Denver Broncos lament December slide, another missed postseason

LOS ANGELES -- The Denver Broncos were formally eliminated from their sixth consecutive postseason and assured themselves -- at 7-9 -- of their fifth consecutive losing season with a 34-13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.

It was deflating enough that safety Justin Simmons, who has played through all six of the playoff misses, was left only to search for a way to describe it.

"It sucks," Simmons said. "I, I, it's tough man, you put in so much work and have that type of performance all around. It's tough. I don't know if I can put a word on it ... it just, uh, it sucks."

The Broncos were 7-6 following a Dec. 12 win over the Detroit Lions and firmly in the playoff hunt before their deeply rooted issues finally overwhelmed their optimism.

Since that win in Week 14, the Broncos have scored 10 points, 13 points and 13 points in three losses. Toss in their season-worst COVID-19 issues over the past week and the Chargers and quarterback Justin Herbert easily slammed the door on their final hopes.

Special teams continue to harm their cause, too. Returner Diontae Spencer muffed a punt at the Broncos' 49-yard line in the second quarter with the Chargers holding a 10-3 lead and the Broncos having just made a defensive stand. The Chargers took that turnover and pounded away at the defense for an 11-play touchdown drive. Then, early in the fourth quarter, after a Brandon McManus field goal made it a 20-6, the Broncos allowed a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

"Obviously it's disappointing -- it's been six years now," said McManus, who is the last remaining player on the roster to have worn a Broncos uniform in a playoff game. "You lose a lot of division games it doesn't help ... we gave ourselves a chance at 7-6, we didn't do enough to win enough games down the stretch here."

With Saturday's season finale against the Kansas City Chiefs remaining, the Broncos are 1-4 in AFC West games this season. They are also 1-4 in one-score games.

Overall, the Broncos are 6-12 in Fangio's tenure as head coach in games decided by seven or fewer points. And the 10,000-foot view may be that postseason chances both this year and in his first with the team -- 2019 -- were really lost somewhere in those 18 games.

"We've got to pull those out ... we haven't answered the bell in that aspect this year, and that's on us," said Broncos tight end Noah Fant. "That's on us as players."

Offensively, the Broncos' receiving corps certainly took a hit this past week when both Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick tested positive for COVID-19. Adding to their troubles, guard Dalton Risner left Sunday's game in the first quarter with an elbow injury. With right tackle Bobby Massie also out on COVID-19/reserve and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater sidelined because of a concussion, the offense's struggles were essentially more of the same.

Denver was 1-of-3 in the red zone against the Chargers, 3-of-11 on third down and ventured inside the Chargers' 5-yard line three times only to come away with one touchdown. The Broncos rushed for 83 yards against a Los Angeles defense that had surrendered at least 140 yards rushing eight times this season and had been ranked 29th in the league against the run.

"We can't seem to find a rhythm and a consistency in our offense to keep drives sustained, make first downs and eventually get touchdowns," Fangio said.

Asked if the Broncos give up too quickly on things that do work, especially in the red zone, Fangio said: "Yeah, that's probably a fair question to ask and maybe that's possible, yeah."

Despite improvement -- especially on defense -- the Broncos are left with the same frustrating, empty feeling they had last season with only five wins. The players, coaches and general manager George Paton have said all season they believed they are better now than in 2020.

But there will still be no games left to play after Saturday, just like after the previous five regular-season finales.

"There's a certain barrier that I've noticed that we just haven't gotten over," Simmons said. "When it comes down to it, you've got to find ways to win the close games. There's going to be some games when things happen, the ball doesn't roll your way, whatever, the games that we have a chance to win the close ones, those are the ones that matter. Now when you get to the end of the year, you have room for a little bit of error. When you put yourself in a corner like that and you don't find a way to win the close games, that's when things start getting out of hand."