Four times in the Broncos’ first 16 games, either because his team was trailing or he embraced an attacking mindset, coach Vic Fangio opted to keep his offense on the field when needing at least seven yards on fourth down. They converted each time.
But trailing the Kansas City Chiefs by seven points in what could be his final game on the Broncos’ sideline Saturday and facing a fourth-and-9 from the 13-yard line deep in the fourth quarter, Fangio sent out Brandon McManus for a 31-yard field goal.
Mr. Aggressive became Mr. Passive.
Fangio’s over-reliance on his defense was costly as the Chiefs burned off the final 4:37 to escape with a 28-24 win, extending their streak to 13 consecutive wins against the Broncos.
It was a discouraging decision that led to a discouraging finish for the Broncos, who held a four-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
What say you, Vic?
“Your odds are very low through analytics,” Fangio said of converting fourth-and-9. “There was enough time left that gave us a chance to get a stop and even if we gave up a field goal, we should have a chance. If we go for it and don’t get it and they get that same field goal, then we’re down two scores with not enough time.
“I understand the second-guessing, but on fourth-and-9, your chances aren’t great.”
In reality, it was a decision that was first-guessed before McManus made the field goal. Bleep the analytics. Take a shot to the end zone.
Even if the Broncos didn’t convert, Kansas City had to start deep in its own territory. Get a stop, force a punt and maybe quarterback Drew Lock had some magic in his right arm.
It was inevitable the Chiefs were going to run out the clock even before quarterback Patrick Mahomes started the drive with a quick pass that receiver Mecole Hardman turned into a 44-yard gain. Kansas City (12-5) clinched the AFC’s No. 2 seed when Mahomes threw 11 yards to tight end Travis Kelce on third-and-8 at the two-minute warning, allowing them to run the clock out.
“A lot of it is just finishing and I guess you could say that’s almost the story of our season this year,” safety Justin Simmons said. “Four-minute offense, (two) timeouts, the defense has a chance to go out there and get a stop so our offense, who has been moving the ball pretty well all night, has a chance to go out and win the football game. Couldn’t do it.
“Those are the things I think about.”
Now it’s time to see what Broncos’ general manager George Paton has been thinking about.
Afterward, Fangio’s future in Denver — or lack thereof — was Topic A. Coaches who are 11 games under. 500 through three years don’t usually get a fourth season. But Paton, by all accounts, has great respect for Fangio’s work ethic and defensive acumen. Fangio said he and Paton talk “all the time,” but the most difficult conversation had not yet occurred.
“Not proud of the record,” Fangio said. “I know it’s not good enough. I get it. … Winning is the bottom line.”
This is a bottom-line business and the bottom line is the Broncos started 3-0, but only won four of their final 14 games. Another bottom line: They finished 1-7 against teams with a winning record.
“It (stinks),” left tackle Garett Bolles said. “I’m tired of losing. I think everyone’s tired of losing.”
It would behoove Paton to rip the Band-Aid and fire Fangio or announce his return as soon as possible.
Either way, changes are afoot. They should be. They need to be. Teams who claim to be close — like the Broncos did after the game — don’t finish 13th in their conference, don’t go 1-5 against their division rivals and don’t have two four-game losing streaks in the same season.
Put together an All-AFC West team and how many Broncos would be on it? Simmons, for sure. Cornerback Pat Surtain II (who missed the finale with calf injuries), probably. That may be it. The rest of the division hasn’t just passed the Broncos over the last six years, they’ve lapped them.
Mahomes is 9-0 against the Broncos. The Raiders have won four straight in the series. The Chargers could be headed to the playoffs with second-year quarterback Justin Herbert if they beat Las Vegas on Sunday. And the Broncos could be headed toward their fifth coach in nine years.
The Broncos and New York Jets have the longest current playoff droughts (six years). The proud Broncos are now lumped in the same company as the punch-line Jets.
If Fangio wanted to politic for his future, he could lean on the fact his team didn’t mail it in to finish the year. A double-digit underdog, the Broncos turned a 7-0 deficit into a 14-7 lead on Lock touchdown scrambles of five and 23 yards, and they turned a 17-14 deficit into a 21-17 lead on running back Melvin Gordon’s 47-yard touchdown.
But leading 21-20, in a play that epitomized the season, Gordon was hit by defensive end Melvin Ingram just as he received Lock’s handoff. Linebacker Nick Bolton scooped up the fumble and sprinted 86 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 7:42 left.
The Broncos marched right back on Lock completions of 29 (to receiver Tim Patrick) and 28 (to receiver Jerry Jeudy) yards. On second down from the 13, Lock didn’t see Jeudy on a slant route (incompletion to Patrick). Two plays later, Fangio opted for the field goal and just like in Week 7 at Cleveland and Week 16 at Las Vegas, the defense couldn’t make a stop to give the offense a final chance.
“We have to knock off the team that beat us (Saturday),” Bolles said. “They’ve been dominating this AFC West for a long time and we’re sick of it. I promise you, it’s going to change.”
The first change could be on Sunday.
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