DENVER — If the Broncos' season could be summed up in one play, it happened at 5:02 p.m. Saturday at Empower Field.
With just under eight minutes to play and holding onto a surprising 21-20 lead, the Broncos were sitting at the Chiefs' 9-yard-line, looking to finish their season with a signature win. Any score, field goal or touchdown, and the Broncos had a good chance at beating the Chiefs for the first time since 2015.
But, like most of the Broncos' 2021 season, disaster struck at the most inopportune time.
Running back Melvin Gordon fumbled after being immediately hit in the backfield and Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton subsequently scooped up the ball and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown. And just like that the Broncos 2021-22 season was over, ending in brutal but appropriate fashion.
"I guess you could say that's almost the story of our season this year — just finding ways to finish games," safety Justin Simmons said. "Those are going to be the difference makers for us in the division and winning those type of games."
The Broncos had played well up until that point, despite being double-digit underdogs and having nothing but pride to play for. Quarterback Drew Lock played his best game of the season, with the offense — which struggled all season — going toe-to-toe with the high-powered Chiefs offense. And the defense, down several starters, held quarterback Patrick Mahomes in check, once again giving the Broncos a chance to win.
The Broncos' performance Saturday — in which 14,571 fans did not show up to watch — against the Super Bowl-contending Chiefs, while not the result they wanted, was admirable.
"I’m just really proud of our players. That’s a team that may win it all," coach Vic Fangio said. "Those guys went out there and fought them and competed with them and we had a chance to win that game. Not winning it is the bottom line, and we didn’t get it done, but I’m extremely proud of our players and proud to be associated with them."
It was only a few weeks ago the Broncos looked destined to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015, sitting at 7-6 and in control of their destiny. But things crumbled quickly, and as the Broncos look back at the 2021 season, there were far too many disastrous plays that doomed their season — whether it be Gordon's fumble against the Eagles in Week 10, or Lock's fumble against the Bengals in Week 15, or Gordon's fumble Saturday.
“We could pick out a few more plays, too, obviously," Fangio said. "We just have to coach a little better and play a little better to avoid those plays. We’re all in it together, coaches and players, are in it together. We all have our fingerprints on everything. We’ve got to avoid the catastrophic plays.”
Where the Broncos go from here is unknown. Saturday might have been Fangio's last game as the Broncos' head coach, holding a 19-30 record during his three years in Denver.
In his postgame press conference, Fangio mostly deflected questions about his future, only saying he does not know his fate yet.
Instead, an emotional Fangio spoke about his players and appreciation to coach them. He harped on "the foundation" of the Broncos. And the players backed it up with guys like Simmons, left tackle Garett Bolles and outside linebacker Bradley Chubb — three players who are in the Broncos' long-term plans — all talking about how close this organization is to achieving its goals.
And Fangio undoubtedly helped build that foundation, even if the results didn't always go in his favor the last three years.
“They’re a bunch of fighters and competitors," Fangio said. "That’s going to be the foundation that they have to build up. When we get a little bit better, play a little bit better, coach a little bit better, that foundation will carry us through. You saw it out there tonight: a bunch of fighters and competitors. I think you saw it all year. That’s what these guys are. I’m proud to be associated with them. Not proud of our record. I know it’s not good enough. I get it. But I’m proud to be associated with our players."
Now, the only question that remains is who will be the one to build on that foundation, to get the Broncos back to where they belong — the playoffs.
Will it be Fangio or someone else? Time will tell.