Ryan O’Halloran: Well, here we are again. The Broncos enter Week 17 with nothing on the line but pride … and first-round draft position. At 5-10 entering Sunday’s game against Las Vegas, the franchise will try and avoid only their third season since 1991 with at least 11 losses. When did this season fall off the rails? When did the current reality — much closer to the bottom of the league than the top — crystallize? The problem with the state of the Broncos, there are so many choices. To begin the conversation, I’ll start with Sept. 8, just six days before the opener, when outside linebacker Von Miller sustained what became a season-ending ankle injury. Just like that, coach Vic Fangio’s blueprint — Miller and Bradley Chubb winning off the edges — was gone and the Broncos’ defense was playing uphill.
Kyle Newman: Miller going down for the year before even playing a snap was an omen of the ill-fortune to come. While that was the first major blow to Fangio & Co.’s chance at contending for a wild card, the fate of another lost season was sealed before September ended. After dropping the opener to the Titans in which cornerback A.J. Bouye suffered a shoulder injury that shelved him for over a month, Denver not only lost a close game in Pittsburgh in Week 2, but also Courtland Sutton (season-ending knee injury) and Drew Lock (missed two games with a shoulder injury). By the time about 5,000 boos echoed around Empower Field in the Week 3 blowout to Tampa Bay — where the Broncos lost defensive end Jurrell Casey to a season-ending biceps injury — the calamitous onslaught was on.
O’Halloran: Of the Broncos’ 10 losses, the Atlanta game was particularly inexcusable. The previous week, the Broncos rallied to beat the Los Angeles Chargers 31-30 to improve to 3-4. A trip to the reeling Falcons, who were 2-6 and already fired their coach and general manager, represented a chance to get to .500 for the first time since December 2018 and enter the playoff picture. Instead, Atlanta built a 20-3 halftime lead and led by 21 points in the fourth quarter before an empty-calorie comeback effort by the Broncos (34-27). The lack of cornerback depth was exposed, as was a maddening inability to maintain momentum from week-to-week.
Newman: It’s not like the 4-11 Falcons (losers of five of their last six) have proven to be some revelation since beating the Broncos. Atlanta is simply a bad team, just like Denver. The decimation in the desert the next Sunday at the hands of the archrival Raiders (also highly inconsistent) offered further proof as the Broncos were embarrassed 37-12. Drew Lock looked lost, throwing four interceptions, while the ground game did next-to-nothing with 66 yards. Instead of bouncing back from a deflating defeat in Atlanta, the Broncos sunk deeper, just as the trend has been over the last five years.
O’Halloran: Should the New Orleans Debacle (no available quarterbacks in a 31-3 loss) even be considered? It will count in the record book but should have an asterisk next to it (competitive integrity on Thanksgiving Vacation). But within that game was the final gut punch to the Broncos’ hopes of reaching .500 and having their defense carry an inconsistent offense. Cornerback Bryce Callahan, one of the team’s top four or five players, sustained a first-half foot injury that proved to be season-ending. Callahan’s interception fueled the comeback against the Chargers. His departure started a chain of events at corner that saw Fangio having to play recently-acquired players who were out of position and/or underqualified.
Newman: Fangio had the decked stacked against him this year, from the slew of injuries, to COVID issues, to the moldy cherry on top of this bunk season — Bouye’s six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing drugs. That suspension will carry over two games into next season — when Melvin Gordon will likely serve a three-game suspension for DUI then as well — but hopefully the Broncos’ bad 2020 juju won’t. I suspect Fangio returns despite the Broncos regressing in win total from Year 1 to Year 2. You could say the 62-year-old gets a pardon for all the external, non-controllable factors that contributed to Denver’s demise. But pardons don’t come around two years in a row.