DENVER | Even down to one healthy cornerback, another spitting up blood, three sidelined with injuries and one ejected for throwing a punch, Vance Joseph trusted his defense more than his offense.
The Denver Broncos’ embattled second-year coach sent kicker Brandon McManus out for a field goal rather than go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 6 with the Broncos trailing by four points and less than five minutes remaining.
“I trust our defense to get a stop there,” Joseph explained after the Broncos’ 17-16 loss to the Browns on Saturday that all but eliminated them from the wild-card chase. “If we don’t get points there, a touchdown has to win it. It was my decision to take points.”
The Broncos (6-8) did get the ball back when Adam Gotsis stuffed Nick Chubb on fourth-and-1 from the Denver 10-yard line with 1:49 remaining.
And they reached the 50-yard line with 52 seconds left but Case Keenum, who was picked off twice, spiked the ball on first down to stop the clock, then threw two incompletions before getting sacked by blitzing defensive back Jabrill Peppers to seal Denver’s first loss to Cleveland since 1990.
“Five years later I was born,” said Baker Mayfield, who threw for two touchdowns in leading the Browns (6-7-1) to multiple road wins for the first time since 2014.
Despite not having a stout run defense like they did in years past or the star-studded secondary they did when Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward were still around, the Broncos have only surrendered an average of 21.3 points a game this season.
Trouble is, they’ve only averaged 21.8 themselves and five times they’ve been held under 20.
The Broncos appeared to have a gilded road to the second wild-card spot after surviving the league’s toughest schedule through Week 12. Of their five final opponents, only one had a winning record: the Chargers, whom they’d already beaten in Los Angeles.
Then came back-to-back losses to teams with losing records, 20-14 at San Francisco and 17-16 against Cleveland.
“We were so close to being in the hunt for the playoffs,” receiver Courtland Sutton said. “So you know when we lose two games that we felt like we should have won, definitely should have won, it definitely stings.”
The Broncos’ offense has ground to a halt with defenses stacking the box to stuff rookie sensation Phillip Lindsay, a task that’s been easier with the Broncos losing their top two tight ends to IR and their top two receivers, Demaryius Thomas to a trade and Emmanuel Sanders to a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon.
Lindsay has managed just 54 yards on 28 carries the last two weeks for a 1.9-yard clip after averaging 6.1 yards through the first dozen games.
“They were going eight in the box,” Lindsay said. “You all see it, everything is there. It’s hard when you have eight in the box. We’ve got to come up with different things and that comes down to me and that comes down to the whole offense.”
Keenum has thrown just five touchdown passes in the last five weeks, and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has stubbornly stuck to spread formations and hasn’t been very creative in his calls.
Needing about 8 yards to get in range for McManus to have a shot at a game-winner, Musgrave called intermediate and deep routes on the Broncos’ final two plays and converted guard Connor McGovern’s shotgun snap on fourth down nearly hit the ground.
Keenum reached down to grab it and as he began to rise, he was smashed by Peppers, sending the Broncos to yet another low-scoring loss.
They’ll have to beat Oakland on Christmas Eve and the Chargers on Dec. 30 to avoid the franchise’s first back-to-back losing seasons since 1971-72.
If Tennessee beats Dallas on Sunday, the Broncos’ playoff drought will hit three years — the prime seasons of superstar Von Miller, whose MVP performance in Super Bowl brought home the team’s third Lombardi Trophy.
“We’ve still got a lot to play for,” Miller insisted. “Young guys have to get exposure and experience and it’s not over yet. We’ve got to see what’s going to happen tomorrow. The Colts play a really good Cowboys team, so we’ll be watching the game and rooting for the Cowboys.”
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/tag/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/arniestapleton