DENVER — Twenty minutes does not seem like a long time.
After months of training, lifting, and digesting film, this was all that separated the Broncos from promise and irrelevance.
The road to redemption started ominously in the third quarter. Teddy Bridgewater dived for a first down and his facemask stuck in the turf, jamming his neck and rendering the quarterback unconscious. Bridgewater left on a backboard and on a cart as the crowd chanted his name and teammates surrounded him with concern.
What followed was a Dramamine-required roller coaster ride with Denver falling 15-10 to Cincinnati, a loss that all but knocks the Broncos out of the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
"This one hurts," safety Justin Simmons said. "It really hurts."
Drew Lock's fumble will forever define this loss, something he anguished about after the Broncos sank back to .500.
“My No. 1 thing has got to be taking care of the football. I put the ball on the ground twice. Way too many for me. I’ve got to play a little better," lamented Lock, who finished 6-for-12 for 88 yards. "I've got to hold on to the ball.”
There was hope. But that's not a strategy. And couldn't produce a victory.
Lock connected with Tim Patrick for a touchdown on the drive when Bridgewater was hurt. Bengals slinger Joe Burrow lofted a scoring strike to Tyler Boyd, a gut punch as the sun began fade at Empower Field at Mile High.
Trailing 15-10, Denver's season teetered moments later in the red zone.
Lock took the snap and what happened next is easier to appreciate for sure oddity than explain. On second down from the 9, Lock was presented a run-pass-option. He faked the handoff to rookie Javonte Williams, kept the football and attempted to run left. Defensive end Khalid Kareem met him — it was a terrible read by the quarterback — and swiped the ball from Lock. Lock swatted back as Kareem fell to the turf. But with no one touching him, he pounced up and sprinted down the field as Lock and Tim Patrick rammed into him, causing a fumble.
Garett Bolles recovered in what was one of the strangest double change of possessions ever witnessed.
Except it wasn't. Upon review Kareem was ruled down. For all intents and purposes, the outcome was determined.
"I should have handed that thing off to Javonte, looking back at it,” said Lock, who has turned the ball over in all three of his relief appearances. "Who knows what’s being said right now if I make the defensive end miss."
The gaffe left the Broncos with one last drive with 1:04 remaining, scarce time because the Bengals converted one third down on their final drive, leaving Denver with no timeouts and a vast area to cover.
The Broncos entered the game with a 29 percent chance of reaching playoffs. The loss drops their chances to 5 percent with games remaining against Las Vegas, the Chargers and Chiefs.
The disappointing result was tempered by Bridgewater's frightening injury.
"It was scary," defensive end Bradley Chubb said.
Boos of the offense turned to fear as Bridgewater laid motionless on the turf in the third quarter. It went down like this: On second-and-5 from the 30-yard line, Bridgewater scrambled right, sprinted forward and leaped over a defender at the 32.
As his body shifted in air, the veteran was hit in the torso by B.J. Hill. Bridgewater whiplashed slightly as his facemask stuck into the ground. He appeared unconscious. With the entire team nearby, medical staff removed Bridgewater's facemask, placed him on a board and transported him directly to an ambulance in the tunnel.
Bridgewater was taken to a local hospital for evaluation of a head injury and had movement in his extremities. He will stay over night as a precaution, with coach Vic Fangio assuming Bridgewater has a concussion.
"With the type of leader Teddy is on this team, it was hard to see," said tight end Albert Okwuegbunam said. "Regardless, I know Teddy will be OK."
Simmons pointed the finger in the mirror despite the defense's strong effort. He shook his head about Burrow's touchdown to Boyd, where the Bengals disguised a run and the receiver crept open for a score.
"The last thing you can do is give up a play like that,” Simmons said. “It was just poor execution.”
A slow start doomed Denver, which fell to 1-22 when trailing at halftime under Fangio. The Broncos fell to 4-4 at home, a damning number with a schedule that set up for a minimum of six wins.
"We still have a shot," Fangio said, trying to convince himself as his status now hangs in the balance over the final three weeks.
After matching failed opening drives, the Bengals found traction. Burrow connected with Tee Higgins on a 17-yard crosser, setting up Evan McPherson's 53-yard field goal as Cincinnati opened a 3-0 lead with 6:34 remaining in the first quarter.
The Broncos responded with a functional drive — yes I am being generous. A 28-yard completion to Noah Fant on a sneaky pass — Bridgewater let the ball loose with one foot tip toeing behind the line of scrimmage — set up Denver's first score. Brandon McManus booted a 54-yard field goal, tying the game.
It failed to provide air freshener to an odious first half. The ending proved particularly repulsive. The Broncos had a third down with 17 seconds left, and left too much time if McManus missed. And he did just that, pushing a 51-yarder so wide right he dropped his head after contact.
In an equally puzzling move, the Broncos rushed three and dropped eight in coverage as Burrow rifled a 19-yard completion to Tyler Boyd with nine seconds left. McPherson, a master of big kicks at Florida, smashed a 58-yarder as time expired, setting a franchise record.
"I could have called something different," said Fangio, blaming himself.
The Broncos held the Bengals to 91 yards in the first half. Cincinnati converted one third down, delivered four first downs and five punts. And led.
While the Broncos' defense was suffocating, Denver's offense proved nauseating. The Broncos produced 121 yards, seven first downs and four third down conversions. For the number crunchers, that was nine punts and 11 first downs in 30 minutes.
History haunted as Denver trudged to the lockerroom. They are not built to rally. And now they face a numbers vice that has their postseason dreams staring at an expiration date.
"For sure we have to learn how to win," Simmons said. "I told you guys all week this was a do-or-die situation as far as getting to the postseason. And we fell short. It's not a lack of effort or want to. In the NFL, in the fourth quarter and one score games, good teams find a way to win. And we didn't. And that's what hurts the most. We just couldn't get it done."
Broncos honoring Demaryius
The Broncos chartered a plane with a traveling party of 40 to attend the celebration of the life and legacy of Demaryius Thomas on Monday at Georgia Tech. Those going include CEO Joe Ellis, president of football operations John Elway and roughly eight players, including Kareem Jackson, who became friends with Thomas in high school.
The Broncos entered the biggest game of the season compromised, absent starting defensive end Dre'Mont Jones (foot) and linebacker Kenny Young (concussion). There was hope Jones could go, but even after wearing a protective boot during the week the foot remained stiff, leaving him scratched. Jonas Griffith started at linebacker in Young's absence. Griffith is the eighth player to man the inside linebacker position. Other inactives were Brett Rypien, Michael Ojemudia, and Caden Sterns (back). ...
In 14 games, the Broncos have scored on three first possessions, including two touchdowns. Their first drive fizzled Sunday when Courtland Sutton had a pass go right through his hands. ...
Cornerback Ronald Darby was evaluated for a concussion in the third quarter. Kyle Fuller replaced him. But Darby returned. ...
Sunday's paid attendance was 76,134, actual attendance 67,106 and no-shows 9,028.