INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — The Broncos' failed Philly Special on Sunday encapsulated much of Denver's disappointment from a season that will end with the extension of this proud franchise's longest playoff drought since the 1970s.
The audacious play-call on fourth down from the Chargers 2 started out promisingly, but ran into big trouble quickly. The Broncos persevered through the pressure and nearly made it work, but ultimately fell just short of their goal.
“It was open, but there was disruption, and we didn’t make it,” coach Vic Fangio said. “We’ve got to find a way to punch that in, obviously.”
Denver never recovered from that second-quarter setback following a 74-yard drive in what was a 10-0 game at the time. AFC West rival Los Angeles rolled to a 34-13 victory that ensured the Broncos (7-9) will finish with their fifth straight losing record and will miss the postseason for the sixth consecutive year.
Although they started the season 3-0 and were in solid shape at 7-6 just three weeks ago, the Broncos are cooked after losses to the Bengals, Raiders and Chargers. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for this finish — from major injury woes to a COVID-19 outbreak — but three straight losing seasons under Fangio could mean big changes are only a week or two away.
“In the NFL, the only thing that matters is the playoffs,” said Broncos quarterback Drew Lock, who caught receiver Kendall Hinton's pass on the Philly Special, but got stopped by Joey Bosa just short of the goal line. “Yeah, it’s disappointing. You can do many good things throughout the year, but your main goal is to make it to the playoffs. We didn’t do what we wanted to do this year.”
The Broncos’ minuscule postseason hopes were erased with this loss, and they have five consecutive losing records for the first time since 1972, when Denver had its 10th straight losing year in a streak that began in the AFL. The Broncos then played 45 years without even having back-to-back losing seasons, but John Elway's team has slid from relevance in the past half-decade.
The Broncos came into SoFi Stadium at a disadvantage because of the latest COVID-19 outbreak, which sidelined 12 players and seven starters while forcing the rest to prepare with almost no practice time.
The Chargers were superior on both sides of the ball: The Broncos failed to sack Herbert for the first time in their four games against LA’s burgeoning star quarterback as he passed for 237 yards and two touchdowns, while Denver didn’t score a touchdown until it trailed by 28 with 6:35 to play.
“I would say that it shows improvement from last year,” said tight end Noah Fant, who had six catches for 92 yards and Denver's only TD. “Last year late in the season, we weren’t even really playing for playoff contention. But it also is disappointing, honestly. We’ve got to find a way to get in the playoffs. That’s the biggest thing.”
Lock made his second straight start in place of Teddy Bridgewater, who wasn’t ready to return from a concussion. Lock played the first two series before heading to the locker room with a shoulder injury, and Brett Rypien filled in before Lock returned shortly afterward.
“Felt a little funny,” Lock said of his injury. “I’d had it happen to me before. Just needed to get a little shot and come back out. No way was I going to stay on the sideline with what it was.”
Denver reached the Chargers 1 on fourth down again for the first snap of the fourth quarter, and Melvin Gordon ran it in for a TD — but the Broncos were in an illegal formation, forcing them to settle for their second field goal.
Denver failed to score 20 points for the 27th time in 48 games under Fangio, the longtime assistant who dropped to 19-29 in his first NFL head coaching job.
“I hate to sound like a broken record, (but) I just don’t know genuinely what else to say,” Denver safety Justin Simmons said. “It’s frustrating. I don’t know how to come up here and say, ‘This is what happened. This is what we need to do.’ We’re just not winning, and we need to find more ways to win.”
Big changes could be coming from first-year general manager George Paton, who didn't hire Fangio. The veteran coach declined to evaluate the Broncos' season after their playoff elimination, saying everyone would be focused on preparing for their home finale against Kansas City, which will be playing for the AFC's No. 1 seed.
“We’ve still got another game to play,” Fangio said. “We’re going to get ready, hopefully have a normal week of practice and put our best foot forward next week.”
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