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7 things I think I think after the Broncos 28-24 loss to the Chiefs in the season finale

The end of an era

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos
Is Lock a QB1?
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

In the week leading up to the game today, the 7-9 Denver Broncos looked like they’d serve as little more than a speedbump as the Kansas City Chiefs tried to secure a first round bye in the AFC playoffs. In the hours before kickoff the biggest news was the possibility that Dan Quinn could soon replace Vic Fangio as the head coach in Denver. It seems no one told the Broncos, or maybe they didn’t care. The team showed more fight than at any point this year, save for maybe the 30-16 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

A few thoughts after watching the broadcast.

The grounds crew should be under for those conditions today.

Throughout the first half both the Broncos and Chiefs players were slipping and sliding all over the field. On one hand you could argue it helped the Denver defense keep Patrick Mahomes and the speedy receivers on the Chiefs under wraps, but it isn’t like the Broncos weren’t slipping left and right. To these eyes it looked like a safety hazard.

The backup secondary outplayed my expectations

The Broncos entered this game without Kareem Jackson, Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, or Nate Hairston after all four were ruled out this week. The replacements were a fifth round rookie making his second start, a 2020 third round pick who missed 15 games with injury, and two former Bears playing for their next contract. They held Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense to just 10 points in the first half, and it could have looked even better if not for a bogus dubious penalty in the redzone.

Michael Ojemudia really caught my eye. The second year corner got the start at left corner in relief of Surtain and came away with two really nice pass breakups. The first came in the second quarter when it looked like he broke on a curl to prevent the receiver from securing the catch. The second really caught my eye.

Facing a 3rd and six down 17-21 in the middle of the third quarter, the Chiefs came out in 11 personnel with a bunch to the left of the formation, and OJ lining up over Josh Gordon on the right, and Mahomes found him on the corner route. It didn’t matter because Ojemudia reached in to disrupt the catch point.

Dropped interceptions will haunt the finale

It wasn’t all roses and marmalade for Ojemudia, however. In the first quarter he had a Mahomes bullet hit him square in the face and he let it hit the turf. If he’d found a way to secure the pick, the Broncos offense would have had a drive around midfield in a scoreless game. Instead the Chiefs found a way to go on a methodical 17-play march and capped it off with their first touchdown.

Another would-be gift hit the turf later in the first half when Kansas City faced a third and goal just inside the redzone. The pass rush found a way to pressure Mahomes as the coverage held up, and it forced the Chiefs QB scrambled to his right and uncorked a bullet that landed squarely in Kyle Fuller’s hands. The drop gave Andy Reid a chance to turn the drive ended into three points.

Courtland Sutton’s trick play overshadowed a quiet day

Undeterred by his trick play fail on fourth and goal against the Los Angeles Chargers, Shurmur pulled another one out of his bag in the first quarter today. This time it worked out beautifully, as Sutton found a wide open Noah Fant to get the offense into the redzone. It was the second completion of Sutton’s career, and the play led to an uncomfortably long stretch where the fourth year receiver was the Broncos leading passer.

Unfortunately, the trick play was Sutton’s best contribution of the afternoon. He was held to one catch for 13 yards over the rest of the game, and his third and five drop killed the Broncos’ chance at scoring right before the end of the first half.

The quiet day continued a troubling development with Sutton: At the end of November George Paton and the Broncos extended Courtland Sutton on a four-year contract extension worth $60 million with almost $35 million in guarantees. Since then the fourth year receiver’s only caught 15 of 31 targets for 159 yards since. The issues at quarterback are surely a factor, but I also plan to dive into his tape at length this offseason.

Gordon’s great day ended in ruin

Overshadowed by the more exciting Javonte Williams for much of the year, Denver’s veteran tailback’s generally found ways to make the most of his opportunities this season. In the early part of the year he was the only consistently productive member of the offense, and outside of the ugly affair in Las Vegas he’s continued to look like a three down back with Drew Lock under center.

Both Gordon and Williams received 12 carries in the game today, but where Pookie struggled with his decision making and found himself running in muck, Gordon blew up. He averaged 9.2 yards per carry on the ground, and still had a respectable 5.72 yards per tote if you blame a Chiefs’ mistake for his 47-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

As the Broncos marched down to extend their lead in the fourth quarter, it sure did look like Gordon was making one heck of a case that he deserved a new contract to return to Denver in 2022. Then Melvin Ingram broke through the line on 2nd and two and mashed Gordon just as he received the handoff. 86-yards later and the Chiefs found themselves a lead they’d never squander.

Drew Lock is who he’s always been.

At this point there is nothing I can say that’s going to change your mind on the Broncos’ third year quarterback. It’s a debate that defies all logic, numbers, and tape.

The incompletion between Lock and Jeudy on the first drive of the game was a bit of a microcosm of Lock’s career to date. Depending on where you stand, you either saw an overthrow or a receiver who didn’t do enough to haul in the pass.

Lock’s second drive of the game started out much like the first: a three and out.

It wasn’t until the Chiefs ran into Sam Martin on his second punt of the day that Lock came alive and provided some semblance of NFL caliber quarterback play. After missing on his first five pass attempts, Lock completed four of his next five for 27 yards. He also kept the ball out of harms way and found a way to create with his legs, rushing four times for 35 yards and two touchdowns to give the Broncos the halftime lead.

Along the way, Lock became the first Broncos’ quarterback to rush for two touchdowns in a game since Tim Tebow did it in 2011. While I found the second touchdown pretty impressive, it’s worth noting that it occurred in no small part because the Chiefs didn’t account for Lock’s legs.

Lock didn’t scramble once in the second half, but he did complete eight of his 14 passes for 135 yards, including a really nice completion to Tim Patrick on 3rd and long. It was a good example of the promise Lock shows, which is why so many find it hard to give up all hope. He has a very good arm and consistently demonstrates a willingness to chase big throws.

That same aggressiveness has gotten Lock into trouble plenty of times 21 starts into his NFL career. He’s willing to put the ball in harm’s way. While Lock has gone four consecutive games without throwing an interception for the first time in his NFL career, there were two dropped interceptions in the Chargers, and at least one today.

With an offseason of change upon us, Paton’s plans for Lock will be very interesting. There are still those in Broncos Country clinging to the hope that every other issue with the offense is preventing Lock from reaching a John Elway type of ceiling. More and more, it looks like every other NFL fan and media member accepts that Lock’s a backup. At best.

Earlier this week reports began to surface that Lock is probably trade bait, and it makes sense. The Broncos under George Paton look like they’re committed to overhauling the QB room this offseason. Lock is a holdover from the previous regime, and a divisive one at that. It’s probably best for both parties if Lock gets a fresh start. Maybe he can find success in the Shanahan/Kubiak type of system he was drafted for.

Final Thoughts

There’s no way around the fact that the Broncos 2021 season was a disappointment, but perhaps one that fans should have saw coming as far back as training camp. The quarterback competition between Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock placed a glass ceiling on an offense that Pat Shurmur showed no ability to overcome, and the injuries to the front seven of the defense sapped the pass rush and run defense.

Heading into the offseason will mark the beginning of a new era. After 30 years under the ownership of Pat Bowlen and the 6-year-stretch since under his trust, it’s hard to overstate how fundamentally different the Broncos could look by training camp next year:

At present the only certainty seems to be George Paton, who signed a six year contract to become the general manager last year. Working under Elway and Ellis in year one, he appears to have done a commendable job filling out most of the roster. A rather glaring hole still remains.