The Broncos blew an early 13-0 lead and lost to the Buffalo Bills 30-23 Sunday in the second-coldest game in Denver’s history, setting up an all-or-nothing game against the Chargers next week for the division title and a playoff berth.
The Broncos (8-7) led the Chargers (7-8) by three games with three to go, but now face the possibility of having led the AFC’s woeful West by themselves from opening weekend through Christmas with nothing to show for it.
“Unfortunately we’re not going to be able to go up there and take it easy,” receiver Brandon Marshall said. “We’re going to have to go up there in their back yard and prove to them that we’re better than them. They’re a good team, they’re playing better now, and they’ve got all the momentum.”
None of which matters, suggested Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler.
“If you would have told us at the beginning of the year that it was a one-game series with us down in San Diego to go to the playoffs, we probably would have taken it,” Cutler said. “We’ve got to keep our heads up.”
The Chargers beat Tampa Bay earlier in the day, and Denver will be facing a fired-up team in San Diego on Sunday night that everybody had given up for dead.
“Everybody was doubting them, talking bad about them this year,” Denver linebacker D.J. Williams said. “Now they have a chance to throw everybody’s words back in their face with a victory.”
And keep the Broncos home for the postseason for the third straight year.
P.J. Pope became the sixth tailback to start in the Broncos’ battered backfield—and he went to the sideline in the first quarter with a tight left hamstring. Selvin Young came in and carried the load until leaving with a pinched nerve in his neck late in the third quarter, leaving Tatum Bell as the only healthy ball carrier.
Cutler threw for 359 yards and broke Jake Plummer’s franchise record with 4,210 yards for the season, but he threw an interception to Kawika Mitchell at the goal line with six minutes left and then, with less than a minute left, cornerback Reggie Corner knocked the ball out of Brandon Stokley’s hands in the end zone.
“I had both hands on the ball,” Stokley said. “I’ve got to catch it. That’s what they pay me to do.”
The Broncos, who outgained the Bills 532 yards to 275, retook the lead on Cutler’s 6-yard keeper. The celebratory mood among the frozen fans, who endured temperatures that dipped into the single digits, ended quickly when Fred Jackson’s 65-yard catch set up Steve Johnson’s 3-yard touchdown grab that put Buffalo back on top, 23-20.
Nobody was more affected by the bitter cold than Broncos kicker Matt Prater, who came up short on a crucial field goal try just before halftime that swung the momentum and was forced to kick a series of squibs on kickoffs that continually gave Buffalo great field position.
After Prater’s 43-yarder tied it with 11 minutes left, the Broncos again were burned by a squibbed kickoff and Jackson’s 8-yard touchdown run made it 30-23 with 8:54 left.
“I’ve got to have more touchbacks and learn to drive the ball more when it’s cold out,” Prater said.
The Broncos dominated the first half, outgaining Buffalo 268 yards to 95— including an edge of 213 to minus-2 in the first quarter—but they led just 13-10 at halftime after settling for two chip-shot field goals by Prater and a big strategic blunder by coach Mike Shanahan.
Rather than sending in the punt team on fourth down at the Buffalo 36, Shanahan sent in Prater, who had converted all five of his tries from 50-plus but was well short on a 54-yarder.
“Obviously, it didn’t turn out to be the right decision,” said Shanahan, “and we were also stopping them at that point.”
Not from that point on, though, as the Bills scored on their next five possessions.
“We had them on their heels and we gave them a little life,” cornerback Champ Bailey said after his first game in two months. “They got some points before the half and that’s where it just went bad on us.”
The Bills capitalized on Prater’s miss by going 56 yards for Marshawn Lynch’s 2-yard TD run with 11 seconds left in the half.
“It pumped us,” Buffalo safety George Wilson said. “It kept us right where we wanted to be, one score away. We wanted to finish that half strong after getting off to a slow start. The missed field goal led to us getting a touchdown off a short field and it allowed us to regroup at the half and come out and finish the game strong.”
“We might not be a playoff team,” Jackson said, “but we played like one today.”
The Broncos might not be one either.
The only game in Denver colder than Sunday’s 17-degree reading at kickoff was a game against San Diego on Dec. 10, 1972, when it was 9 degrees. … The Bills went 4-0 against the AFC West. … Bailey picked up his second career sack, and first since his rookie year in 1999. … Lynch injured a shoulder in the second half.