DENVER -- Their bid for another epic victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, and possibly their chance to defend a Super Bowl championship, ended with a whimper Sunday afternoon in front of 76,893 chilled and dejected fans at Sports Authority Field. Then, immediately following a 16-3 defeat to their formidable AFC rivals, the Broncos' frustrations boiled over, as a seemingly ho-hum attempt at postgame unity began and ended with a bang.
When the beaten Broncos spilled into the locker room, before the door was opened to reporters and other outsiders, coach Gary Kubiak gathered his players and asked if anyone wanted to address the team. Veteran left tackle Russell Okung, who signed with the Broncos last March, stepped forward to speak, and cornerback Aqib Talib strongly objected. According to several witnesses, that set off a spirited shouting match between the team's defensive backs and offensive linemen -- one which Kubiak had to diffuse before it turned ugly.
"Pretty much your classic offense vs. defense divide," as one Denver player described it.
It wasn't the Broncos' finest hour, but the timing of the outburst was certainly understandable. The defeat left Denver (8-6), which has remaining games against AFC West rivals Kansas City (10-4) and Oakland (11-3), needing a pair of victories and some help to have a chance of sneaking into the playoffs as a wild-card team. And it underscored a chasm between the two units that dates back to last season, when the Broncos highlighted the adage Defense Wins Championships in one of its most extreme manifestations in recent memory.
The disparity was especially evident against the Patriots (12-2) on Sunday, which is why Okung -- despite essentially being shouted down by Talib, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and some of the team's other defensive backs, who weren't interested in hearing the words of someone representing the underperforming offense -- expressed sympathy with their perspective as he left the locker room.
"I definitely understand their frustration," Okung told me. "They played well enough to win, and they held that team to 16 points, which a lot of teams don't do. We're an emotional team; that's what makes us so good. To me, that's part of who we are.
"When our defense is out there, they're an emotional group, and they hold themselves to a high standard. As an offense, we need to do the same. So, I think [their frustration] is warranted. We've got to be better."
The Broncos are running out of chances, at least for 2016. It is now glaringly apparent that the model which worked for them a year ago -- keep games close with a low-risk offense, rely on an aggressive defense to dominate and make game-turning plays -- isn't necessarily sustainable over the long haul.
To put it another way: When you hold one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time -- who, at 39, seems to be closing in on a third MVP award -- to zero completions in the first quarter, you might want to see your offense put up more than a field goal in response.
"We are an emotional group," T.J. Ward told me after I shared the details of my conversation with Okung. "That's why we play as well as we do. What happened wasn't even anything major -- just a little frustration. We're all trying to win."
After Manning retired and Osweiler bolted in March, signing a four-year, $72-million free-agent deal with the Houston Texans (who, incidentally, benched him in the first half of Sunday's victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars), Denver general manager John Elway contemplated trading for disgruntled 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick before charting a more conservative course. Trevor Siemian, a seventh-round draft pick in 2015, ended up beating out veteran Mark Sanchez in a training-camp competition, with first-round rookie Paxton Lynch as the heir apparent.
During training camp, Elway told me he felt that despite the "emphasis that people put on quarterbacking, sometimes [it] is not the key thing. Obviously, if you look at the way we won the championship that year ... you don't necessarily need a Tom Brady to win a championship. It makes it a little easier for you 'cause you've got that guy you can build around, but by no means is it any guarantee."
Though Siemian has shown flashes of promise, especially in the latter part of the season, Denver's lack of offensive punch was glaring on Sunday.
Siemian (25 of 40, 282 yards) made a massive mistake on the first play of the second quarter, with the score tied at 3, throwing a third-and-3 pass toward Emmanuel Sanders that Pats cornerback Logan Ryan jumped at his own 8-yard-line and returned 46 yards. That set up the afternoon's lone touchdown drive, on which the Denver defense forced a pair of fumbles -- both recovered by the Patriots -- and still succumbed on LeGarrette Blount's 1-yard blast up the middle.
The rest of the half unfolded with some disturbingly conservative decision-making by Kubiak, who passed up a 55-yard field goal attempt in high altitude to punt the ball back to New England with 5:15 remaining -- this from the same coach who had Brandon McManus attempt a 62-yarder late in an overtime defeat to the Chiefs three weeks ago. Then, after the Broncos forced a fourth down near midfield with 1:15 remaining and the clock running, Kubiak declined to use any of his three timeouts and killed the rest of the half on a handoff to halfback Justin Forsett.
"It's about being aggressive," Thomas said. "Especially in the situation we're in as a team -- we're on our last legs, so why not go after it?"
Thomas, to be fair, was merely answering a question, and he had plenty of criticism to go around, including a scathing critique of his own effort. "I could have made a big play on that one ball down the sideline," he said, referring to a long pass that seemed to be within his grasp with 4:44 left in the third quarter -- part of a frustrating streak of five consecutive three-and-outs to start the second half. "And that fourth-down pass (with 6:04 left in the game) that got knocked out of my hands? That's on me, too.
"I'm beating myself up, still. I could've made a play. I'm the captain of the offense. I put it on myself."
Like Okung, Thomas said he understood the postgame frustration of the Broncos' defensive backs, though he wasn't necessarily thrilled with the delivery: "It's tough to see your blood brothers, guys you go to work with every day, get frustrated and air it out like that. You wish it wasn't that way. But being as great a defense as they are, I can see why they're frustrated. As an offensive player, you've gotta be frustrated, too -- but then, at a certain point, it's hard to be frustrated. ... You see the same thing for 14 weeks -- we move the ball, move the ball, then get in the red area and we just fold. At some point, you just throw up your hands."
"We did dominate them," Ward said of the Patriots, "but when they don't have to pass, No Fly kinda gets eradicated, so we've got to try to make plays in other areas ... strip the ball, whatever. But it's tough when they don't have to pass the ball.
"You've got to be in a position to make plays, but teams don't even have to throw the ball on us. If they're not in a position to throw, it's hard to get an interception. And even when they run, their running backs have two hands on the ball, so it's hard to make plays [against] the run."
Harris echoed Ward's sentiments, saying, "Any time we hold Brady to 16 points, we expect to win. Even last year, we never held him to 16. And he didn't complete any passes in the first quarter. We have to do better."
Added cornerback Kayvon Webster: "I can't believe that s---. We held Brady to 16 and still lose? Has that ever happened?
"We've got a big-time defense. We always make plays. But if we can't get in position to make 'em, how are we gonna win? I mean, our options were limited today. It was crazy. We can't get five three-and-outs in a row [on offense]. We just can't do that."
So yes, Okung's desire to speak served as a convenient catalyst for Talib and others Broncos defenders to voice their frustration. At least one Broncos offensive player bristled at the incident, telling me, "If those guys are so upset, they should be looking at themselves ... do more. Work harder. Do extra. Find a way to make those plays. 'Cause trust me, nobody on offense is happy about all this."
Thomas, for one, isn't inclined to conceal his unhappiness. He voiced his frustrations with the team's offensive approach when I spoke to him three months ago, and he picked up right where he left off after Sunday's game.
"Early in the season, my frustrations were with my offensive guys, because we weren't putting up points," Thomas said. "And every time someone mentioned the Broncos, it was, 'They've got a great defense, but the offense isn't pulling its weight.' That gets old. I'm sick of hearing that. I'm still hearing that. We need to find a way to do better."
The Broncos, who were mathematically eliminated from division-title contention, are obviously running out of chances. They currently trail Kansas City (10-4) and Miami (9-5) in the wild-card race and are tied with Baltimore (8-6) and Tennessee (8-6), the team that defeated them last Sunday. Obviously, the Broncos need to win a pair of games (against opponents to whom they've previously lost this season), and they'll also need some help.
"We need a crazy scenario to go on," Talib said. "But we did [crazy things] last year. We'll see what the football gods give us."
Said Ward: "You can say we need help. We need to help ourselves, by winning. 'Cause all the help in the world ain't gonna matter if we don't help ourselves."
On Sunday, the Broncos couldn't help airing out their frustrations. Whether it bonds them closer together or tears them further apart remains to be seen.