ENGLEWOOD — Everything felt different. And it wasn’t. Everything felt new. And the feeling leaving the stadium continues to grow old.
The Broncos introduced a new coach in Sean Payton. They showcased an offense that brought Russell Wilson back to life. They turned over 40 percent of the roster, trying to remove the stench of six straight losing seasons and seven years without a playoff berth.
But as rain cascaded down in the fourth quarter at soldout Empower Field at Mile High, it might as well have been tears. Despite the HGTV makeover, the cracks in the foundation remained. Undermined by too many penalties and multiple special teams mistakes, the Broncos dropped their season opener 17-16, marking their seventh straight loss to the rival Raiders.
"That's one!" Raiders players screamed as they entered the locker room.
It was the result the Broncos deserved after a missed extra point, missed field goal, double-digit penalties and the inability to create a pass rush.
"It’s a new year. I know fans might think here we go again. But we have put the work in and we know what type of team we can be," said edge rusher Randy Gregory.
All of the promise of a fresh start dissolved in the second half. The Broncos could not protect a 13-10 halftime lead. It came down to this, needing a fourth quarter stop for one last offensive gasp. On third-and-7, the pocket collapsing, Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo scrambled for a first down. It was the final punch to the throat with 1:42 remaining and the Broncos saddled with only one timeout.
"We've been in this situation too many times. So for us it's all about finishing," safety Kareem Jackson said. "Defensively we didn't do enough."
It should not have come down to this.
The Broncos finally caught a break in the fourth, found some green lights on the way to work instead of construction. The Raiders committed an awful roughing the kicker on punter Riley Dixon early in the fourth quarter. The Broncos capitalized. Sort of. They quilted a 16-play, 75-yard drive. But they couldn’t finish. They settled for a Wil Lutz 24-yard field goal, inflating the cushion to 16-10. The Broncos did not have a drive with that many plays or 8:07 off the clock a year ago. But kicks create vulnerability.
The elastic Broncos defense broke on the next drive. Raiders zoomed up the field 75 yards in 2:20 on a big play to Davante Adams, a roughing penalty and a score to Jakobi Meyers, who had his way with Damarri Mathis all day. The Raiders inched ahead 17-16, followed by a Broncos ill-timed three-and-out as Payton decided to punt on fourth-and-3 from this own 32-yard line. Tight end Adam Trautman appeared to have a chance for a first down on third down, but tried to cut back and ran into the defender's arms.
It left the defense to make a stand as the Raiders took over with 6 minutes remaining. And they could not get off the field.
"Look obviously a disappointing loss. It was a hard-fought game that we kind of felt that at halftime this was going to come down to a possession. We didn’t make enough plays," coach Sean Payton said. "There’ll be some things that—I just told our team that—there’ll be some things we like that we see on this film and then there’ll be some other things we have to correct. I thought the penalties were a tick high for us. That’s going to hurt us."
Moments after the National Anthem, after the American and Colorado flags disappeared into the bowels of the stadium, Payton opened his coaching era in Denver with a bold stroke. There is a fine line between genius and chaos. The onside kick was executed well and recovered by Essang Bassey. One problem. Cornerback Tremon Smith touched the ball, leading to a penalty and the Raiders ball.
"We saw something on film. Percentage-wise we felt good about the odds," Payton said.
Las Vegas capitalized, scoring on a five-play drive aided by a questionable personal foul on Justin Simmons’ as he slammed into Jimmy Garoppolo’s side as the quarterback’s head hit the grass.
Following a timeout, Garoppolo returned and threw a touchdown strike to a fellow former Patriots standout, Jakobi Meyers, for a 3-yard score with corner Damarri Mathis blanketed him.
Trailing 7-0, the Broncos answered with the type of drive not seen around here since Peyton Manning barked out the signals. Mixing in a blend of passes at all levels to five different receivers, Wilson marched the Broncos down field. He capped it with a big pass to Lil Jordan Humphrey for a 5-yard score. Because nothing comes easily for the Broncos, Will Lutz, Payton’s handpicked kicker, pushed the PAT right, capping a forgettable first quarter on special teams that included the botched onside kick and holding on a kick return. Lutz went 33-for-33 on extra points last season and practiced at Empower Field earlier this week.
The euphoria of the offensive revival became muted with the defensive’s slow start. They did not pressure Garoppolo once on the first two drives, adding a field goal in their second opportunity. Denver produced 12 sacks in the final nine games after trading Bradley Chubb, putting the onus on Randy Gregory, Jonathon Cooper, Frank Clark and Nik Bonitto to deliver.
Worse, the Broncos lost starting strong safety Caden Sterns to injury on the drive. He executed a run blitz and his left leg whipped slightly on the tackle. He went down in pain, threw his helmet in disgust and tears rolled down his cheeks as he left on a cart, a tough break for a player whose career has been sabotaged by injuries.
Down 10-6, a promising chance dissolved before the Broncos’ eyes in a series of mistakes. Chris Manhertz was flagged for holding, Maxx Crosby ducked inside of right tackle Mike McGlinchey for his ninth sack in his last five games against Denver and Jaleel McLaughlin was crushed for a 7-yard loss.
The Broncos finally forced a punt on Las Vegas’ third possession, giving the Broncos the ball with 2:30 remaining. What transpired hinted at why Payton’s hiring provides hope of ending the streak of six consecutive losing seasons. Wilson took over, and continued spreading the wealth. He hit Greg Dulcich, moments before the second-year tight end exited with a right hamstring injury. He found Samaje Perine twice before Courtland Sutton took over. The coaching staff has privately remained bullish on Sutton experiencing a revival. He made a Pro Bowl in 2019, and hasn’t reached 1,000-yards receiving since. He entered Sunday with two touchdowns in his past 26 games.
But in this critical stretch, he looked the part of a No. 1 target. Wilson went to four straight times – three yards, 17-yard interference, 15-yard penalty and a 5-yard score. The touchdown showed how Wilson can fit in this offense. He bought time, moved to his right and zipped a dart to Sutton in the back of the end zone. Wilson finished the half 17-for-19 for 125 yards and two scores. Only twice last season did Wilson throw more than two touchdowns in a game. The drive before half covered 75 yards in nine plays, the urgency of running to the huddle and practicing with tempo paying off for a 13-10 lead at intermission.
The Broncos were 0-5 when holding a halftime advantage last year. Could they distance themselves from their putrid past? It didn’t start out promising as Lutz pushed a 55-yard field-goal wide right. The Raiders responded with a 13-play drive, and were set up to take the lead after two interference penalties in the red zone. But a false start changed the vibe, and Garoppolo made a mistake. He tried to force the ball into running back Ameer Abdullah in the end zone, but linebacker Alex Singleton tipped it and Kareem Jackson picked it to squash the threat.
Wilson finished 27 of 34 for 177 yards and two scores. He was much improved on intermediate passes. But the team's lack of playmakers led to 52 yards passing in the second half. The zero sacks and 10 penalties for 83 yards were impossible to overcome.
"I think the biggest thing is — we had six possessions. I thought we did well on pretty much all of them. I think the biggest thing is finding one more play here," Wilson said. "We knew it was going to be a fight. We knew it was going to be a battle. We thought we were going to come out on top, unfortunately we didn’t.”
JEUDY NEEDS ANOTHER WEEK
Receiver Jerry Jeudy, 19 days removed from his right hamstring injury, went through an extensive pregame workout, showing better burst in cone drills. Afterward, he talked with coach Sean Payton and GM George Paton. His progress has been encouraging, but he needs at least another week to heal. Jeudy was made inactive. He joined cornerbacks Riley Moss and Ja'Quan McMillian, safety JL Skinner TE Nate Adkins, OLB Thomas Incoom and OL Alex Forsyth.
Tight end Greg Dulcich pulled up lame, tapping his right hamstring after running long route in the last drive of second quarter. It is disappointing for Dulcich, who missed seven games because of a hamstring injury last season. …
Kicker Will Lutz did not ease concerns as Brandon McManus’ replacement, missing a 55-yard field goal and his first PAT. …
Phillip Dorsett had chance for big gain in third quarter, but lost track of where he was on field and stepped out of bounds with one foot. Payton was not happy. …
The Broncos announced a paid crowd of 73,973 with 2,326 no-shows.