DENVER -- It is quite possible the Broncos' future was determined after losing to the previously winless New York Giants. It was unspeakably bad, begging to be viewed as an aberration, only to become a trend.
General manager John Elway called out players on Friday, saying the five-game losing streak began because the team "got a little soft." It was a stinging indictment, focusing the disappointment on the roster more than embattled first-year coach Vance Joseph, who received a vote of confidence.
On an unseasonably 60-degree Sunday, the Broncos had to prove it. To their boss. And to their fans, who are understandably upset as evidenced by the smallest crowd of the season.
Instead, the Broncos flopped again, falling 20-17 to the Cincinnati Bengals. It represented Cincinnati's first win in Denver since 1975.
This became an elimination game. Since 1990, 93 teams have begun the season 3-7 and exactly zero have reached the postseason. The Broncos are all but eliminated -- it's quite possible Paxton Lynch starts this week -- and frustrated. Elway's comments created a polarizing reaction in the locker room.
"I agree. Losing (six) in a row, that's soft. All the turnovers, that's soft. Dropping punt returns, that's softness. Letting people run on us last week, that's soft," nose tackle Domata Peko said. "That's what coach was telling us. I feel like today we were playing as hard as hell. I didn't feel too soft out there. That's constructive criticism. As a man, you've got to take it. As coach said, he called us all that."
Defensive end Derek Wolfe, who missed a few snaps as his right arm went numb because of a previous neck injury, called the defeat "unacceptable and ridiculous." He understood Elway's knifing critique.
"He's the boss. Whatever he says goes. If that's how he feels then we have to make sure he doesn't feel that way. If the boss says it's not good enough it means everybody is probably going to get fired," Wolfe said. "I am just trying to make sure we stick together. Everyone hates us right now. All we have is each other."
Linebacker Brandon Marshall and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. disputed Elway's claim. Marshall could see Elway's perspective, but insisted, "There's nobody soft on this team. We work our (butts) off." Harris acknowledged everyone is accountable to the record at this point, but added, "Ain't nothing soft in my bones."
Trailing by 10 with nine minutes remaining and boos percolating, the Broncos offense awoke from hibernation. The season teetering on the brink, Brock Osweiler guided the Broncos 75 yards in 10 plays. He connected with Demaryius Thomas on a slack-jawed 17-yard touchdown pass. It was Revlon makeup on a day of blemishes, slicing Cincinnati's lead to 20-17 with five minutes remaining.
Denver took over possession with 1:52 remaining, needing a field goal. Instead, Osweiler took a sack and threw incomplete to Emmanuel Sanders on fourth down, punctuating the latest low in a season of nadirs.
The odiferous remnants of the past five weeks proved impossible to shake. Osweiler completed 23 of 42 for 254 yards, and repeatedly stepped on glass in the middle of the field. Anderson fumbled in the fourth quarter, creating an avenue for the Bengals to win for the first time since Paul Brown was their coach.
The past month has laid bare an ugly truth: The Broncos can't win if they don't play a near-perfect game. Against anyone. Anywhere.
"John watches this team every day. He’s watched every meeting. He’s watched every practice. He watches every game. When he said that (team got soft), I was initially offended. In some aspects, he’s right. When you’ve lost that many games in a row, you have to do things in a tougher manner. If you’re not winning, that’s an issue in football," Joseph said. "Football is a physical, tough sport. So when you’re not winning, that word comes up. Again, I stepped back and thought about what he said. In some aspects, he’s right.”
Sunday's defining moment arrived in the fourth. Following Anderson's turnover -- Vontaze Burfict popped ball loose by drilling his helmet into the pigskin -- the defense required resistance. Instead, the Broncos showed why they rank last in opponent's points after takeaways. On third-and-2, Dalton found Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green on a go route as Bradley Roby was beaten for the second time. The 20-10 score with nine minutes remaining taunted the Broncos' sputtering offense. Roby did not talk afterward.
Anderson took the blame for his gaffe. He sat at his locker in full uniform for nearly 45 minutes after the game, inconsolable as coordinator Mike McCoy tried to provide support.
"I just hate that I really let my team and coaches down," Anderson told Denver7. "I am better player than that. It just hurts."
A poor start again provided the foundation for a defeat.
With an opportunity to go ahead early, Osweiler threw an interception to cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick in the end zone. Cody Latimer failed to fight through a pick, and Kirkpatrick took the gift 100 yards. He lost his grip on the ball at the 12, allowing a hustling Emmanuel Sanders to down him at the 1. Cincinnati scored three plays later on an Andy Dalton toss to Tyler Kroft. With the missed extra point, the Broncos trailed 61-6 in the first quarter during the skid.
A survivor's will replaced the victim's mentality as the Broncos responded with one of their best drives of the season. They marched 75 yards on 14 plays. In between a few nonsensical passing attempts, Denver threw down the sawdust and fought for yards on the grass. Anderson converted a fourth-and-2, and later pinballed his way into the end zone for Broncos' first touchdown in the opening period since Oct. 1. The Broncos rushed for 69 yards in the first quarter, finishing with 112 yards overall.
The 7-6 advantage proved short-lived. Cincinnati answered by preying on Denver's aggressiveness. On third down, Roby, who had his worst game as a Bronco, stopped at the sticks, believing Alex Erickson would halt the route. Erickson bolted up field, leaving the flat-footed Roby an easy mark on a 29-yard lead that shoved Cincinnati ahead 13-7 with 12:55 remaining in the half.
Nothing came easily for Broncos' offense on a day when Cincinnati pleaded for Denver to win. The defense held the Bengals to 95 first-half yards with a parade of three-and-outs, the difference was Osweiler's untimely interception. Osweiler suffered through his worst outing this year. He completed 12 of his first 26 passes, and almost didn't survive the first half after landing awkwardly on his previously injured right shoulder. Lynch warmed up, but never entered the game, though his time to play is quickly approaching.
I asked Lynch if could start this week at Oakland if given the chance.
"It's up to the trainers," Lynch said. "We will see what happens."
At this point, the season has come into the focus in the worst possible way: it is about pride and providing opportunities for younger players with the playoffs a lost cause.
"This one hurts. All of them hurt. This one hurts," Von Miller said. "This is the game that you wanted to get the energy back."
As the Broncos transition to younger players, we have to wonder what Jamaal Charles' future is going forward. He was not used in the first half Sunday. I have never understood his lack of use, especially in passing game, this season. The Broncos owe Charles $78,125 each time he's active, so it's fair to wonder if they will give rookie De'Angelo Henderson some reps moving forward. ... The Broncos held their promise and injected youth into special teams units, including Austin Traylor, Joe Jones and Deiontrez Mount. ... Traylor made his first reception prior to halftime. He had been in the Broncos' practice squad since 2016, his fifth practice squad. ... Nose tackle Domata Peko, who spent his entire season with Cincinnati prior to this season, made big stop on first down and ran off the field and pumped up crowd from the bench. ... Emmanuel Sanders returned the final punt on the first half, losing five yards, and produced a 3-yard return in the third quarter. ... Right tackle Allen Barbre might be replaced by Donald Stephenson this week. Barbre allowed a sack and was flagged for multiple penalties through the first three quarters. ... Outside linebacker Shane Ray injured his right lower leg in the fourth quarter, but returned.