DENVER — Underneath rusted bleachers and feet disappearing into mud, I huddled from the rain Monday night. The deluge came quickly, leaving the Coliseum field a sloppy mess. It became a fitting backdrop for the Broncos' final road game of the season. As the water puddles formed, as Metallica's "Master of Puppets" reverberated, as the fans screamed "Raaaaiddders!" I figured it can't worse than this for the Broncos.
Then the game started.
The Broncos were throttled by the AFC's worst team, the Raiders capitalizing on a special teams mistake and Denver's offensive ineptness for a convincing 27-14 victory in potentially the last game here.
"This team I thought we maxed out every game, other than probably the Jets game. It didn't feel good today," said Coach Vance Joseph, who fell to 11-20 overall and 4-12 on the road. "We didn't play good enough football to win offensively. Defensively, we had our moments, but we still gave up two big drives when we had to get stops."
Any doubt about coach Joseph's job security vanished in the first 30 minutes. The Broncos trailed 17-0 to an Oakland team that had not led by more than 12 points this season or scored this much in the first half since the second game of last season. Through devastating injuries, in particular to cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos have remained competitive. This performance was inexcusable, unless the goal was to improve the Broncos' draft status.
Getting beat is one thing. This game was embarrassing because of its connection to history. It clinched back-to-back losing seasons for the Broncos for the first time since 1972, snapping the NFL's longest active streak.
"It sucks. It definitely sucks. We are better than that. When I got here in 2013, we were killing everybody, killing in the division. And now that seems like a long way away," said linebacker Brandon Marshall, who took blame for the Raiders' second touchdown after he called the wrong formation, leaving the edge unprotected. "It's been a tough two years for (Joseph). It's been a tough go for Vance. I feel badly for him. I think he's a better coach than what his record shows. But the league is tough."
Prior to the game The Black Hole represented equal doses of energy, faith and sadness. These ardent fans love the Raiders, and struggled with the possibility they were attending the last game in Oakland. Gorilla Rilla, dressed in a Santa suit, spoke of wanting a victory before hanging out with a child from the Make-A-Wish foundation who sought him out before the game. Jungle Jane fought back tears as she described following the team to Los Angeles, Mexico and, of course, the bay. "I am from here. I don't want to talk about them leaving. I will get emotional," she said in a halting voice.
Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" provided the soundtrack to the kickoff. And it began a night of fits and flops, and of course, Broncos' mistakes. The Oakland crowd received a Christmas Miracle on a botched punt coverage. Colby Wadman booted a 9-iron shot. Cornerback Isaac Yiadom appeared to pounce on it as his foot grazed the goal line. He never controlled it, however, leaving Oakland's Dwayne Harris to scoop it up and race down the sideline like Usain Bolt for a 99-yard touchdown.
"I thought he had it. We are thinking as a defense we have them at the half-yard line and maybe we can get a safety," nose tackle Domata Peko said. "Then everything changed with that return."
The Broncos offense suffered through its common gear-grinding. Rookie Pro Bowler Phillip Lindsay eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing, only the third undrafted rookie to reach the mark. However, Lindsay nor Revlon could camouflage the blemishes, and he exited in the third quarter with a right wrist injury following 46 yards on 10 carries.
"We have to fix things. That's on us. We made a lot of mistakes," said Lindsay, who will undergo an MRI on Tuesday, and might not play in the season finale. "You can't expect to win when we are keeping the defense on the field 60 to 70 percent of the time. The line played a big part in me getting (1,000). It is a special moment, but it's unfortunate that it came in a loss."
The Broncos punted on their first six possessions. They lacked creativity and productivity. The offense operates like a dialup connection in a wireless world. Injuries and absence remain a problem with Sanders lost for the season due to a ruptured Achilles and Demaryius Thomas traded. However, there is no misdirection, no unpredictability, and zero fright instilled in the opposing defense. Quarterback Case Keenum, who finished 23 of 37 for 202 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, continues to operate more like a backup than a franchise quarterback. It would not be a surprise to see the Broncos bring a veteran in to compete with him for the job next season or have him keep the seat warm for a young drafted prospect.
The Broncos' first-half fizzles remain troubling. If this loss looked familiar, it was because it bore a striking resemblance to the collapse against the 49ers. The Broncos collected 65 first-half yards against San Francisco. Monday, they produced 116 with six punts and a missed 58-yard field goal.
"All you feel is frustration. This kind of stuff can motivate you to become a better leader," said defensive end Derek Wolfe. "All I am thinking is about getting a win against the Chargers. It sucks that we didn't get it against Oakland in possibly the last game here. I really wanted it. I am going to just let this one go because if not I am going to stew over it."
Denver finally percolated in the third quarter. Fueled by a Keenum scramble and a one-handed catch by receiver Tim Patrick, the Broncos avoided the indignity of a shutout. Keenum directed a 10-play, 82-yard drive, connecting with rookie DaeSean Hamilton on a 7-yard touchdown. It shaved Oakland's lead to 17-7 with 4:36 remaining in the third. Oakland answered with a haymaker, a soul-crushing 10-play, 7-minute, 22-second march capped by Jalen Richard's 3-yard plunge for a score. The Raiders held a commanding 24-7 advantage with 12:21 left. And it's arguable this three-win team never felt more embraced this season at home.
"Anyone who sees this, Raider Nation I love you," said Oakland quarterback Derek Carr, who was sacked only once by Adam Gotsis. "I love you. My family loves you and you guys are the most loyal fans in the world. I know that it hurts that we might not be the Oakland Raiders forever, but we are still Raider Nation."
The Broncos responded with the kind of ferocity needed in the first half. Keenum, as he has all season, looked more comfortable in uptempo. He also showed scrambling ability, connecting with rookie Courtland Sutton on a 19-yard scoring strike, providing a sliver of hope in the silver and black sea of screams. It proved short-lived. Trailing by 10 with 5:48 remaining, the Broncos' fruitless night ended abruptly. Keenum fired a pick in a pass intended for Patrick. Oakland added a field goal. Heavy metal played. The crowd roared.
This game will be remembered -- by Oakland. For the Broncos it marked another forgettable outing in a year defined by too many losses and a third-straight year without the postseason, likely spelling the end for Joseph and multiple assistants.
"We all want to play better. Nobody likes not winning. We all hate it and we all want to play hard, we all want to win for coach Joseph. We all love him, he's an incredible human and a great football coach," Keenum said. "I want to play hard for him and everybody in that locker room. That's a big part of our team and our identity is that we stay together and we all love and respect each other. We want to fight for each other. But it's a production league and when you're not winning...it's tough."
Lindsay eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards before leaving in the second half with a hand injury. He is the third undrafted rookie to reach the mark, and first since 2010. Lindsay has 1,037 yards on the gorund, and needs 68 in the season finale to break Dominic Rhodes' all-time mark. ... With Lindsay breaking 1,000, the Broncos are now the 1st team in NFL history with both a 1,000-yard rushing rookie and a 10+sack rookie defender in Bradley Chubb. ... Shane Ray and Su'a Cravens remained inactive for the second straight week. Ray has likely played last down with the Broncos. Cravens' future is less certain and could depend on a potential coaching change.