DENVER — After perhaps the wildest week in an increasingly tumultuous season, the Denver Broncos left inspiration at the door Sunday as they turned in another here-they-go-again, too-little-too-late performance in a 20-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
It was certainly a suitable capper to a six-day run filled with a bit of everything in a season that has seen the glass more empty than not. Consider that before kickoff:
The Broncos benched rookie punt returner Isaiah McKenzie early in the week, the same player coach Vance Joseph had steadfastly declared in training camp was the unquestioned player for the job. But five bobbles and two lost fumbles later, including one in the first quarter of the 41-16 loss to the New England Patriots last week, and McKenzie was inactive against the Bengals.
The Broncos cut tight end A.J. Derby. Derby has an injured shoulder, but he led the position group in catches and was tied for the team lead with two touchdown catches. On Sunday, tight end Virgil Green dropped two passes against the Bengals, so call all of that a work in progress.
On Friday night Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway dropped the verbal hammer when he said the team had gotten “a little bit soft’’ since the Week 5 bye. Elway said it not once but twice, just to reaffirm, it seems, it was not an accident.
And when all was said and done Sunday, the story of the Broncos’ season could be seen in just the first half. Brock Osweiler’s third pass of the game was intercepted by Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
It was the Broncos’ 14th interception of the season, but the fact it came on a play that originated from the Bengals’ 4-yard line was just another miscue on the Broncos landfill of first-quarter mistakes this season. By halftime the Broncos had 160 yards of offense and the Bengals had just 95 yards — only 21 of those rushing — and the Broncos still trailed 13-7.
That, too, has been a theme as Joseph often has had to point out the Broncos outgained somebody else in defeat. But the complete meltdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles and Patriots the previous two weeks simply forced this past week’s moves as the Broncos search for a way to stay relevant in an increasingly muddy AFC West race.
They’ve benched players and changed quarterbacks, and their in-residence Hall of Famer called them out. Given the “soft’’ card is usually the last one to play, the Broncos just might be out of moves to salvage much from what remains this season.
And given the Broncos’ struggles in pass protection, their insistence on working out of a three-receiver set as if Peyton Manning didn’t retire a year-and-a-half ago, and persistent turnover issues including C.J. Anderson‘s fourth-quarter fumble Sunday, a move to Lynch at quarterback doesn’t figure to fix much. Still, the Broncos continue to act as if they will toss Lynch into the swirl at some point, whether he’s ready or not.
Elway said Friday night the Broncos’ players just had to learn to dig themselves out of the current troubles. Two days later the Broncos lost their sixth game in a row, the Bengals won for the first time in Denver since Paul Brown was their coach and the Broncos’ search for even one answer to their problems is still underway.