DENVER (AP) — Case Keenum wasn’t the cautious quarterback his coach complained about last week. Instead, he was the careless one who made Broncos fans wonder why John Elway had spent $36 million to replace the much cheaper and just as effective Trevor Siemian.
The Broncos (6-8) were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday, marking the third consecutive year they’ve failed to reach the playoffs since winning Super Bowl 50.
Keenum threw two costly interceptions in Denver’s 17-16 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Saturday night when he topped 200 yards passing for the first time in a month, but didn’t throw any touchdown passes.
It was his first game since coach Vance Joseph called him out publicly for agonizing so much over avoiding interceptions that he was passing up opportunities downfield.
Ball security had topped Keenum’s to-do list after he started the season with 10 interceptions in his first eight games with his new team, especially after injuries and a trade robbed him of his top two tight ends, top two receivers and three starting interior offensive linemen.
But these weren’t the chances Joseph wanted him to take.
Jabrill Peppers picked off Keenum’s floater into the end zone to rookie Courtland Sutton from the Cleveland 29 late in the second quarter.
“First one, it was man coverage. Heck, when we’re in field-goal range, I’ve got to be more careful with the ball,” Keenum said after the Broncos’ second straight loss to a sub-.500 team. “Trying to give them a chance and the kid made a heck of a play, coming from the middle of the field, intercepting that one. I need to get that ball up and down a little bit sooner.”
The other interception , by T.J. Carrie, proved even costlier.
It came one play after Von Miller’s franchise record-breaking sack of Baker Mayfield got Denver’s defense off the field to regroup one play after they lost their fourth and fifth cornerbacks when Bradley Roby left with a cut in his mouth and newly signed Jamar Taylor was ejected for throwing a punch.
What the Broncos needed right then was a long drive chewing up yards and clock so defensive coordinator Joe Woods could assess and settle his scrambled secondary.
Instead, Keenum’s awful throw sent Miller & Co. right back onto the field with safeties in coverage and Mayfield led the Browns 48 yards in six plays, hitting Antonio Callaway with what proved to be the game-winning touchdown from the 2 with safety Justin Simmons in helpless pursuit.
“The second was just a really poor read by me,” Keenum said. “We were feeling good, wanted to take a shot, and they did a good job disguising the coverage. They rolled to a different form of cover-2, and I didn’t see the corner. It’s not an excuse, but it’s ultimately what lost us the football game because they went down and scored right after that.”
The Broncos were driving for the go-ahead touchdown when they stalled at the Cleveland 6 when Phillip Lindsay, who gained 2 yards on second-and-3, was stuffed for no gain on a third-and-1 toss.
Instead of going for it on fourth down, Joseph trusted his depleted defense more than his inept offense.
He sent Brandon McManus out for a short field goal that made it 17-16 with 4:35 remaining, trusting that his defense, which was down to one healthy cornerback, another spitting up blood, three sidelined with injuries and one ejected for throwing a punch, would get the stop.
Keenum wanted Joseph to go for it on fourth-and-1.
“I felt confident. I wanted to convert third down, that’s what I wanted to do,” Keenum said. “But he felt like the defense could get a stop and get the ball back, and they did. They got a stop, we got the ball back. So, I can’t complain because I had the ball in my hands with a chance to win the game. It’s all I can ask for.”
The Broncos got the ball back at their 13 with 1:49 left when the Browns went all in, but Nick Chubb was stuffed on fourth-and-1 by Adam Gotsis.
The Broncos reached the 50-yard line with 52 seconds left, but Keenum spiked the ball on first down, then threw two incompletions before getting sacked by Peppers to seal Denver’s first loss to Cleveland since 1990.
The Broncos will have to win at Oakland on Christmas Eve and beat the Chargers on Dec. 30 to avoid the franchise’s first back-to-back losing seasons since 1971-72.
By ARNIE STAPLETON
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