Close but no cigar: Broncos fail to close out Chiefs in game that defines the Fangio era in Denver

Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Tim Patrick (81) in the second quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Empower Field at Mile High.
Jan 8, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Tim Patrick (81) in the second quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

“Death by inches” has been the story of Vic Fangio’s Denver Broncos career ever since his introductory press conference.

It was his mantra that inspired multiple offseason puff pieces describing the veteran coach’s meticulous attention to detail. Once the games started, however, that narrative flipped completely.

No longer were the Broncos winning as a result of their ability to eliminate these mistakes, as Fangio promised in that presser. Instead, they were losing as a result of their ability to create those mistakes at seemingly every turn.

Fangio’s defenses were always great, and, that first year especially, he often had them playing above their talent level. He’s still a great defensive coach. Unfortunately, he’s just not a great head coach.

That was exemplified beautifully on Sunday against the Chiefs. Once again, the Broncos’ defense perplexed Patrick Mahomes and made him fight hard to earn every single point. Unfortunately, stupid errors still plagued them in critical moments, and ultimately led to their demise.

The Fangio era has been nowhere near as gruesome as some dishonest actors in the mediasphere would like to make it out to be, but there’s also little doubt that there won’t be any tears shed in the Denver-Metro area upon his dismissal.

It’s time for a new chapter in the history of the Denver Broncos, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that this chapter will be much brighter than the last few.

Below are a few of those reasons you should continue to cling to that optimism, as well as one sour point from Saturday’s disappointing game, but first, thank you for sticking along for the ride once again with this weekly column. Looking forward to doing it all again with you in 2022.

Stock Up

Michael Ojemudia

The 2021 season has been brutal for the second-year third-round pick out of Iowa.

Michael Ojemudia had a fine rookie season for a cornerback, considering how difficult it generally is for prospects at that position to transition to the NFL, but his stock arrow was pointed sharply up going into year two. He had a tremendous offseason and hype was building around him as a high-end depth piece, but a gruesome preseason injury derailed the once-promising sophomore campaign.

Now, for the last week of the NFL season, he’s finally back, and those flashes from training camp and the preseason showed up against one of the NFL’s best offenses.

Ojemudia dropped an interception early in the game, but ultimately finished with three pass breakups — including one massive one on third down to prevent a conversion — and was one of Denver’s most reliable tacklers in the secondary.

Situational Offense

There was a lot to praise in Drew Lock’s first two starts of the season. He showed a lot of growth and maturity and brought the offense an explosive element that it was missing. He also did a better job of utilizing the high-end receiving talent.

One area in which the offense fell off a cliff though, was their ability to convert in critical situations. Now, to be clear, the Broncos were bad all season long, converting just 39% of their third downs between Week 1 and Week 15, but that number was reduced by more than half in Weeks 16 and 17 (19% conversion rate).

This week that area of their game saw a massive improvement, and they converted 58% of their attempts.

Rushing Attack

One adjustment opposing defenses made to the insertion of Lock into the starting lineup was throwing far more of their assets at defending the run.

In Weeks 1 through 15, the Broncos saw eight or more defenders in the box on 27% of their offensive snaps. Over the last two weeks, that number skyrocketed to 46%, and as a result, the run game suffered mightily.

A rushing attack averaging over 114 yards per game was held to just 101 yards combined in Weeks 16 and 17.

That turned around completely against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Denver’s offensive line romped and completely bullied their divisional foes, as the rushing attack tallied 191 yards.

Melvin Gordon led the way with 110 rushing yards and had a few highlight-reel-worthy plays that propelled the Broncos, but his late fumble ultimately sold the Broncos’ fate and tore their still-beating heart directly through the rib cage.

Drew Lock

Lock had his most impressive start of the season, sandwiched between two moldy slices of bread.

He started the game on an incredibly disappointing note, and frankly, looked lost. He opened the game 0-for-5 and didn’t complete a pass for the first 12:30 of the game (and didn’t complete a second until eight minutes after that), as he missed a wide-open Jerry Jeudy streaking downfield and threw multiple uncatchable passes.

However, following a rushing touchdown that tied the game up at seven, Lock snapped out of his funk and settled into the game. From that point, he turned in a nice performance. After that first rushing touchdown and before a later ugly sequence to close the game — which we’ll dissect briefly — Lock went 11-for-16 for 156 yards and gained 30 yards on the ground, including a 23-yard touchdown scamper.

Unfortunately, Lock left a bad taste in the mouth of Broncos Country with how he closed the game. First, Lock proved that Teddy Bridgewater isn’t the only Broncos quarterback who doesn’t know how to tackle. Then, he snapped his streak of excellent decisions with two ugly ones on the final two offensive plays of the game. He forced a ball into tight coverage on second down, missing an open Jeudy in the endzone. On third down, he unnecessarily drifted backward and threw off his back foot, tanking his accuracy, as the ball to Fant sailed out of bounds.

Stock Down

Jonas Griffith

Jonas Griffith has been a bright spot on the Broncos during this cold close to the season, but against the Chiefs on Saturday, he had his first ugly start.

The Chiefs picked on Griffith all night long, but this was never more evident than it was on the first drive.

First, there was a play where Griffith had Mahomes dead to rights in the backfield, for what would have been a drive-changing sack, only for Mahomes to paralyze him with a pump fake and run around him to convert the first down.

Then, by the goal line, he completely lost Kelce on the drag route, leading to an easy, wide-open Kansas City touchdown.

Griffith might just win a starting linebacker job next season. That said, there are still growing pains that have to be sorted out.

SHARE