In a battle of two NFL teams whose 2017 seasons have been defined by poor execution and self-inflected wounds, the Denver Broncos tripped over themselves just a little too much in sending their losing streak to six games.
The Broncos (3-7) lost an ugly game to the Bengals 20-17 in front of the smallest crowd at Sports Authority Field this season.
Denver’s defense gave the team a late chance to tie the game, after a largely subpar performance, though Sunday was certainly a step forward.
Derek Wolfe stuffed Joe Mixon two yards behind the line of scrimmage to force a punt with two minutes left. Kevin Huber kicked the ball into the end zone, but the offense couldn’t pick up a single first down, essentially ending the game.
Brock Osweiler looked like a quarterback a 26-year-old quarterback on the fourth stop of his still-young NFL career. Despite throwing a few strikes late in the game, Osweiler was generally inaccurate and apprehensive behind an offensive line that did little to slow a Bengals’ pass rush that put Osweiler on his back 14 times.
Osweiler finished the day with 23 completions in 42 attempts for 254 yards with a beautiful touchdown pass and a devastating early interception in the red zone.
The 6-foot-7 quarterback was consistently out of sync with his offense. On multiple occasions, a receiver ran a different route than Osweiler expected, leaving the quarterback floating balls into the middle of nowhere.
Late in the first half, Osweiler, who missed practice time this week due to a throwing shoulder injury, fell hard on his right side and got up testing his arm. He didn’t miss a snap, but the wear and tear seemed to add up as the quarterback became less and less accurate throughout the game.
But the Broncos’ receivers did little to cover for their quarterback. Denver had four drops in the first half, including two from Demaryius Thomas. Thomas picked up his play in the second half, catching five balls for 64 yards and a touchdown to bring Denver within three points with five minutes to play.
Denver’s ground game was disappointing, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. Devontae Booker paced the Broncos’ backs with 44 yards on 14 carries. C.J. Anderson carried the rock 13 times for 37 yards and his first touchdown since Week 1. He also fumbled near midfield early in the fourth quarter, down 13-10.
The Denver defense was solid, but not nearly what it was early in the season.
The Broncos stuffed runners behind the line of scrimmage eight times in 26 rushing attempts, leaving the Bengals with an abysmal 1.9 yards per carry. Cincinnati ran for 49 total yards, matching running back Joe Mixon's total on 20 attempts.
The Bengals were no more efficient through the air, outside of Andy Dalton's three passing touchdowns. He completed 15-of-25 passes for 154 yards and no interceptions.
The Bengals totaled 190 yards of offense, compared to Denver's 341.
Shane Ray and Derek Wolfe each tallied sacks and two quarterback hits.
Denver’s special teams got off to a quick start when Shaq Barrett burst through the Bengals’ line and blocked a punt four minutes into the game. Later in the game, a 61-yard Brandon McManus field goal attempt was blocked as time expired in the first half. Bengals’ coach Marvin Lewis iced McManus’ on the kicker’s first attempt, which he made.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Carlos Dunlap’s pair of sacks were a game-high and his two tackles for a loss were second only to Wolfe. But Dunlap’s most significant contribution to the Bengals’ effort was his consistency. The 28-year-old defensive end out of Florida also hit Osweiler four times, as many as the entire vaunted Broncos’ pass rush combined.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Brock Osweiler’s end zone interception was a defining moment for a couple of reasons. First, the play changed the game. Instead of a quick six points for Denver, the Broncos found themselves down early again. And just like the rest of their losing streak, they were unable to bounce back from their early mistakes.
But the play wasn’t all bad. Both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders chased Dre Kirkpatrick 100 yards, never giving up on the play. When Kirkpatrick dropped the ball a yard from the end zone Sanders was there to touch him down, preventing the touchdown.
The Bengals still scored, but it would have been easy for the veteran receivers to give up on the play, especially in the midst of a five-game losing streak.
A faint, faint silver lining.
QUOTE OF THE GAME
"All the losses hurt, but this was the game you wanted to get to get the energy back. This was the game you wanted. I feel like I went to Vegas and made a crazy bet and just lost it. I feel sick." - Von Miller
BY THE NUMBERS
-16- The Broncos' turnover differential this season
117.3- Andy Dalton’s passer rating Sunday, nearly 30 points better than his season total
4- Catches by Austin Traylor in his NFL debut
The Broncos aren’t eliminated from playoff contention yet, but we’re approaching tanking the season in Denver. If the Broncos somehow manage to turn things around and win out, their odds of making the playoffs are still probably less than 50-50. One more loss and Denver can kiss 2017 goodbye.
@ Oakland Raiders (4-6), 2:25 p.m. MST, Sunday, November 26; CBS