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LAS VEGAS — This desert city gleams because of those who fell short.
The shimmering casinos that sit along Las Vegas Boulevard, just a long pass away from Allegiant Stadium? Winners didn’t build those monuments to commerce, entertainment and legalized gambling. They were built on mountains of heartbreak and poor decisions. When a high roller carelessly hits on 20, there’s a good chance that he or she just added some marble countertops to a bathroom near the hotel lobby.
In a 37-12 plastering that resembled Clark Griswold’s last-ditch trip to an off-brand casino where he lost at war, coin toss and rock-paper-scissors, the Las Vegas Raiders shone not because of anything they did, but because the Broncos did what they’ve been doing — only worse.
Start with the giveaways.
The Broncos already were fountain of turnovers. They entered Sunday with 16 giveaways in eight games, the third-most in the NFL.
Then they took the NFL lead with a brutal five-turnover performance — their worst in 50 games. Now, the Broncos have 21 turnovers through nine games. That matches the 2017 team for the worst tally at this point in the campaign in the last 30 seasons.
Drew Lock’s two first-half interceptions — one of which was in the Las Vegas end zone immediately after his touchdown run was wiped out by a Noah Fant holding infraction — were reminiscent of his picks in other recent games: wayward passes thrown into a thicket of defenders.
After two more interceptions in the second half, Lock now has 10 picks to his name this season, and a rate of one interception every 23.8 attempts that is second-worst in the league among 41 quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts. His season-long passer rating of 66.5 is third-worst among those 41 QBs; only Dallas’ Andy Dalton and Sam Darnold of the New York Jets are worse.
The Raiders intercepted as many passes Sunday as they had in their previous 14 regular-season games — and did so without any new wrinkles in coverage.
“It was pretty normal looks (that) we were expecting,” Lock said. “I just didn’t put the ball in our receiver’s hands, I put in their hands. There could have been some better plays there by me, without a doubt.”
Next, go to the run defense.
That has declined in recent weeks, as Mike Purcell’s season-ending injury and Shelby Harris’ bout with COVID-19 pushed an already compromised front seven over the edge. Sunday, the Raiders posted the second 200-yard team rushing game against the Broncos in the last three weeks, as Las Vegas racked up 203 yards on 41 attempts.
The Raiders’ four rushing touchdowns were the most allowed by the Broncos in 10 years, since they surrendered five in a 59-14 beatdown in Denver on Oct. 24, 2010.
Exacerbating matters was that the final punches were delivered by Devontae Booker. The 2016 fourth-round pick rarely got untracked during his four seasons in Denver. Sunday, he had perhaps the best all-around rushing game of his career, and scored as many touchdowns as he did in the 2018 and 2019 seasons combined.
“They’re a good running team, obviously, and we just didn’t play the run well enough,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. “Particularly if you lose your edge in a game, it’s going to show up in the run defense more so than anywhere else. I think in that fourth quarter we just weren’t as sharp as you need to be playing the run.”
Finally, go to the game flow.
Even the fact that the Broncos didn’t find the end zone until deep into the second half was numbingly familiar. In the previous two weeks, the Broncos didn’t have a touchdown until at least midway through the third quarter.
But in those games, the Broncos’ first trip to the end zone was followed by rallies that stirred hope. This time, Lock’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass to DaeSean Hamilton was as empty as the stadium itself. Las Vegas outscored the Broncos 17-6 in the fourth quarter and appeared to be strengthening as the game wound toward a merciful conclusion.
So after nine games, the Broncos sit exactly where they were at the same point in the last three seasons: with three wins and six losses.
But this point feels lower. Maybe it was the hope that persisted through the spring and summer as the pandemic raged. Maybe it was the investment in young offensive talent. Or, perhaps, the afterglow of a 4-1 finish to the 2019 season that deodorized the stench of a third consecutive losing season.
“Unacceptable. Unacceptable,” guard Dalton Rinser said. “That was an unacceptable performance today, and we need to know that. And it’s not that we’re going to dwell on that, but, I don’t care what the reasoning is — we obviously haven’t watched the film yet — we don’t know what the reasoning was, but that was unacceptable from an offensive standpoint, and we need to be better. Plain and simple, we’ve gotta be better, fellas, and we weren’t good enough to help our team win.”
To their credit, the Broncos haven’t raised the white flag, even though they now sit three games back of the No. 7 seed in the playoffs with three teams between themselves and that final spot.
“We’re not looking at each other pissed, pointing fingers, saying this thing’s over and looking at it like some of you all might be looking at it and saying it’s a mess,” Risner said. “Of course we know that we have to be better. But we’re looking at each other and saying, ‘We love each other. We know that we can do this. We believe in each other.’ Screw being 3-6, we know we’re way better than that.
“It kind of sounds like the same old record — saying we’re a better football team than this — but we are. And we’re going to continue to believe that, and we’re going to continue pushing each and every week.”
There is a cliche’ about not being as good as you seem on your best day — and not being as bad as you appear on your worst. If that is the case, then, yes, the Broncos are better than they were Sunday — even if they are not better than their record.
But failing that, Broncos Country would settle for something modest: simply not being as bad as their team was in Las Vegas.
Because after three consecutive losing seasons with the growing possibility of a fourth, this feels like as bad as it can get.