NASHVILLE — As the Broncos wandered into Nissan Stadium on a 35-degree Sunday afternoon, the question lingered: Was the previous win a movement or a moment?
Turns out what happened in London stayed there. The Broncos feel less relevant today than they have all season after falling 17-10 to the Tennessee Titans before an announced crowd of 69,240.
"We've got to find a way. It sucks for us, honestly," running back Melvin Gordon said. "We have a good football team. We are battling. It just sucks because none of this was (how the season was supposed to go)."
All the Broncos' goals were in front of them. Then, they did what bad teams do, make costly mistakes, get outcoached, squander a 10-point lead for the second time this season, and fail their defense with an offense that needs Siri to find the end zone.
This is who Denver is. The Broncos find creative ways to lose, their 3-6 record defining their mistakes. Coach Nathaniel Hackett cited third down issues as the reason for the offensive struggles. They were 4-for-17 on conversions.
"For me, it’s about accountability. It’s about holding myself accountable first, the coaches accountable and the players accountable," said Hackett, repeating a common refrain, though there never seem to be any consequences.
Denver was shut out in the second half with their drives ending thusly: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, interception. This loss will only heighten speculation that Hackett is coaching for his job over the final eight games.
Of course, they kept it interesting. They usually do because of their gnarly defense.
Titans rookie quarterback Malik Willis fumbled on his only play of the game on a botched exchange, midway through the fourth quarter. Mike Purcell pounced on the ball at the 38-yard line, giving the Broncos hope. They trailed by four with 7:39 remaining. The drive, like so many this season, was a road to nowhere. As did the drive that started with 2:54 left in the game. Russell Wilson extended it with a fourth-and-5 scramble. But the Broncos could not finish after reaching the 21-yard line, his final pass intercepted.
Whether Hackett is fired or not, the bigger picture question is more sobering: Is this who Wilson is now? A quarterback battling injuries on pace for 13 touchdowns? Or will Wilson find traction to create optimism even in a losing season.
Frustrating was a word used repeatedly by players afterward. This is what is so hard to digest. Yes, the offensive line was sabotaged by injuries, but this was the product rolled out after a bye week. Think about that for a minute.
A 10-point performance.
It came with all the hallmarks of inefficiency. A disjointed run game that has no rhythm or substitution pattern. And pass plays that require protection in shark-infested waters with a quarterback in Wilson who often holds the ball too long.
The Broncos are averaging 14.6 points per game after hiring Hackett with the specific purpose of caffeinating the attack with a nine-time Pro Bowler. Improvement stopped this week, and the lack of consequences for underperforming players remains the only constant.
"Human nature tells you to relax and give in when it gets tough," said Wilson, whose team fell to 1-4 on the road after he completed 21 of 42 passes for 286 yards and was sacked six times and hit 18 times. "We’re not going to let that happen.”
After a respectable first 30 minutes, the Broncos waded into disappointment.
A 10-7 lead vanished when Denver fell for a flea flicker. Ryan Tannehill (19-for-36, 255 yards) lofted a pass to a wide-open Nick Westbrook-Ikhine after cornerback Damarri Mathis stumbled and took out safety P.J. Locke. Westbrook-Ikhine dodged Kareem Jackson, who had a tough day, and jogged into the end zone. Multiple defenders said that was the play they wanted back.
Why? There is no elasticity. One big mistake by the defense leaves this team in position to lose.
The Titans opened up a 14-10 advantage, and Denver's offense dissolved under pressure with leaks springing with backups at both tackle positions and center.
"It's tough to go into that situation. I am proud of how Luke (Wattenberg) did coming into the game. Center is a tough position with all the calls you have to make," left guard Dalton Risner said. "We are 3-6. It stinks. But we have to move forward."
Boring and bad has become the Broncos' brand for six-plus seasons. But Sunday's misery came as a fire hose of cold water.
The Broncos punted on their first four possessions, completed 1 of 7 passes, and lost Jerry Jeudy on the initial snap to a left ankle injury. Jeudy told Denver7 after the game that he thought it was a low-ankle sprain, which typically recovers more quickly.
But instead of retreating under the visitor's bench in the fetal position, the Broncos punched back. Even as Denver struggled, flickers of the dream of this offense as it was originally conceived appeared. Wilson took the snap on third-and-6 from the 34-yard line, and his eyes widened. Rookie Jalen Virgil jogged wide open along the left sideline, forgotten in a busted coverage. The former Appalachian State star hauled in the pass and raced with speed displayed during training camp for a 66-yard score.
First catch ever. First touchdown. That ball will end up on a mantle.
"Russ made an adjustment, and it was there," Virgil said.
The issue was whether it was going to be made more memorable by a victory.
The Broncos' offense continues to show life with a little help. As Courtland Sutton, who spoke in the locker room after the game according to a few players, gained traction after three pedestrian games — he snared a 17-yard reception — and Wilson absorbed a late hit, Denver turned it into a 39-yard field goal. The 10-point lead matched their largest of the season as Wilson finished the half 11-for-22 for 188 yards.
However, the defense, so smothering for 28 minutes, took a breath right before the half. And it never goes unpunished on this team.
"I think part of it was uptempo," said defensive end Dre'Mont Jones.
The Titans flawlessly executed a two-minute drive, racing down the field on Tannehill's arm and feet. When the Broncos blitz failed to get home on third-and-9 — it was the right call — Tannehill found Westbrook-Ikhine for the score on the same route the Jaguars ran on Jackson.
It was a crowbar to the shins for a Broncos defense that held Derrick Henry to 16 yards on eight first-half carries, and he logged 53 yards total for the day. The first half featured — is that the right word? — 10 punts. The Titans wanted a wrestling match. This was more UFC than NFL, just brawling at the line of scrimmage, making it feel like a defensive or special teams score would win it.
The Broncos' offense succumbed, unable to find a solution in a season that has crumbled before their eyes.
"Sometimes, you have to realize it's just life, you don't win every close game, no matter how hard you try. We just need to keep pushing forward. We have a lot of football left," Jones said. "We are 3-6, not 0-9, so there's beauty in that."
Justin Simmons began this season as an Iron Man. He rarely missed snaps and never missed games. But he sat out his fifth this year, sidelined by a sore knee. He is progressing as scheduled, leaving him optimistic to play against the Raiders, he told Denver7. Simmons sprained his knee in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars, and was limited last week in practice. He hurt his quad in the season opener, leading to a four-week stay on the injured reserve for the former All-Pro.
P.J. Locke replaced him in the lineup and veteran Anthony Harris provided depth.
Jeudy, Turner knocked out with injuries
Receiver Jerry Jeudy injured his left ankle on the Broncos' first snap, was treated on the sideline then took a golf cart to the locker room. He did not return. He is hopeful it is a low-ankle sprain. The Broncos were already without K.J. Hamler, who hurt his hamstring running go routes at Wednesday's practice. Right tackle Billy Turner hurt his left knee midway through the second quarter. He walked off slowly, but fired his helmet to the ground. Turner was playing in his fourth game as he worked his way back from off-season knee surgery. Quinn Bailey, with Cam Fleming out for another week, replaced him and struggled as did Graham Glasgow's (shoulder) in-game sub, rookie Luke Wattenberg.
The Walton ownership game has made every game. Rob Walton, CEO Greg Penner and Carrie Walton-Penner met with the Titans ownership on the field before kickoff. The group remains involved and inquisitive. President Damani Leech was also on the field. ...
Jacob Martin recorded a sack on his first snap as a Bronco, but it was nullified when he was called for offsides. The Broncos still held on third down on Titans' first possession. Martin registered his first sack midway through the second quarter, part of the Broncos' strong performance.