(TNS) — Von Miller walked into the Broncos' locker room at their Dove Valley training facility Friday afternoon, took off his helmet and turned to fellow linebackers Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett.
The typically jovial veteran was visibly annoyed and tired and frustrated and feeling every emotion expected during a five-game losing streak.
"Weight room," Miller ordered. "We got 11 sacks this season. Let's go."
The defense followed Miller's cue Sunday, but it alone couldn't erase the Broncos' recent history and right their future. The Broncos fell to the Bengals, 20-17, for their sixth-consecutive loss this season and their first defeat at home against Cincinnati since 1975.
"This isn't the culture here," quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "... The standard is to win — win championships, win division championships, get to the playoffs every year and contend for Super Bowls. And right now, we're not playing football like that, so it's very frustrating."
This one stung for the Broncos, as reality began to set in that the door open ajar on the season might have finally shut. Another loss to an opponent they should have defeated. Another game decided on turnovers. Another opportunity squandered.
"All the losses hurt, but this was the game you wanted to get to get the energy back," Miller said after. "This was the game you wanted. I feel like I went to Vegas and made a crazy bet and just lost it. I feel sick."
This time, however, the defense imposed its will with only 190 net yards allowed, including 51 rushing. Denver's special teams, too, redeemed themselves after floundering in the their previous outing.
And though the offense recorded 112 rushing yards, it failed to do enough and often resorted to formations in passing plays that have caused problems all season.
Osweiler finished 23-of-42 in passing for 254 yards, one touchdown, one interception, three sacks and a 70.9 passer rating.
The opening minutes offered promise that the Broncos would right the ship: The defense forced a three-and-out on the Bengals' first drive, then linebacker Shaq Barrett blocked a punt, to both the surprise and delight of a crowd accustomed to special-teams miscues this season.
Osweiler then guided the offense up to Cincinnati's 4-yard line, where hope of a score was immediately quashed. In a three-receiver-set — a personnel group that has hindered the Broncos for much of the season — Osweiler was intercepted by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who returned the ball to Denver's 1-yard line and set up an easy touchdown catch by tight end Tyler Kroft.
"It's cover zero (defense), we have a slant play called," Coach Vance Joseph explained. "Cody (Latimer) beats the corner inside, he runs into the guy covering the slot player and the corner continues to go. He catches the ball in the end zone and runs back to the 1-yard line. That's where we are right now."
Denver responded, albeit begrudgingly, by relying more on its ground game. C.J. Anderson found the end zone on a 3-yard run in the waning seconds of the first quarter to give the Broncos' their first rushing touchdown in the first quarter of any game this season and give the team a 7-6 lead.
Despite the big rushing gains, the Broncos repeatedly resorted to three-wide-receiver sets, stalling drives and exposing an already-injured Osweiler (shoulder) to big hits and a pair of sacks. After one of those, Osweiler gingerly stood to his feet, clearly in pain.
"I'm really not worried about the injury," he said. "Bottom line, I'm able to throw a football, and if I'm able to throw a football, that's good enough. At this time of year in the league, everybody is hurt. It's just a matter of how bad. I just want to give a ton of credit to our defense. I thought those guys came out here today and really set the tone, played extremely hard. Special teams did some great things for us and really gave us great field position. And bottom line, I need to play better."
Although Denver took the edge in the first quarter Sunday, their lead was short-lived. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton found receiver Alex Erickson deep on the left sideline for a 29-yard touchdown pass, over the head of cornerback Bradley Roby, who was targeted often in coverage and was flagged for a critical pass interference late in the fourth quarter.
Late in the second quarter, with the Bengals ahead 13-7, Denver's defense forced a three-and-out to put the ball back in the offense's hands at Cincinnati's 49-yard line — good position for a score to close out the half. But the drive stalled with a sack of Osweiler, and a 61-yard field goal attempt by Brandon McManus was blocked in the closing seconds.
McManus' foot and the Broncos' defense kept them in it over the final two quarters as he booted a 45-yarder late in the third quarter to close the Bengal's lead to 13-10. But that, too, was short-lived.
Anderson fumbled on a run play in the fourth quarter, and Dalton found receiver A.J. Green in the corner of the end zone on the Bengals' ensuing drive.
"Tonight we had great effort. Offensively, we moved the ball again. But we had two turnovers, and they both led to points," Joseph said. "That's 13 points. That's the game again. Effort is good, guys are making plays, but you can't turn the ball over."
Though the Broncos tried to claw back with a 17-yard touchdown catch by Demaryius Thomas, the Bengals held their own and took advantage of Denver's defense. Miller bit on a zone read as Dalton sped past him for a first down, then Roby was penalized for pass interference.
And just like that, hope fizzled, time expired and the 3-7 Broncos trudged off the field in dismay and frustration.