ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — This is an older, veteran team by now, one that’s had the key pieces in place for almost 40 games, give or take a Sunday afternoon or Monday night.
The Broncos have skins on the wall, as John Fox used to say.
That’s what made Denver's 26-16 defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Bills so frustrating, perplexing and potentially damning to their playoff hopes. Youth can be no excuse for how the Broncos lost on Sunday. None of their game-altering mistakes was the result of overzealous effort, the kind you can live with. No, theirs were dumb mistakes, the kind that Super Bowl teams don’t make.
“I killed the game today with that penalty,” superstar linebacker Von Miller said with a voice full of regret after most of the 68,865 tickled-blue fans had left New Era Field.
You saw the penalty. The whole stadium saw the penalty. Was it the right call, to flag Vonnie Football for extending a hand to Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, only to pull it away in a move that was funny on the seventh-grade playground, but not so much when an NFL game is on the line?
But the ridiculous flag only underscored the ridiculous way the Broncos lost to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in 18 years, with little hope of snapping that streak this time around. Team captains like Miller can’t do that — not at that time, another time, any time.
“I can’t put my team in situations like that. I brought us homefield many times. I’ve closed games 50 million times. I’ve got to be smarter than that,” said Miller, whose 15-yard penalty for taunting gave Buffalo a first down just as the Broncos were set to get the ball back, trailing by only a touchdown with 7:43 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Oh, this loss wasn’t on Von. He took the blame — all of the blame, and that’s a captain’s move — but you can pin this one on team-wide dumb. It was on Trevor Siemian, too, after the quarterback, also a team captain, tossed a pair of head-scratching interceptions. Both were avoidable. Siemian won the starting quarterback job because he doesn’t do dumb things — not often, at least — and he knew going into the Broncos' first road game there was one thing they couldn’t do: turn the ball over. The Bills field a powerful defense that’s no joke, but an offense that opened with three consecutive three-and-outs and usually is only going to score when it's gifted a short field.
“He’s trying to make plays,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said of Siemian. “I’m not going to fault him for that.”
The Broncos also had 10 penalties. They also had a dropped pass by Emmanuel Sanders that negated a long gain. They also had a failed fake punt attempt deep in their half of the field. They also had, well, you get the point.
Roughly half of the Broncos and Bills rosters kneeled during the national anthem in protest. Multiple players on the Broncos sideline raised a fist as a military flyover sent a deafening boom through the "Bills Mafia" tailgating scene that's just as rowdy as advertised.
"I support those guys 100 percent," Siemian said. "They know that I have their back. They have every right to do what they're doing."
Then the game started, and Denver doubled down on dumb.
Hey, it happens. Look around the NFL and there’s no juggernaut, no one running away with a No. 1 seed and 15 wins, no one who’s immune to dumb decisions. The Patriots escaped the lowly Texans by three in Foxboro. The Packers escaped the Bengals in overtime at Lambeau Field. The Steelers lost to Fox and the Bears in Chicago. True parity has taken over the NFL.
But what is concerning — and this is worth noting, if things go south — is how these Broncos, after being together for so long, don’t handle adversity particularly well. Without the Mile High crowd noise that serves as their Popeye’s spinach, the Broncos are nothing special. They’ve lost three straight road games, dating back to last season, and haven’t played a complete road game since a 20-point win at Tampa Bay in Week 4 of last year, a long time ago.
"Our defense bailed us out plenty of times," Siemian said.
The core players and the identity of these Broncos have been in place since the Super Bowl 50 season, in 2015. That's just under 40 games ago. They've proven to be a team of extremes — awesome or awful, depending on the color of their mood ring — which makes any ending to this season possible. They run hot and cold like a faulty water faucet. Former wide receiver Wes Welker once said that rival teams view the Broncos as frontrunners. Until the Broncos smack some home team the way they smack teams in the friendly confines of Mile High, it's an accurate description.
"We were on a roll and we knew it," Sanders said. "You can't do that on the road. Mistakes after mistakes, they'll cost you ballgames."