ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The final score read Buffalo 26, Denver 16, indicating the Bills beat the Broncos.
In reality, though, the Broncos beat themselves.
On the surface, the Denver Broncos (2-1) outplayed their opponent in many aspects. The Broncos significantly out-gained the Bills (366 yards to 272), had more first downs (21 to 16) and more yards per play (5.5 to 4.3). But in two of the most important categories, penalties and turnovers, the Broncos fell short due to their own misdoings.
Now, credit should be given to Buffalo where it is due, and Bills’ quarterback Tyrod Taylor had a magnificent day—throwing for his fourth-best career passer rating (126) going 20-for-26 for 213 passing yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Outside of Taylor, however, Denver’s biggest opponent was themselves, starting from the very top of the command chain.
Failed Fake Punt
Down 20-16 with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter with the ball on their own 31-yard line, the Broncos lined up to punt on 4th-and-2 and in an effort to try to catch the Bills off guard, executed a direct-snap-fake-punt to De’Angelo Henderson.
“We have the look we want, we run it, and the look was there. We had a late sub on the field, so we kind of gave up time to adjust, and it didn’t work,” Broncos’ head coach Vance Joseph said with confidence after the team’s first loss of the season. “In my opinion there it was the perfect timing, it was a good call, and the look was there. We had our offensive line versus their punt return team.”
Unfortunately for the Broncos, their lack of execution during, and before, the play came one-yard short of converting the first down, instead giving the Bills the ball on Denver’s 31-yard line. Although the Broncos’ defense pushed the Bills’ offense back three-yards, they were given good enough field position to still convert a field goal.
While the decision was no doubt head scratching after the fact—as Denver was only down four points with an entire quarter to play—the fact that Denver’s offensive line was on the field—as is not typically the case with a normal punt—coupled with players running onto the field late didn’t make it much of a surprise for the Bills.
Unsportsmanlike Von Miller
In a game full of head-scratching calls, plays and decisions, Von Miller’s unsportsmanlike penalty in the fourth quarter took the cake.
After a crucial 3rd-and-6 stop to hold the Bills outside of field goal range with a seven-point lead, Miller made an egregious error—arguably his worst decision of the season. As Von got to his feet after driving Taylor to the ground, he extended his hand to help the quarterback up. Once Taylor put his arm out to accept the help, Von pulled his hand back in an elementary “too slow” fashion causing both players to crack wide smiles.
The refs did not see it as a joking manner, instead throwing the flag for unsportsmanlike conduct, putting the Bills’ offense in field goal position on Denver’s 31-yard line. The Bills would take advantage of this opportunity and ice the game with a field goal, making it a two-possession game with only a few minutes remaining.
After the game, Miller did not see it as a joke anymore, taking full responsibility for his actions saying, “I killed the game today with that penalty. I’ve got to be better than that.”
“I made a very, very crucial mistake at a vital point in the game,” he added in a frustrated tone. “I just wasn’t thinking… I can’t do stuff like that.”
Whether or not Miller should have been flagged for his playful actions didn’t come into question during his postgame press conference, just how detrimental his mistake was to his team. Von added his mental error “really put us over the top” and said, “there was no coming back from that.”
While his first interception on his own 32-yard line didn’t lead to any Bills points, his second pick of the day led to the Bills final field goal that extended their lead to two possessions
"The turnovers, you can’t do that at home much less on the road. The two turnovers, they hurt you,” he said postgame. “You are kind of screwing your defense.”
On the second interception, Siemian was scrambling around, waiting for a play to develop downfield when he threw the ball to the sideline as it was picked off. It wasn’t quite clear whether he was attempting to throw the ball out of bounds to live another down or force a ball into a window that didn’t exist. Regardless, decisions like that in the fourth quarter typically come back to haunt a team as it did on Sunday.
“He’s trying to make plays, I can’t fault him for that,” Joseph said defending his quarterback. “He’s made those plays before, so I’m not down on him for that part.”
Additional Missed Opportunities
Along with the aforementioned missed opportunities, Denver had many smaller opportunities slip out of their reach leading to their first loss of the season.
Although Emmanuel Sanders had a team-high seven receptions on the day, he dropped two passes on third down that would have gone for first downs including the wide open 44-yard pass that Sanders let hit the ground and was ruled an incomplete pass after the Bills challenged the catch.
While the Broncos topped the Bills in many statistical categories, they were not able to capitalize. In the first quarter, Denver out-gained Buffalo 96-10 and held the Bills to zero first downs. Yet, the Broncos only held a 3-0 lead.
Additionally, Denver had four red zone trips but only turned one into a touchdown, settling for field goals the other three times.
Finally, on special teams, Denver made a critical mental error that turned into three points for Buffalo. In the second quarter, punter Riley Dixon and the punting unit nailed the Bills back at their own 31-yard line. However, due to an illegal formation penalty, Dixon was forced to punt again, this time resulting in Buffalo’s offense taking over at Denver’s 32-yard line—a 37-yard difference caused by the penalty, already putting the Bills in scoring position.
“I’m just not happy with the performance at all,” defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said matter-of-factly after the game. “Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great team, but I feel like we’re not supposed to lose to that team. I feel like we’re supposed to come in here and we’re supposed to win that game.”
In the incredibly competitive National Football League, a win rarely comes easy, especially when a team consistently gets in their own way. That’s exactly what happened to the Broncos on a surprisingly hot and humid day in Orchard Park, New York on Sunday afternoon.
The Broncos learned one thing on Sunday: They aren't yet good enough to overcome their own mistakes.