BALTIMORE, M.D. — Driving the interstate from Washington, D.C., the sign turns heads. "Virginia is for Lovers." So the assumption is that Maryland is for Losers, right?
It was a natural leap with the Broncos traveling to Baltimore for a fistfight with a contender. The Broncos had not won a road game in the States all season, and this was not a particularly favorable matchup. Then something weird happened. The Broncos threw down the sawdust and punched back, showing grit.
But it was not enough to avoid another ending more predictable than a Hallmark movie.
The Ravens scored the game's only touchdown with 28 seconds remaining on a 16-play cross-country drive, stealing a 10-9 victory before 70,433 shivering and screaming fans at M&T Bank Stadium.
"We have to find a way to finish," coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "It hurts."
This wasn't a loss for the Broncos, their eighth in nine games that secured the team's sixth consecutive losing season. It was a crowbar to the shins. All they needed was another field goal or a single stop, and they would have bagged their biggest upset of the season. Instead, they fizzled again. There was no Lamar Jackson. He exited in the first half with a knee injury. Tyler Huntley was left to sprinkle pixie dust on the ending.
"We played an excellent game, a perfect game. It was that one drive," said star cornerback Pat Surtain II. "We had two penalties, and one on me of course. We have to learn from it. We are in there for the fight. It's just the little things we have to correct and get better at."
Like every Broncos game, it came with little offense and accompanying drama. With Denver white-knuckling a six-point lead, the Ravens converted a fourth-and-1 from their own 19-yard line by inches with four minutes remaining. They advanced near midfield at the 2 minute warning after linebacker Alex Singleton hit tight end Mark Andrews in the helmet as he went to ground. Then Andrews drew a pass interference on Surtain on third-and-5, a savvy play by the veteran on an uncatchable ball.
Thirty-seven yards separated the Ravens from the end zone. A quick pass and a run from the 2-yard line, and that was it. The Ravens led.
"You hold a team like that to 10 points, you feel good. But that's on the defense. That's our fault. We are supposed to be this top-level defense. We have to find ways in that situation to get off the field," said defensive lineman DeShawn Williams. "We had our chances. We had some dumb penalties. The offense played hard. That's simply on us. We have to get off the field and end that game."
The Broncos took over with 23 seconds left and made it interesting with a completion to Jerry Jeudy and long run by Russell Wilson.
Brandon McManus missed a 63-yard field goal at the buzzer. It felt like Seattle all over.
Six times this season the Broncos had failed to close out a game. They hold nothing in common with Mariano Rivera. But to blame the defense for a blemish when viewing Sunday through the lens of the offense. Denver has scored three touchdowns since returning from London. Three in three games. They failed to reach the red zone in two of the past four games. For Wilson, the loss tagged him with back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in his career.
"It's a new feeling, one I don't like, one I don't want to experience ever again," said Wilson, who completed 17 of 22 passes for 189 yards. "We have to find ways to score touchdowns. This game is about scoring touchdowns."
Sunday marked the third game the Broncos failed to find the end zone and the fifth time they have scored 10 points or less. They now average 13.8 points per game, their 166 points through 12 games the second worst in franchise history (The 1966 team had 165. After that season, ownership cleaned house and hired Lou Saban to a 10-year contract as the coach and GM and got rid of the horse caricature on the side of the helmet).
This latest afternoon of despair started with promise.
Plastered on the tunnel leading to the field it reads, "Every decibel matters." It was the last thing the Broncos saw as they jogged onto the field. For a team dealing with outside noise about leadership and their head coach's status, the mantra was simple. Every yard matters. For the Broncos to compete against the contending Ravens, they needed their offense to awake from a season-long slumber. Or at least peek its head above the covers.
The Broncos began in heavy personnel, relying on the ground game and Greg Dulcich. They ran eight times for 22 yards and Wilson added 27 through the air to the rookie tight end. The drive fizzled on a conservative third-and-5 run up the middle. McManus made the drive matter, converting a 52-yarder. It was his 37th field goal of at least 50 yards, tying Jason Elam's franchise record. McManus stood alone with the mark after drilling a 50-yarder late in the third quarter, inflating Denver's cushion to 9-3.
The Denver defense rebounded from a listless effort against Carolina, showing spirit and toughness. The Broncos slowed the run, and coordinator Ejiro Evero dialed up creative pressure from the edges. Jonathan Cooper delivered his first sack of the season, ending the first quarter by smothering Lamar Jackson, who exited with a knee injury and did not return.
"I had no idea he was hurt," Cooper said. "Obviously, that's the last thing I was trying to do. I was just trying to make a play."
The Broncos offense, as is its wont, began sinking in quicksand after the opening drive, failing on four straight third downs. The Ravens rallied without Jackson. Huntley navigated 62 yards, drawing a roughing penalty from Cooper along the way, to set up Justin Tucker's 26-yard field goal to knot the score.
In the shadow of their goal line, Wilson delivered a 40-yard rainbow to Jeudy. After missing the previous two games with an ankle injury, Jeudy, who was on a play count because of his ankle, caught three passes on the drive — his first targets Sunday — as McManus converted a 41-yard field for a 6-3 halftime lead. Wilson finished the half 10 of 13 for 112 yards, showing elusiveness absent since he injured his hamstring on Oct. 17 vs. the Chargers.
Cooper continued his active afternoon, pressuring Huntley into a third quarter turnover as the backup fired to safety Justin Simmons. The Broncos defense celebrated with vigor, but there was a sense of cringe when Denver settled for a field goal. For the 11th time 12 games, the Broncos failed to score a third quarter touchdown.
The Ravens clunky offense became bold in the fourth. Huntley took a shotgun snap on fourth-and-1 from Denver's 44, and crashed for 2 yards after a belt from linebacker Josey Jewell. Should have relied on Huntley. The Ravens' third quarterback, or a wide receiver James Proche playing one on TV, gave Denver a tremendous break, showing no situational awareness. Proche threw into triple coverage in the end zone to running back Kenyon Drake. Simmons hauled it in for his second interception. A backup receiver passing to a reserve running back? Just say it out loud, and it articulates the gravity of the mistake.
"Never at any point in the game did I think we were going to lose," nose tackle Mike Purcell said.
But the Ravens did not pay for their transgression. The Broncos offense could capitalize and the defense latest effort was ruined by a pencil-thin mustache on Mona Lisa.
"We get a stop there and we win the game," linebacker Baron Browning said. "In the end, we have to get the stop. We played good all the way up until that last drive. We just have to be better."
The Broncos received a boost with the return of Jerry Jeudy. He had not played since injuring his ankle on the first play from scrimmage against the Tennessee Titans. Jeudy entered the game with 30 catches and three touchdowns. ...
On the last play of the first quarter, Broncos outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper posted his first sack of the season, smothering Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Jackson injured his knee on the play and exited the game. ...
Receiver Courtland Sutton suited up after battling a stomach bug late in the week, but his day didn't last long. He injured his hamstring late in the first half when he had zero catches and one target. ...
Eric Tomlinson, Brandon McManus and Russell Wilson are the Broncos game day captains. ...
Punter Corliss Waitman continued to struggle with his hang time, deliver a 3.6 punt of 39 yards in his first effort. It marks the third consecutive game he has had issues.