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No Juice Left. Chargers rout Broncos

Denver posts fifth consecutive losing season with loss
Broncos Chargers Football
Posted at 4:58 PM, Jan 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-03 08:06:08-05

LOS ANGELES — Ninety minutes before kickoff, Drew Lock soaked in the experience. He waved to fans, signed autographs and posed for pictures behind the Broncos' bench.

These are moments to cherish in a lost season, standing in the sunlight peeking through the canopy at breathtaking at SoFi Stadium.

Then the game started.

It provided a SparkNotes summary of why the Broncos posted their fifth consecutive losing season and will remain without a playoff berth since Super Bowl 50.

The final score: Chargers 34, Broncos 13.

"It sucks. It’s tough, man. To put in so much work and have that type of performance all around. It’s tough," safety Justin Simmons said. "There’s a certain barrier that we just haven’t gotten over. When we have a chance to win the close ones, those are what matter. When you don’t find ways to win the close games, that’s when things get out of hand.”

Let me help make sense of the latest debacle that had a reason — the Broncos were an eight-point underdog with seven starters missing because of COVID-19 — but deserves no excuses. It started at the beginning, and could mark the final few weeks of coach Vic Fangio's tenure.

The Chargers' Andre Roberts raced 47 yards with the kick, shoved out of bounds by Brandon McManus. It was a mere opening act for his 101-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Anyway, seven plays after his first sprint, Eaton High's Austin Ekeler ricocheted in for a touchdown, a drive that looked too easy and felt huge given the Broncos compromised roster.

The Broncos' opening response became telling in both desperation and pain. It fizzled when Jerry Tillery sacked Lock at the 46-yard line, scooting past Netane Muti, in for left guard Dalton Risner, who injured his elbow moments earlier and will undergo an MRI on Monday. Turns out, Lock, too, was hurt. He evaded trouble and dived for extra yards on third-and-7 with 9:55 remaining in the opening period. As he fell to the turf, Chargers star Joey Bosa rocked his right shoulder. Lock missed a series as Brett Rypien took over.

"There was no way I was going to stand on the sidelines," said Lock, who received a pain injection and finished 18 of 25 for 245 yards and a touchdown. "I was going back out there."

Denver's defense, as it is wont to do, remained a strength, but revealed fissures. After forcing a field goal that left the Broncos trailing 10-0, Denver needed a counter punch to avoid a knockout, if not embarrassment.

An impressive drive followed as Lock returned from the locker room. On his first play back, he let it eat, completing a 44-yard rainbow to Courtland Sutton. The meandering march left the Broncos with a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. The next sequence captured the 2021 season in a snapshot.

Lock connected on a pass in the flat to Albert Okwuegbunam for a 1-yard loss. Javonte Williams ran off right guard for 1 yard. The rookie followed with a burst over the left side for no gain on a play that appeared designed to go to the opposite side. On fourth-and-2, the Broncos broke out the Philly Special. And turned it to cheesesteak.

Running back Mike Boone took the handoff and ran left, reversing the ball to receiver Kendall Hinton who threw it back to Lock as he was pressured. The ball was underthrown, leaving Lock with no momentum as he attempted to hustle into the end zone. Chargers cornerback Chris Harris Jr. smashed him short of the goal line.

And this, in summary, is who the Broncos are right now. They played hard. But they are not very good.

And weekly, they find ways to sabotage hints of progress with stupid mistakes. Special teams are a common culprit. On cue, Diontae Spencer muffed a punt, providing a runway for the Chargers' second scoring drive. That means on Sunday alone there were three huge gaffes in a season full of weekly disasters.

With Ekeler bouncing for yardage on the 11-play drive, the Broncos' defense buckled in the red zone, surrendering an 8-yard scoring pass from Pro Bowler Justin Hebert to receiver Keenan Allen. It widened the advantage to 17-0.

If nothing else, the Broncos avoided the indignity of a shutout. As time expired in the first half, McManus crushed a long drive down the fairway, the 61-yarder establishing a new career-high.

Before the game, Lock admitted he was blocking out the noise, not worrying about a future that might not include the Broncos.

It's fair to believe the Broncos' 2022 starting quarterback is not on the roster. Perhaps, the Broncos will make another run at Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, push for Seattle's Russell Wilson or even Atlanta's Matt Ryan or Minnesota's Kirk Cousins. None is a certainty.

What is known is that the Broncos' quarterback is not playoff-caliber. To Lock's credit, he showed toughness. He missed two games last season with a strained right rotator cuff and missed half his rookie season with a thumb injury. Lock showed flashes but the offense failed to gain traction on the ground for the second straight week and is 4-for-21 on third down conversions.

It was a mirror of the Las Vegas loss. The Broncos converted one-third down in the first half and managed 12 yards rushing. This is not an offense built to rally. In coordinator Pat Shurmur's second season, the Broncos have become worse. They entered averaging 19.7 points per game, ranking 23rd in the NFL. Denver has not averaged 21 points per contest since Peyton Manning retired. Ten quarterbacks have started since, with only Trevor Siemian (13-11) and Rypien (1-0) posting a winning record.

But this season is not on Teddy Bridgewater (out with a concussion) and Lock. It's about an offensive philosophy. If the Broncos can't run, they can't win. Only one team throws in front of the sticks on third down more than the Broncos. Only one receiver has scored a touchdown over the past nine weeks (Tim Patrick). The lack of creativity — the fake jet sweep doesn't count — is staggering.

Even if Fangio were to survive, which is becoming increasingly unlikely with his 5-12 record vs. the AFC West overall and 2-9 mark the past two seasons, Shurmur will not. Of the Broncos' seven wins, five have come against the Giants, Jaguars, Jets, Lions and Washington.

The players compete, despite the absence of starters Bradley Chubb, Bryce Callahan, Baron Browning, Mike Purcell, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick and Bobby Massie missing.

"It shows improvement from last year, but it also is disappointing, honestly. We’ve got to figure out a way to get in the playoffs; that’s the biggest thing," said tight end Noah Fant, who caught six passes for 92 yards and a touchdown. "All the focus is on us. We’ve got to figure out how to win these games.”

It's not about effort. It's about performance. And it hasn't been good enough, leaving change beckoning following the season.

The Broncos' starting defense reflected COVID-ravaged roster: Aaron Patrick started at outside linebacker with Micah Kizer inside and Nate Hairston at slot corner. ...

Left guard Dalton Risner injured his elbow on the Broncos' opening drive and did not return. Netane Muti replaced him.