Anything but an incompletion.
That, to put it simply, is the position the Denver offense found itself in facing a third-and-10 with two minutes remaining in regulation Sunday against division rival Las Vegas.
The 58 minutes leading up to that point had been anything but pretty, but here the Broncos were, with the two-minute warning providing a moment to figure out the best way to salt away a three-point lead and end a five-game losing streak to the Raiders.
Third-and-10, ball at their own 34, Las Vegas drained of its timeouts.
What do you do? Run the ball and concede to likely punting, but milk 40-plus seconds off the clock before booting the ball away? Or put it in the air in an attempt to end the game with a first down, but also accept the risk of stopping the clock?
It’s the kind of situation NFL coaches face every week. It’s the kind of situation Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett likely had in mind when he addressed his team on Saturday night and told them he was handing play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak. It’s the kind of situation that determines games.
Since the opening two weeks of the season, Hackett and the Broncos have had plenty of issues to be sure, but he had smoothed out his game management operation at least. When this first stress test arrived for his newly organized offensive staff on Sunday afternoon, however, it cracked, and the Raiders gladly played the beneficiary in a 22-16 overtime win.
The trouble started when the Broncos decided to put the ball in the air on that third-and-10.
“You’ve got to keep the clock running one way or another,” Hackett said, though the play called made that more difficult. … “We communicated that we wanted to be able to take a shot down the field and we knew what kind of coverage they were going to be in, but if something happened in the pocket or anything like that, that’s one of those situations where you can take a sack or you can just run the ball. But we obviously didn’t want the clock to stop in that situation.”
Anything but an incompletion was fine.
Quarterback Russell Wilson rolled to his right and eventually fired toward undrafted wide receiver Jalen Virgil, who was covered and working back toward Wilson along the right sideline. The ball sailed out of bounds with 1:53 remaining.
“They kind of covered it up pretty good,” Wilson said. “I was trying to get outside the pocket and then Virgil was coming scrambling down and I thought I had him. Tried to take a shot to him and the ball just kind of went away a little bit.”
Denver punted, the Raiders marched for a game-tying field goal and then won the game in overtime on the first possession.
Anything but an incompletion, and perhaps a different ending unfolds. After all, the Broncos scored on each of their first two possessions and at times captured the kind of rhythm that has been all too rare this fall.
“I thought Coach Kubiak called a great game,” said Wilson, who completed 24 of 31 passes for 247 yards. “Even with the big transition of it all, I thought he was really sharp, communicated well. I thought (offensive coordinator Justin Outten) was great on the sideline, too. It was smooth in that sense.”
But many of the same problems hampered Denver.
The offense converted just 3 of 12 third-down tries. After 192 first-half yards, they were held to 128 in the second half. That pesky third quarter, which has produced only 10 offensive points this year? Another zero.
“The frustration is through the roof,” defensive lineman Mike Purcell said. “I think you can see it on everybody’s face. If not then, if there’s anybody that’s OK with this (stuff), then they’re OK with losing. I don’t think there’s anybody like that in this locker room.”
There may not be, but the Broncos have done a lot of it recently after a sixth defeat in their past seven games. A second straight week of leading 10-0 and then losing. A third overtime loss this fall. A sixth loss by one possession. A fourth time scoring exactly 16 points. A perfect 10-for-10 in failing to score more than 23 points. Another failure in an autumn full of them.
“I want to do everything I can to help this team win,” Hackett said when asked again about his job status moving forward. “We’ve been so close, had so many opportunities. We’ve had a lot of things happen this year that are unfortunate, but we have to continue to find ways to win. That’s my sole purpose and that’s all I’m looking to do. Whatever happens, those things I can’t control.”
The Broncos had control Sunday but lost it late in the fourth quarter.
As Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams waltzed into the end zone and walked off the Broncos, he waved goodbye to the Empower Field crowd.
See ya next year, when the silver and black attempt to run their winning streak against Denver upward from six.
What will the Broncos look like then?
Will they be better equipped to handle Maxx Crosby, who once again lived in Wilson’s backfield? Will they have a way to slow Josh Jacobs, who powered to yet another 100-plus rushing yard outing and had 160 total offensive yards? Will they have the same head coach? Another injury-riddled roster held together by back-ups and undrafted rookie wide receivers and practice squad call-ups?
To put it more plainly: Will anything be different, even if there is change?