet to Jahmyr Gibbs, shoving Detroit ahead 10-0 with 8:15 remaining in the half. Goff boasted 15 completions in his first 20 attempts for 160 yards. He threw for a season-low 161 in a loss to Chicago last week. Denver had not won when trailing by double digits since their 21-point rally against the Bears on Oct. 1.
Desperate for an answer moments later, the Broncos went for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 30. Wilson dived awkwardly for the conversion, but right tackle Mike McGlinchey was injured on the play, replaced by Cam Fleming. The drive fizzled, resulting in Denver’s fourth punt.
The Broncos missed their first tackle when P.J. Locke failed to wrap up, leading to a 21-yard gain. However, Denver got a stop on third down, halting Detroit at midfield. The Broncos had posted a 27 percent conversion rate since week 6, tops in the NFL. That vanished on Saturday.
Facing his good friend and former assistant Dan Campbell, Payton figured to feature more wrinkles than a Shar Pei. The Broncos began with that quick hitter to Jeudy for 40 yards. Jeudy felt awful after his multiple gaffes last Sunday and was determined to bounce back. Following an 11-yard burst by Marvin Mims Jr., the Broncos sat in field goal range at the 20-yard line. Then came failure. Wilson tried to bring the ball across his body to flick it with pressure arriving and the Lions punched it out, costing the Broncos at least three points. Isaiah Buggs scooped up the ball and wandered 33 yards before Meinerz made a touchdown-saving tackle at the 37. In the Broncos’ two losses over the past two months, they have lost the turnover battle. It told the story in Detroit. The Broncos have not proven they can win when the defense doesn’t carry the load.
In the end, this was ugly. But it was only one game. Optics say the Broncos are in trouble. The schedule screams they have a chance to realize their dreams.
"In the NFL, sometimes you get your (butt) kicked," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "We've got three games left to go and if we win those we will be in pretty good position. There's no margin for error. But if we take care of business like we have the last two months, I am confident we can get this done."
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Tremon Smith received a personal foul for tackling the punt returner after a fair catch was signaled. Players began pushing and shoving, but order was restored.