The inches are still killing them.
Softly, in Sunday’s case. The Broncos were a Drew Lock fumble away from perhaps beating the Bengals late. They were a Courtland Sutton drop away from perhaps taking a lead early.
Is that good enough?
Is that progress?
“In the NFL, in the fourth quarter, 1-score games, the good teams find ways to win those games,” Denver safety Justin Simmons said after another heartbreaker at home, a 15-10 setback to Cincinnati, dropped the up-and-down Broncos to 7-7. “And we didn’t find a way to win.
“I think that’s what hurts the most, is we played a really good Bengals team and we had a chance to win. We just couldn’t get it done.”
The Broncos are 1-3 this season in games decided by eight points or fewer. They’re 9-13 in those situations since 2019.
Consider this: From 2016-18, the three seasons that preceded coach Vic Fangio, they went 8-13 in those 1-score tilts.
So what’s changed?
Fangio promised, when he was hired three Januarys ago, that “death by inches,” the blood lost from 1,000 paper cuts, would be a thing of the past. And yet we’re still here. We still get moments such as the last four minutes of Sunday’s first half at Empower Field burned into our retinas.
With 3:30 left in the second quarter, in a 3-3 game, the Broncos dinked and dunked from their own 20. Three runs and a penalty gained 11 yards. It also ate about two minutes off the clock.
Faced with a first down at their own 31, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur dialed up six throws on the next seven plays. The second went for 11 yards to the Denver 45. None of the five tosses that followed netted more than nine yards.
The Broncos used their second timeout with 17 seconds left after a 9-yard pass to Tim Patrick put the ball at the Cincy 33. Two plays later, Brandon McManus’ 51-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
“(The sequence) was huge,” noted Bengals wideout Tyler Boyd, who would break the Broncos’ hearts with a 56-yard touchdown grab late in the third quarter.
“We probably would have (taken) a knee (at the end), but he missed it. So we gave (kicker) Evan (McPherson) a chance, because he’s got a leg … I mean, that was the turning point in the game.”
Rather than sit on the ball to end the half, the Bengals pushed. With the Broncos in a prevent look, quarterback Joe Burrow found Boyd over the middle for a 19-yard gain to the Denver 40. Cincy coach Zac Taylor called timeout, and McPherson did McManus one better, connecting on a 58-yarder as time expired.
Inches 6, Broncos 3.
“It was really big,” Taylor said. “Because we know they were going to get possession (to start the second) half, and we needed something.”
That’s the thing about inches: Once they’ve got you down, the little buggers never let up. The Broncos are 0-7 this season when trailing at the break. They’re 1-16 since 2020 under Fangio when coming out of the locker room on the short end of the scoreboard.
Good teams find ways.
Bad teams find potholes.
“It wasn’t sexy,” Taylor said. “But man, it was what we needed.”
The Bengals have scored in the final 2:30 of the first half 10 times this season. They’re 7-3 in those games. The Broncos have done the same thing five times through 14 games. They’re 5-0 in those games.
Inch count is more than half the battle in this league, especially when you don’t have a Hall of Fame passer calling the shots. Despite all those promises three seasons ago, the Broncos still keep coming up short.
“We called timeout because we had one left to see what the look was,” Fangio said of his second-quarter clock management. “I probably should’ve had us in a better call there.
“That one could be on me.”
Could be, Vic. Could be.
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