LAS VEGAS — It might hurt less if the Broncos were far from their goal of competing.
It might hurt less if the Broncos didn’t have one of the league’s best defenses and an offense with gobs of talent.
It might hurt less if the Broncos were being blown out. If they didn’t stand a chance. If they were always destined to fail.
That’s not this Broncos team, which was effectively eliminated from playoff contention with Sunday’s 17-13 loss to the Raiders.
“At the end of the day, we viewed this as a win-or-go-home situation,” Harris said, “and we didn’t do enough to come away with a W.”
No, this Boxing Day felt like a punch to the gut because when this Broncos team is clicking, it can compete with anyone. Denver’s defense ranked second in the league entering Sunday’s game, and it held the Raiders to 17 points. Over the past few weeks, the Broncos have given up fewer than 20 points to a slew of quarterbacks that includes Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow. On this Sunday, facing other defenses, the latter two quarterbacks led their teams to 36 and 41 points, respectively.
And while Denver’s offense has struggled in recent weeks, the pieces are there. Courtland Sutton is a Pro Bowl talent. Jerry Jeudy flashed on Sunday with three receptions for a team-high 60 yards. Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams form one of the league’s best running back duos, though the pair admittedly struggled on Sunday as their 14 carries combined for just eight yards.
When the offense has worked in unison, its led to a 30-point effort against the Cowboys and 38 points against the Lions.
The Broncos may, in all likelihood, be staying home from the postseason for the sixth consecutive season, but this is not a team that’s bereft of talent, as its zero Pro Bowl selections might indicate.
This was a team that had higher goals than a fifth loss to the Raiders in its last six tries.
“It’s trash,” Harris said. “No one goes into a season expecting to be like this. In the beginning of the season and now, it’s never wavered. We always felt like we had the talent to compete with anybody, and we just haven’t put it together.”
The Broncos, though, must deal with the hurt that comes from Sunday’s loss.
In defeat, the Broncos showed glimpses of the team they could be. After a lackluster first half, the Broncos pushed themselves ahead with a fortuitous final two minutes to the first half.
The sequence, which began with the Broncos trailing 7-3, began when Raiders quarterback Derek Carr tried to evade a sack by flipping the ball to Josh Jacobs. The Las Vegas running back briefly secured the ball, but he then lost control and nose tackle Mike Purcell recovered. The Broncos were able to add just a field goal, but they pounced again on the Raiders’ next offensive snap.
After initially rushing toward Carr, outside linebacker Bradley Chubb dropped back and batted Carr’s pass into the air with his right hand. He leaped again to pick the pass off, and he took off for the end zone. A play later, Javonte Williams barreled in from one yard out to give Denver a 13-7 halftime lead.
The Broncos would add one more takeaway in the third quarter, as Shelby Harris strip-sacked Carr. That takeaway — which gave Denver its first game with three takeaways this season — gave Denver a chance to retake the lead, which the Broncos lost on the opening drive of the second half.
On that opening drive of the third quarter, the Raiders showed the problem that they would create for Denver. The Raiders moved 75 yards in just nine plays for a touchdown, and 62 yards came on the ground. Las Vegas finished with 160 yards on the ground.
“It was disappointing,” Fangio said of the team’s second-half run defense. “They were blocking us. He was falling forward on us. We just needed to play it better; I needed to call it better. Any time something like that happens, it’s coaches and players together on it.”
The Broncos’ offense, meanwhile, failed to string together positive plays. After a 40-yard passing play to Jerry Jeudy in the second quarter, the Broncos were flagged for an illegal use of hands penalty and false start that turned a first-and-10 at the Las Vegas 35-yard line into a third-and-20.
At the end of the third quarter, a third-and-7 pass to Courtland Sutton was short of the sticks, and the Broncos missed a 55-yard field goal.
“They were late spotting [the ball],” Fangio said. “I wasn’t sure if it was fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2, fourth-and-3. They were late putting the ball down and it happened on the other sideline. So, it put a delay in the action there and Brandon [McManus] was a little upset that he didn’t know early enough to go out there, but it was nothing anybody could do. Not his fault, not my fault. We didn’t know what the down and distance [was], whether it was fourth-and-half-a-yard, a yard, what it was. If it was a yard or less, I was going to go for it, and we had to wait for the spot.”
On the Broncos’ final offensive drive, Lock found Sutton on fourth-and-1 for a 16-yard gain to midfield. Again, though, the Broncos were unable to capitalize. Albert Okwuegbunam was unable to haul in a pass that would’ve put the Broncos in the red zone, and Lock was sacked on third down. The Broncos, who were just 1-of-10 on third down, punted it back to the Raiders with four minutes to play.
They would not regain possession, and the offense finished with just eight first downs.
“It probably has a little bit to do with the distance on some of the third downs,” Lock said. “Good first play, and then you get behind the sticks after second down and it gives you a tough third down. Now, we picked some of them up — or picked one up — but we’ve just got to put ourselves in a better position on third downs going into that down instead of backpedaling.”
Now, the Broncos are left with the sting of another loss to a division rival. They’ll move forward without playoff seeding to play for, and they’ll be left to play spoiler for the Chargers in Week 17.
“We just want to keep competing,” Fangio said. “We want to go out there and we want to win. We are going to try our ass off this week to get our eighth win. Then we are going to try our ass off the next week. I don’t view it as season over or anything like that.”
The playoffs, though, are out of reach. And for a team that had postseason aspirations, the sting won’t easily fade.