DENVER -- The Denver Broncos just wanted the math to matter for one more week, they just wanted one more chance to make it right.
Over and over in this on-again, off-again season they had hoped the “grit" (their word) that they had shown would turn into more than lost opportunities and unrewarded effort.
But when cornerback Jamar Taylor, who was signed Dec. 4, was ejected late in the third quarter Saturday night for throwing a punch at Cleveland Browns wide receiver Breshad Perriman, it seemed like fitting end to any real postseason chance in a season when the Broncos often just couldn’t overcome themselves. The 17-16 loss, a loss that dropped the Broncos to 6-8 with two games to play, will almost certainly close the postseason book.
“Let’s go back to work," said Broncos coach Vance Joseph. “It’s as simple as that. What are you going to do? We’re 6-8 and mathematically we’re still in it. We have to go back to work."
So, pick your hot-button issue from a loss that all involved had called a must-win.
Pick coach Joseph’s decision to not go for it on a fourth-and-1 with 4:35 to play in the game with the Broncos trailing 17-13. They kicked a field goal instead as the boos came. There were plenty in the locker room who had hoped they would go for it right there.
Pick a horrible 12-men on the field penalty on the defense, after a timeout, after that decision, another big-moment flag in a year with plenty.
Or pick injuries and the long list of starters on injured reserve including Emmanuel Sanders and three starting offensive linemen, or a roster that wasn’t quite up to the significant challenge of those injuries.
Or, maybe most importantly, pick either of the two interceptions thrown by quarterback Case Keenum after a week when the team’s coaches had said they wanted him to take more chances. Keenum threw 48 passes, but only averaged 5.4 yards per completion and had a 45.9 QBR.
“I hate not winning, I really do," Keenum said. "… We’re going to come back to work, and that’s what we’re going to d;, we’re going to go to work … (There is) a lot of anger at myself. There were some plays I could make that [I] didn’t and then some plays that I want back today, but yeah, a lot of anger."
That’s just it, and maybe that’s the signature of the year, which will likely be the third consecutive playoff miss for the Broncos. The Broncos work, and they have given teams that figure to play deep into the postseason everything they have wanted.
But when Taylor got tossed, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. was inactive with a fractured lower leg, cornerback Brendan Langley had already left the game with a concussion and cornerback Bradley Roby was being treated for a cut on the inside of his mouth. It meant, Tramaine Brock was the only cornerback in uniform who was actually on the field.
Now everything is up for discussion until Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway says it isn’t -- Joseph’s future, the coaching staff’s future, Keenum’s future, the future of almost any player whose name isn't Harris or Von Miller -- because the Broncos haven't had a postseason game on their docket since the Super Bowl 50 win.
Can Elway trade a player like wide receiver Demaryius Thomas on Oct. 30 and say the coaching staff didn’t win enough after that? Would 8-8 be better than 6-10? How much is coaching, how much is personnel?
And there is Keenum, who signed to a two-year, $36 million contract last March as the Broncos’ quarterback of choice in the open market. Keenum has had moments of late-game heroics, and he’s had interceptions in nine games. He has $7 million of his $18 million base salary guaranteed next season with a $10 million dead-money figure if the Broncos decide to move on.
The Broncos’ decision-makers have been on the road already eyeing some of the 2019 draft’s best quarterback prospects if Keenum isn’t considered a long-term solution. Certainly some of the blame for the Broncos’ offensive struggles falls at Keenum’s feet. He's had 12 interceptions this season and had multiple games where he averaged under 6 yards per completion.
In the end, these decisions come down to whether or not Elway believes these Broncos, the team he constructed, are the team that pushed the Rams, were a missed field goal from beating the Texans and beat the Chargers, or if it’s the team on display Saturday night, the one that watched somebody else rise to the moment.