Posted on

A tribute to… the lateral pass

The lateral pass may sit in the shadow of the far-more-common forward pass in American football but it still plays a crucial role in the strategy and tactics of the game. In this third article in our series about some of the rare-yet-intriguing aspects of gridiron, we examine what defines a lateral pass, look at some of the plays that involve lateral passes and shine a light on some of the most memorable examples – both successful and not – through the years.

Embed from Getty Images

What is a lateral?

While the forward pass was invented specifically for the American game of football, the lateral or backward pass was borrowed from the two codes of rugby, where such passes are the norm (and, of course, where forward passes aren’t allowed). A lateral occurs when a player throws the ball sideways or backwards to a teammate and while only one forward pass may be thrown per down by the offense, there are no such restrictions on lateral passes. Any player carrying the ball may throw a lateral pass from any position on the field at any time. Similarly, any player may receive such a pass and any number of laterals may be thrown on a single play. Additionally, a player receiving a lateral pass behind the line of scrimmage may still throw a forward pass, as long as none has already been thrown during the play.

If there’s a change of possession, the defense can only throw laterals once they get the ball. And unlike a forward pass, a dropped lateral results in a live ball that may be picked up and advanced by either team. Backward passes can also be intercepted, opening up a whole new level of jeopardy. And therein lies the beauty and the fascination of the lateral. It’s a green light for the innovative coach to get scheming and the switched-on player to do something instinctive and unexpected. Furthermore, sometimes – usually when it’s the last play of the game and the attacking teams needs to score by any means – it can be a recipe for unadulterated, multi-pass madness, as we’ll see later.

MOST PLAYS FEATURE A LATERAL: Within the rules of the game, the snap at the line of scrimmage is officially classed as a backward pass.

Categories of lateral pass

The most common lateral pass involves the quarterback quickly ‘pitching’ the ball a short distance to a nearby running back on a rushing play. All pretty standard stuff. And like in rugby, a sideways pass to an adjacent runner in open play isn’t unheard of. Laterals are also used in trick plays – and this is where things get more exotic and interesting. Let’s have a closer look at a couple where a backwards pass is a fundamental element. 

The flea flicker

Who doesn’t love a ‘flea flicker’? The quarterback hands the ball to a running back, who rushes forwards but stops at or before the line of scrimmage and laterals the ball back to the QB, who then throws a forward pass. This trick play draws the defense into defending the run, leaving the quarterback free from an immediate pass rush. The back-and-forth between RB and QB also gives time for the intended receiver to get downfield, opening up an opportunity for a long completion.

Embed from Getty Images

There are many, many examples of flea flickers over the years so we won’t dwell on them too much. But one particular combo – Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald – connected on some notable flea flickers for the Arizona Cardinals, not least in the 2009 playoffs. During the NFC Wild Card game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Cards were struggling to run the ball in the first quarter. Running back Edgerrin James took a handoff, progressed two yards before turning and pitching the ball back to Warner. With the pocket collapsing in on the expected runner, the Falcons secondary couldn’t see the pitch take place, allowing Warner to uncork a 42-yard pass to Fitzgerald in the end zone. The TD set Arizona on their way to winning their first home playoff game in 61 years.

A week later, facing the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, Warner and Fitzgerald did it again. This time, the pitch back to Warner came from JJ Arrington, who ran off to the right before throwing the ball back across to his QB. The ensuing TD pass to Fitzgerald went for 62 yards, sealing a 32-25 win that punched Arizona’s ticket to Super Bowl XLIII.

The hook and lateral

I’m also rather partial to another variant: the ‘hook and lateral’ (sometimes called a ‘hook and ladder’). Here, a receiver (quite often a tight end) runs a hook route, turns and collects a forward pass before tossing the ball backward to a second receiver running in behind, while the initial ball-catcher is closed down or tackled. Looking very much like a rugby move, the Kansas City Chiefs are rather adept at this one, often using Travis Kelce to take the pass before laying it off to a teammate – like this one to Noah Gray against the Broncos that secured a first down or one to LeSean McCoy against the Lions that turned a 12-yard pass into a 35-yard gain. (Maybe this is why they have signed former Welsh rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit through the International Player Pathway?)

Embed from Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins also executed a classic hook and lateral that made the top 50 of the best NFL plays ever. Seconds before the break in their AFC playoff game against the San Diego Chargers in January 1982, wide receiver Duriel Harris caught a 20-yard pass from quarterback Don Strock. He immediately flung it, scrum-half style, into the path of running back Tony Nathan, who flew past him and in for the score.

THEY’RE NOTHING NEW: The first documented instance of a lateral occurred in the NFL’s inaugural season in 1920, by the Rock Island Independents against the Muncie Flyers.

Miracles do happen

Ask any Titans fan to name the best lateral play in NFL history and they’ll probably tell you it’s the ‘Music City Miracle’, which happened at the end of Tennessee’s AFC Wild Card game against the Buffalo Bills in Nashville in January 2000. Having scored a go-ahead field goal to lead 16-15 with just 16 seconds left on the clock, Buffalo kicked off, expecting to defend their slim lead for a couple of plays and secure the victory. But Alan Lowry, the Titans’ Special Teams Coordinator, had other ideas.

Tennessee’s Lorenzo Neal caught the short, high kick at the 25 and immediately handed the ball off to tight end Frank Wycheck. Wycheck stepped to his right and having drawn the Bills players over to his side, threw the ball horizontally across the field to wide receiver Kevin Dyson. He sprinted down the left sideline for a game-winning touchdown, with only kicker Steve Christie even in the same zip code.

“Do the Titans have a miracle left in them in what has been a magical season to this point? If they do, they need it now. Christie kicks it high and short. Gonna be fielded by Lorenzo Neal at the 25. Pitches it back to Wycheck… he throws it across the field to Dyson… 30, 40, 50, 40… 20, 10, 5 – end zone! Touchdown Titans! There are no flags on the field! It’s a miracle! Tennessee has pulled a miracle! A miracle for the Titans!”
Mike Keith, Titans Radio Network broadcast

Embed from Getty Images

Immediately after the play, there was controversy over whether Wycheck’s throw was an illegal forward pass (remember, they were the defense on this play). While Dyson was undoubtedly standing further forward than the passer, he crouched down and reached back to make the catch. Upon review, the touchdown stood and the Titans marched on to Super Bowl XXXIV.

Amazingly, the two players who had practised the play before the game – kick returner Derrick Mason (concussion) and safety Anthony Dorsett (cramp) – were unable to take the field at the time so Dyson had to step in, getting told what to do on the sideline before the play. The plan was also for him to step out of bounds if he got within field goal range but having the whole field open up, Dyson couldn’t help but go all the way.

When blind hope is all you have

In October 2003, the Minnesota Vikings were tied 7-7 with the Denver Broncos with 12 seconds left before halftime. Facing a 3rd-and-24 in their own territory, the Vikings’ QB Daunte Culpepper rolled right and heaved a Hail Mary to Randy Moss. Alas, the pass fell a bit short and he had to come back to make the catch at the Denver 10. Surrounded by several Broncos, Moss was immediately tackled but as he was going down, he threw the ball blindly over his head to running back Moe Williams, who scampered untouched into the end zone. As the commentators said at the time, the improvisation was worthy of an Academy Award.

The Vikings won 28-20 and the move was also named in the NFL’s top 100 plays. After the game, Moss – who posted 1,632 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns that season – implied he knew what he was doing when he said “Out of my peripheral vision, I saw a purple jersey. Well, purple is purple. That means he’s a teammate of mine. So out of instinct, I just tossed it over my shoulder…”

Multi-lateral mayhem

As we’ve seen, single laterals can be highly effective in the right situation. But there’s been many an instance where two or more lateral passes have been used to orchestrate game-defining plays.

One such example, the ‘River City Relay’, took place in a Week 16 game between the New Orleans Saints and the Jacksonville Jaguars in December 2003. With the Saints trailing by a touchdown and time running out, quarterback Aaron Brooks – at his own 25 on a 2nd-and-10 – completed a pass to Donte’ Stallworth out near the right sideline. The wide receiver cut in and headed back across the field before lateralling the ball to fellow wideout Michael Lewis on the left side. Lewis ran with it, then turned to hand it to Deuce McAllister. The RB ran into a cul-de-sac so swivelled and hurled the ball back across the field to unmarked running back Jerome Pathon, who raced into the end zone back over in the right corner. The fact that he made it into the paint was in no small part due to a timely block on the last defender by his QB Brooks, who’d tracked the play down the field. Unfortunately, that amazing effort – including three lateral passes – was in vain as Saints kicker John Carney missed the PAT attempt, resulting in a heartbreaking 20-19 loss.

Embed from Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins also used two laterals to score a legendary touchdown that defeated the New England Patriots 34-33 on the last play of a game at Hard Rock Stadium in December 2018. Down by five points and with only seven seconds remaining, Ryan Tannehill completed a pass from his own 31-yard line to wide receiver Kenny Stills. He threw a short lateral to DeVante Parker in midfield, who in turn passed it along the line to running back Kenyan Drake. Drake then snaked his way through the Pats D (which included a flailing Rob Gronkowski, on the field to help defend a possible Hail Mary) to the end zone. The 69-yard TD, since dubbed the ‘Miracle in Miami’, was the first walk-off touchdown winner to involve multiple lateral passes in NFL history and the first multi-lateral TD play since the ‘River City Relay’ 15 years earlier.

Close but no cigar

An honourable mention goes to Antonio Brown who looked like he’d put the seal on a multi-lateral TD play for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Dolphins on a snowy field in Week 14, 2013. Trailing 34-28 as the clock ran out, Pittsburgh gave it one last effort. Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass out wide to Emmanuel Sanders, from whence it came back across the field to the quarterback in a series of backward diagonal passes. Big Ben stepped forward and then, as he was tackled, flipped a windmill of an underarm pass out to the left where Brown was waiting. The mercurial wide receiver found the room to race down the sideline and in for the TD, leaving the Miami secondary struggling to keep their feet on the snow-covered turf. Alas for the Steelers, the replays showed that Brown stepped out of bounds about 13 yards from paydirt… but it was a fine effort nonetheless and almost one of the best multi-pass TDs ever. 

THIS PLAY IS LATERALLY INSANE: Although it’s not from the NFL, we have to mention the University of Miami’s amazing eight-lateral game-winning play against Duke in 2015. This 45 seconds of craziness is exactly why we love the lateral.

Col-lateral damage

The lure of glory can be intoxicating but beware, fellow fans of the lateral. It can also go oh-so-wrong, as this cautionary tale illustrates.

In 2022, a week before Christmas, the Patriots were facing the Las Vegas Raiders. With three seconds left and the score tied at 24-24, QB Mac Jones could’ve taken a knee and overtime would have followed. Alternatively, they could have tried to win by hurling a Hail Mary into the Raiders’ end zone. Instead, what ensued was the worst of both worlds. Taking a handoff, Rhamondre Stevenson made 23 yards on a weaving run. But with Raiders safety Duron Harmon closing in, instead of being tackled and accepting the inevitability of overtime (hardly the most terrible of outcomes), he had a rush of blood to the head, raised his arm and pitched it back over a defender to Jakobi Meyers. His teammate also got over-excited and despite running in the wrong direction for eight yards, seemed determined to keep the play alive, so threw a second lateral back across the field towards Jones. Alas for the Patriots, Las Vegas’ own Jones – Chandler Jones – had been watching this madness unfold and stepped in front of his namesake, expecting the QB to be the next likely recipient of the ‘hot potato’. The defensive end inevitably intercepted the ball, stiff-armed Mac Jones to the floor and ran it in for the winning score.

Because the Patriots attempted this play when the game was tied and OT was safely in the bag, the play is widely considered to be one of the biggest howlers in league history. ESPN’s Stephen E Smith called it “the dumbest play ever” while NFL Network’s Rich Eisen christened it “the Hail Moron” before going on to describe it as “the most situationally boneheaded play… maybe ever”.

Embed from Getty Images

When magic meets madness

So that, folks, is the lateral. It may be the poor cousin of the forward pass as far as frequency goes but given how often laterals have featured in the NFL’s most iconic plays throughout history, their impact on the game is undeniable. When used strategically in isolation, lateral passes can unlock a defense and they remain a potent weapon for coaches and players looking to outwit and outmanoeuvre their opponents. But when teams run out of time and have no other option than to wing it, attempting multiple laterals to keep the final play alive, that’s when magic and madness collide.

Long live the lateral!

Posted on

Cuts, restructures and trades: how Sean Payton is finally rebuilding the Denver Broncos 10 years on

Embed from Getty Images

Sean Payton’s first year in Denver saw Broncos Country endure a true rollercoaster of a season, from a 1-5 start to 7-6 and then back down to a seventh losing season in a row.

Now we’ve entered the offseason, the multiple superstars have moved on and the Broncos are staring down the largest dead cap hit in the history of the NFL. 

To outsiders, it may seem like the Broncos are in free fall and fully embracing a ‘tanking’ season, but in the Mile High city Broncos Country is getting the rebuild they’ve been so desperately longing for since Peyton Manning left in 2016. 

Figures correct as of Thursday, March 15.

The outs

Almost two years on from dropping their major trade acquisition of Russell Wilson, the Broncos announced that they were cutting Russell Wilson. 

Wilson was designated as a post-June 1st cut spreading his cap hit across 2024 and 2025 slightly nulifying the blow of the largest dead cap hit in NFL history. 

Embed from Getty Images

During his time in Denver, Wilson threw for 42 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, and finished with an 11-19 record playing under Nathaniel Hackett and Sean Payton as well as two games under interim-head coach Jerry Rosburg. 

Before even playing a snap in orange, Wilson was handed a five-year 4245 million contract extension on top of the remaining two years he had remaining on his existing Seattle Seahawks contract. 

Now, anyone who can put two and two together will have noticed that the trade happened two years prior to the cutting of Wilson, meaning the 35-year-old failed to play any downs on the blockbuster extension he signed with the organisation. 

Payton has steadied the ship in Colorado after a disastrous season in 2022 but cutting Wilson officially called an end to one of the most disastrous eras in Broncos history, leaving a mere $85 million dead cap hit in its wake.

The dead cap hit more than doubles the previous record and has led to the Broncos having to make numerous other readjustments to gather some meaningful cap room for the 2024 season. 

The biggest casualty of this was superstar safety Justin Simmons who was cut after eight years with the Broncos, who selected the two-time Pro Bowler with the 98th pick of the 2016 draft.

Simmons was the true definition of a ball-hawk safety and a key addition to the Broncos’ roster, however, due to the league’s reluctance to pay safeties and the cap hole the Broncos found themselves in, Simmons was an obvious trade or cut candidate. 

Veteran tight end Chris Manhertz was also cut while fellow pass catcher and former 2020 first-round pick Jerry Jeudy was traded to the Cleveland Browns for two later-round picks.

Jeudy never truly fulfilled his potential in Denver and will get another chance to prove why he was a first-round selection in Cleveland next year, as for the Broncos they were able to free up more cap space and gather some much-needed draft capital in the process.

Away from cutting and trading players two star performers of the Broncos hit the open market in interior offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry III and interior linebacker Josey Jewell. 

Cushenberry earned himself a big-money move to the Tennessee Titans while Jewell currently remains a free agent in a position that is, like safety and running back, deemed as less valuable in the modern game. 

The 2024 linebacker draft class is quite weak which will play into Jewell’s favour, while for the Broncos they will have to decide whether they give second-year player Drew Sanders the keys or whether they look to free agency or a potential gem in this 2024 class, to play alongside Alex Singleton. 

General Manager, George Paton suggested that Sanders may eventually move outside so perhaps an inside linebacker will be in play for the Broncos with some of their mid-round picks. 

Restructures and more cuts?

In the week leading up to free agency, the Broncos restructured the contracts of their three big free-agent acquisitions from a year ago. 

They began by reworking a one-year deal with Tim Patrick, then freeing up $11 million by restructuring Mike McGlinchey’s contract before restructuring both Ben Powers’ and Zach Allen’s deals to allow for an extra $20 million to become available. 

After almost a week of free agency the Broncos’ current cap number sits at around $26 million under the cap and that may grow with some more likely cuts. 

NFL insider Benjamin Allbright hinted at the potential of at least three more cuts that could happen soon from the Broncos roster. 

The most likely candidate for the Broncos to part ways with is defensive tackle, DJ Jones who would free up nearly $10 million in cap space while Garrett Bolles and Samaje Perine may also be restructure or cut candidates. 

Bolles was part of Denver’s amazing run-blocking unit last year and if Payton wants to build his team in his mould it would be strange to see Bolles cut, but his $20 million against the cap does pose as a big figure.

Some flirted with the possibility of Courtland Sutton being a trade candidate but those rumours seem to have been squashed, which is great news for the Broncos after his monster year in 2023.

Free agents  

In the first week of free agency, the Broncos acquired Brandon Jones on a three-year, $20 million contract and defensive lineman Malcolm Roach on a two-year, $8 million contract. 

They also resigned, fullback Michael Burton for one year, safety P.J. Locke on a two-year, $7 million contract, and former New Orleans Saints duo, kicker Will Lutz and wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who both spent the 2023 season in Denver.

With the Broncos sitting at around $26 million in cap space and the free agent market dwindling, they perhaps won’t be going out and making any major deals. 

Perhaps some extra defensive line and linebacker help will come through the door later in free agency on some veteran minimum or cheap ‘prove it’ deals but unless more cuts come it seems unlikely the Broncos will play a much bigger role in the rest of this year’s free agency. 

Draft prospects

Coming later in the draft cycle we will bring you more mock drafts, a full seven-round Broncos mock draft and more draft spotlights. 

As we remain a month and a half out of the draft in Detroit this Spring it’s difficult to properly project any prospects and with a team in need of capital but also in need of a top quarterback prospect, the Broncos are a tough team to place in the draft pecking order. 

Embed from Getty Images

They could go down the route of trading up for JJ McCarthy or Jayden Daniels if one starts to fall, but they likely don’t have the assets to properly facilitate that trade. 

So most likely, it’ll be a trade back to accumulate more capital before moving for one of the mid-range, second-tier quarterbacks, Bo Nix or Michael Penix Jr. to learn under veteran Jarrett Stidham in 2024. 

Elsewhere, the draft class is deep at receiver and with Sutton, Patrick, Humphrey, Brandon Johnson and Marvin Mims as the only receivers on the roster it is likely the Broncos will look to add one of the receivers out of the 2024 class.

The class is also deep at edge rusher, something the Broncos can always use more of, and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Paton to select someone like Jared Verse or Laiatu Latu at 12th overall if they liked them enough. 

Embed from Getty Images

With the linebacker class looking quite weak in 2024 in both the draft and free agency, it’ll be interesting to see how the Broncos fill that void. 

What do the next two years look like for the Broncos? 

2024 will be a year for rebuilding for the Broncos and Sean Payton, looking to add some franchise cornerstones through the draft before looking to 2025 with more cap room and bringing more quality into the team. 

The QB question heading into the 2024 draft is intriguing and with the prospects of a trade-up looking less likely, it’ll be interesting to see how the Broncos play the board with the top of the second tier of QBs. 

With the 2025 class of QBs looking weak, it would be surprising to see the Broncos pass on a signal-caller in this draft cycle. 

It would be expected to then see the front office use their extra cap room to surround him with talent when he takes a starting spot in 2025.

Posted on

A tribute to… the Hail Mary

While the rules of American football do not explicitly mention the Hail Mary pass, it remains a thrilling aspect of the game. There’s little else that evokes the same anticipation, or suggests the same desperation, as these all-or-nothing, everything-on-the-line moments. In this first in an occasional series of off-season articles about some of the game’s much-loved but rarer plays, Sean Tyler explores the history of the Hail Mary in the NFL, outlines the tactics and techniques behind it, and revisits some of the greatest Hail Marys from years gone by.

Embed from Getty Images

How it all began

Because it’s not part of the game’s official lexicon, the term wasn’t coined by a coach, owner or even a commentator. In footballing terms, the expression dates back to October 1922, when players from Notre Dame (a Catholic university) twice said a prayer in the huddle before plays against Georgia Tech – and scored touchdowns in both instances.

As for the NFL, the first recorded reference came several decades later from Roger Staubach, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback. In a divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings in December 1975, with just 32 seconds on the clock and Dallas trailing by four, legendary Head Coach Tom Landry called for a long pass and Staubach launched one from the halfway line. The slightly underthrown ball was tipped by receiver Drew Pearson five yards shy of the paint but he somehow trapped it between his arm and hip before taking it in for the winning score. Afterwards, Landry said “Our only hope was to throw it and hope for a miracle,” while Staubach – a devout Catholic – told reporters, “I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.” The term appeared in several newspaper headlines the following day and has been part of NFL folklore ever since.

Embed from Getty Images

Mindset and mechanics

The prayer in question (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”) eludes to summoning help from the powers that be to successfully make a long, low-probability, chuck-it-and-hope throw. Usually attempted when a team is too far from the end zone to try something more conventional, the term implies that it would take a miracle for the play to succeed – which is why we love it when it does. That success relies on several factors coming together in the perfect storm: the strength and technique of the quarterback, whether there’s enough time for the receiver(s) to get downfield, whether the opposing team can defend it and, in most cases, a massive slice of good fortune.

So how do you shift the odds in your favour? Well, according to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, you practice. During his three years as an understudy to Brett Favre, he performed countless reps. “I got used to what it felt like, height and distance wise,” he told ESPN in a great article in 2019. “I’ve always been a little nerdy about that – watching the ball, seeing where it would land, remembering what that throw felt like. Was it all out? Was it 90 percent? Was it 80 percent? And just kind of locking those things away.”

As for Vikings QB Kirk Cousins, who has both a college and an NFL Hail Mary to his name, time is also crucial. “Can you find time in the pocket or can you escape the pocket and step up? By the time you run around a little bit, the receiver is in the end zone where you want them. It helps if you can buy as much time as possible, let the receivers get underneath the ball as it comes down.” And the numbers bear that out. According to ESPN tracking, the average time before a Hail Mary is thrown is 4.75 seconds – almost twice as long as a normal play.

So what about trajectory? The throw must go high and far enough to reach the end zone but not go out of the back – that’s quite a tight window if you’re 50 yards or more away. Quarterbacks tend to pull their arms farther back than normal and Cousins tilts his shoulders, with the front shoulder up and back shoulder down. “That will put the arc on it,” he confirms. “You want the ball coming down at the receivers. You don’t want a driven ball.”

Embed from Getty Images

A RARE TREAT: Due to the degree of difficulty, most attempts aren’t completed. In fact, there have only been 34 successful Hail Marys in the professional game since Staubach’s effort nearly 50 years ago.

All hail King Rodgers

While the Hail Mary is often seen as a last-ditch effort, some players have developed a reputation for launching long, accurate passes in clutch moments. Since Staubach, there have been several successful proponents of the Hail Mary. And where better to start than with the best of the best, Aaron Rodgers, who (thanks to all that practice) is the only quarterback with three successful NFL Hail Marys to his name.

One of the most famous of all time, christened the ‘Miracle in Motown’ by broadcaster Jim Nantz, came on the final play of a Thursday night game in December 2015 against the Packers’ NFC North rivals, the Detroit Lions. Because of a face mask penalty on the previous play, Green Bay – who’d been trailing most of the game – were given an extra play with no time on the clock. After the snap, Rodgers broke left to buy time while his receivers rushed downfield. Then he scrambled to the right to evade pressure and hurled a howitzer from his own 35-yard line. It dropped inside the end zone, where it was caught by the 6’4” Richard Rodgers II in front of a gaggle of Detroit players. (The tight end also caught a 67-yarder from Carson Wentz as a Philadelphia Eagle in 2020.)

Embed from Getty Images

The Rodgers-to-Rodgers connection, which brought a dramatic 27-23 victory, is still the longest Hail Mary touchdown in NFL history. According to estimations at the time, the ball travelled 69 yards and almost hit the rafters at Ford Field. Breaking it down afterwards, then-HC Mike McCarthy said: “When you throw it with that arc, it gives guys a chance to fight for position. And Richard is the perfect guy for that type of situation, with his ability to go up and high-point the football.”

Having won the NFL Play of the Year Award for the 2015 season for that one, Rodgers threw another just weeks later. This time, Green Bay were facing the Arizona Cardinals in the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoff game. Down by seven and with seconds remaining, Rodgers heaved another desperation pass into the end zone while Marcus Golden and others rushed to close him down. This time, the ball was caught by receiver Jeff Janis and the 41-yard reception sent the game into overtime (although the Cardinals ultimately prevailed).

Rodgers, the unofficial yet undisputed ‘King of the Hail Mary’, then uncorked a third the following year – again in the postseason. In the NFC Wild Card Game against the New York Giants, he let it fly from the 53-yard-line with the last play of the first half and Randall Cobb took the catch at the back of the end zone. Rodgers’ three career Hail Marys, which came during a span of just 13 months, travelled a combined 172 yards.

Talking on Pat McAfee’s show years later, Rodgers raised another interesting factor: the inability of defensive players to read the flight of the ball. “I think it just comes down to the way you throw it,” he said. “If you take out the Jeff Janis one, the other two I was trying to get to a clean spot and throw it as high as possible. On both of those, I think there was a misjudgement by a majority of the players as to where the ball was going to come down.”

Embed from Getty Images

A LONG SHOT… IN EVERY SENSE OF THE WORD: According to ESPN Stats and Information, only 9.7% of the 193 attempts from 2009 to 2019 were completed.

Double trouble: Dalton and Couch

Looking back through the annals of NFL history, there have been several other notable exponents of the Hail Mary. In particular, a couple of QBs from the AFC North have managed the feat twice (as has Russell Wilson, and we’ll come to him shortly).

In a 2013 battle with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens were leading 17-10 when, on the last play, Cincy’s Andy Dalton launched a 51-yard lob to the end zone on a 4th-and-15. The ball was deflected twice, once by each team, and while everyone else fell to the deck, the ball fell to AJ Green for a touchdown that forced overtime. The same pair teamed up three years later against the Browns, when the Red Rifle found Green with a 52-yard moonshot with seconds left in the first half. Again, there was some juggling and bobbling before Green pulled it into his chest for a 31-17 Bengals win.

Embed from Getty Images

Staying in the division, in October 1999, the Cleveland Browns secured their first win as a returning expansion team with a Hail Mary against the New Orleans Saints. Quarterback Tim Couch avoided the pass rush and launched a 56-yard bomb that was tipped, then caught, by receiver Kevin Johnson. Three years later, Couch repeated the feat against the Jacksonville Jaguars, when his 50-yarder to a tightly covered Quincy Morgan (and the ensuing extra point) secured a 21-20 win. Couch remains the only player to win two NFL games on game-ending Hail Marys.

Before we move on from the Browns, we ought to mention another so-called ‘miracle’: The Miracle at the Met. This refers to Cleveland’s epic game at the Vikings’ old Metropolitan Stadium in December 1980, in which Minnesota came back from a 23-9 deficit to snatch victory in the last five minutes. The Vikes closed to within a point and, after forcing the Browns to punt, were left with 14 seconds, with the ball at their own 20. A crafty lateral pass (more of them another time) set up a 39-yard gain, leaving 41 yards still to go and just five seconds on the clock. NBC broadcaster Len Dawson predicted, “They’re gonna throw that ball up in the air and hope for a miracle” … and he wasn’t wrong. Three receivers lined up on the right and all ran go routes to the end zone, while Tommy Kramer (456 yards, 4 TDs) dropped back and heaved the ball into the crowd scene. A Browns defender tipped the ball but Ahmad Rashad caught it, with one hand, on the 1-yard line and took it in backwards for the score that sealed the NFC Central division title for Minnesota.

When Hail Marys become Fail Marys…

The original ‘Fail Mary’, as it became known, is a misnomer; it was actually a successful play. It occurred in 2012, during a contractual dispute with referees and umpires, when a replacement crew dominated the headlines in the Packers’ Monday night clash with the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a last-second attempt on a 4th-and-10 to Golden Tate, who was surrounded by three defenders in the end zone. Tate pushed one of them away without drawing a flag (hold that thought) but both he and MD Jennings gripped the ball with both hands as they fell to the ground. One referee signalled for a touchdown while another called it an INT. A replay confirmed the score, which resulted in a controversial 14-12 Seattle victory.

Embed from Getty Images

That play is one of several that confirm the benefits of defensive players knocking the ball away – preferably down – rather that trying to intercept it but even that can go wrong. On the final play of a 2010 game in Jacksonville, Texans safety Glover Quin tried to knock down a David Garrard pass intended for Mike Sims-Walker with a double-handed, volleyball-style swat. Alas, it went straight into the hands of Jags receiver Mike Thomas, who brought the ball under control and stepped into the end zone for the winning score.

The Tate TD also highlights the fact that players on both sides are essentially immune from pass-interference flags on a Hail Mary, largely because the NFL doesn’t want a game to be decided on a penalty. Most attempts turn into rugby scrums and no one seems to bat an eyelid. The other dilemma facing defensive coaches is whether to take your chances at the line of scrimmage and send in the pass rush or pull more bodies back to defend the ball down the field. That’s a case of pick your own poison and there’s no right answer.

HOT AND COLD STREAKS: There have been three seasons (2012, 2015 and 2016) with three successful Hail Marys each, while only one was completed between 2003 and 2009.

… and Oh Hell Marys

Because it’s such a high-risk, high-reward play, a Hail Mary can go spectacularly awry and I don’t mean the ‘it didn’t quite work’ kind of wrong; I mean ‘handing the other team seven points’ wrong. Indeed, that happened just three months ago, in Week 12 of the 2023 season, in what might be one of the most ‘Jets’ plays ever.

Trailing 10-6 with the first half all but over, New York Jets QB Tim Boyle unleashed a ball 57 yards through the air. Alas, it went straight to Miami Dolphins safety Jevon Holland on the 1-yard line, and he ran it back for the first Hail Mary returned for a touchdown since ESPN began tracking them in 2006. Starting from the back-left of the field, he ended up at the opposite corner, having run for 124 yards. Picking up critical blocks from Christian Wilkins, Bradley Chubb and Jerome Baker along the way, he left the Jets players sprawling in his wake as he completed his incredible 99-yard pick six.

Despite going on to lose 34-13, Jets running back Breece Hall had no beef with the decision to try a Hail Mary. “It makes perfect sense to me,” he said. “You get the ball at the 50, you throw it at the end zone. When you stop thinking like that, that’s when you’re passive, and I don’t want to be a part of a passive offense. I’m happy we went for it.”

Embed from Getty Images

THE LATEST (SUCCESSFUL) HAIL MARY: In Week 2 of the 2023 season, the Washington Commanders fought back from 21-3 down to lead the Denver Broncos 35–27. With three seconds remaining, Russell Wilson heaved a pass from midfield that was deflected twice before Brandon Johnson caught the TD, giving the QB his second career Hail Mary completion. Alas, Denver failed to convert the ensuing two-point conversion so it was all in vain.

A personal favourite: the Hail Murray

With 35 Hail Marys in the NFL record books, it’s impossible to summarise them all here. But before we finish, let’s revisit one more corker that wasn’t scripted. It was a play that unravelled and the quarterback in question just had to wing it.

The so-called ‘Hail Murray’ occurred when the Cardinals hosted the Buffalo Bills in November 2020. Down 30-26 with 11 seconds remaining and with no timeouts left, the intended target Andy Isabella – running a crossing route – couldn’t get open on a 1st-and-10. The diminutive Kyler Murray evaded a would-be sack from Mario Addison but with two Bills lineman barrelling towards him, it was clear that the play was breaking down, there was nowhere for him to scramble to and time was ebbing away. He was left with no other choice but to hurl it 43 yards downfield and hope for the best. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the only Arizona player to reach the end zone, somehow climbed the ladder and caught the ball, his hands rising through those of Jordan Poyer, Tre’Davious White and Micah Hyde to seal a stunning 32-30 comeback victory.

Embed from Getty Images

Here’s just a taste of how that amazing moment, which won the NFL Play of the Year Award, was described by the radio announcers who cover the Cardinals on KVMP FM. (The fact that it’s nearly all in capitals tells you everything…)

Dave Pasch: “Murray back to throw, flushed out, rolling left in trouble, slips a tackle, gotta launch it, he does, left side, into the end zone, jump ball, and it is… is it caught?! Is it caught?! OH MY GOODNESS, IT’S CAUGHT! DEANDRE HOPKINS CAUGHT IT! HE CAUGHT IT FOR A TOUCHDOWN! WITH ONE SECOND LEFT! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! YOU’VE GOTTA BE JOKING ME! HOPKINS… REACHES UP WITH THREE DEFENDERS AROUND HIM AND PULLS IT IN! THE CARDINALS LEAD 32-30 WITH A SECOND LEFT!”


Wow. Goosebumps.

Long live the long throw

Since Staubach’s post-game comment half a century ago, the Hail Mary has (somewhat fittingly) come a long way. It is now less of a desperate call for divine intervention and more often a deliberate, strategic play that a cannon-armed quarterback can pull out of the bag when needed. It embodies everything we love about football: skill and strength for sure, but also unpredictability, hope and a little bit of luck.

So, please join me in raising a glass to the Hail Mary: a rare beast, but far from endangered. Rather, it has become an integral part of the NFL’s rich tapestry and, as these examples hopefully illustrate, brought us some of the most dramatic and celebrated moments in league history. That’s why I’m certain that, as long as there are a few seconds on the clock, half a field still to gain and a result hanging in the balance, the Hail Mary will continue to captivate NFL fans.

Embed from Getty Images
Posted on

Takeaways as the Broncos season ends in disappointing fashion

Embed from Getty Images

After a long and tumultuous 18 weeks, the Denver Broncos season has come to an end with a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, wilting 27-14 to their division rivals and falling to third in the AFC West. 

The Broncos started the season 1-5 and inevitably dug themselves too big of a hole to climb out of. Despite their five-game winning streak in the middle of the season, they were always on the outside looking in and fell away again at the end of the year going 2-4 to close out the season, missing the playoffs again.

The losing streak to the Raiders continues 

Perhaps, the most disappointing part of Sunday’s loss is the continuation of the Broncos’ losing streak against their bitter AFC West rivals. 

Sean Payton’s team could have bucked two huge losing trends this season had they won on Sunday, having already put an end to their 16-game losing streak against the Kansas City Chiefs earlier in the season. 

Embed from Getty Images

It wasn’t to be however and they got thoroughly outplayed by the Raiders who looked better and more hungry in every facet of the game, from coaching to quarterback play and everything in between. 

To put the icing on the cake, the loss meant that the Broncos have now had a losing record for seven straight seasons ending Payton’s first campaign 8-9. 

The rebuild starts now 

Now the season is over, the conversations will turn to offseason movement in free agency and the NFL Draft which will take place in late April. 

As discussed last week, the Broncos have several big pending free agents who they likely won’t be able to retain if they also take the route of cutting Russell Wilson and eating his hefty dead cap hit. 

Embed from Getty Images

As a result, Denver will likely be constructing a roster of cheap veteran and rookie players next year, unless they can convince some of their stars that remain on the roster to reconstruct their contracts and give the Broncos some breathing room on their cap.

An 8-9 record partnered with a Superbowl-winning head coach, is a great base to rebuild on and defensively Vance Joseph found a formula that clicked in the middle part of the season.

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of holes on the roster that need filling on both sides of the ball, coaching can provide the players with a strong floor, the Los Angeles Rams showed that this season, and perhaps the Broncos will still be able to take positive steps next season.

January blues

It was sealed last week, but the Broncos will be without playoff football in January for the seventh year in a row, the second-longest post-season drought in the NFL currently.

Payton’s team gave it a good shot and for the first time since the 2016, Super Bowl 50 team, it felt like Broncos Country had a team that they could root for and a team that could bring some cheer back to Mile High. 

Embed from Getty Images

Payton brought a sense of optimism back to the Broncos and he has begun to change the culture of this team, it’s clear for all to see when they look at the tape, and the midseason turnaround personified it. 

So while the short-term future of the franchise seems bleak, there are reasons to be optimistic and in a couple of seasons, there is reason to hold out hope that Payton can bring the Broncos back into the AFC playoffs in the future.

Thank you! 

Finally, a thank you from me to anyone reading this week’s takeaways or to anyone who read one of my takeaway pieces this season.

If you’re a general NFL fan then I hope you enjoy the storyline-littered NFL playoffs, and if you are a member of Broncos Country then have hope and get mock drafting!

I hope to see you back again reading takeaways throughout the offseason and into 2024.

Posted on

Takeaways as the Broncos’ playoff hopes officially end despite victory

Embed from Getty Images

After their most tumultuous week in the Sean Payton era, the Denver Broncos overcame their lacklustre divisional rivals, the Los Angeles Chargers.

The win ensures they’re still in with a chance of ending with a winning record for the first time since 2016, here are my takeaways from the Broncos’ victory on a bittersweet day in Mile High closing out 2023.

Out of the playoffs

Despite all the improvements this year from last season’s fiasco, the Broncos still fell short and will be absent from the NFL playoffs for an eighth year. 

Embed from Getty Images

They had chances to make the post-season and the ball was in their court on numerous occasions throughout the year including losses to the Las Vegas Raiders, Washington Commanders, New York Jets and New England Patriots at home, those losses have not only cost the Broncos a playoff spot but also a shot at winning the AFC West. 

Hindsight is wonderful and in reality, the rest of the schedule may have played out differently but when looking at the results this season it’s tough to look past the early 1-5 hole the Broncos dug themselves in early this year, which was their downfall.

No dip in QB play

A positive for the Broncos, in the medium term, was their level of quarterback play from Jarrett Stidham didn’t appear to drop off from the level that we saw in the previous 16 weeks with Russell Wilson under centre. 

Embed from Getty Images

The good news about that is, that Stidham’s contract is $242 million cheaper than Wilson’s, so if Payton can get a similar level of production for $242 million cheaper the Broncos may be able to take the dead cap hit if they cut Wilson.

Looking ahead to the off-season 

With the playoffs now out of reach for good, Sean Payton will be casting half an eye to the offseason and assessing who he wants to keep in the building to take the next step forward in his Broncos tenure. 

This season didn’t quite see the ‘fire sale’ most were expecting ahead of the trade deadline, but in the end, it still seems that the Broncos will be letting some stars go in the offseason, just for different reasons than it was in weeks five and six of the season.

As it seems more likely that the Broncos will cut Wilson in the offseason it all depends now on whether he is designated as a pre or post-June 1st cut, which will determine how much of the dead cap hit is eaten by the Broncos in 2024, coincidently determining how extensive the roster deconstruction will be in the summer. 

Embed from Getty Images

A number of stars in the roster will become unrestricted free agents including Lloyd Cushenberry, Josey Jewell and P.J. Locke. 

If the Broncos do decide to take the full brunt of the dead cap hit it would be near-impossible to keep any of the impending free agents around, it would also mean one or two stars would likely have to be traded, or some mega contract reconstructions would have to take place.

Potential future QB auditions? 

About 24 hours after the Broncos closed out their final home match of the season, two of the possible suitors for the Broncos at the quarterback position took the field in the College Football Playoff. 

JJ McCarthy led a game-tying drive late in the Rose Bowl before leading the game-winning drive in overtime to see the Michigan Wolverines make the National Championship. 

Embed from Getty Images

McCarthy is yet to declare for the draft and as a junior he could return to Ann Arbor to compete for the Wolverines in his senior year, but some draft projections have McCarthy as a late first-rounder/second-round talent this year and depending on the Broncos’ draft position, McCarthy could be a target. 

In the later semi-final, Michael Penix Jr. suited up for the Washington Huskies and guided them to the National Championship game, overcoming the Texas Longhorns in New Orleans. 

Penix impressed going into Sean Payton’s old stomping ground and could improve his draft stock more if he takes the Huskies to a National Championship victory next Monday.

Embed from Getty Images

Penix has an injury history which may tank his draft stock somewhat and his projections place him as high as a first-rounder and as low as a day-three pick.

Week 18 preview 

For the final time until September, the Broncos will take the field searching for something to salvage their 2023 season, all that stands between them and a first-winning season in seven years is a trip to the 7-9, Las Vegas Raiders. 

Embed from Getty Images

The Raiders have been without a permanent head coach since the night of Halloween but have gone 4-4 under interim head coach Antonio Pierce including a win over the Chiefs in Arrowhead and a 63-21 dismantling of the Chargers. 

Stidham started the final two games of the 2022 season for the Raiders going 0-2 throwing four touchdowns and three interceptions. 

The Broncos will be hoping to avenge their narrow week one defeat to the Raiders which proved costly at the end of the season.

Posted on

Playoffs: Who’s in and who’s out in the AFC? 

Embed from Getty Images

It’s that time of year when we start seeing graphics on X (formerly known as Twitter) from ESPN, FOX and CBS about who is eliminated from playoff contention and who has clinched a playoff berth. 

While the AFC has some frontrunners the race for the wildcard spots is encapsulating viewing, for example, the AFC South has three teams on 8-6 alone. 

Let’s dive into the playoff picture, see who everyone still has to play and how the playoff picture may end up working itself out. 

The locks: 

Embed from Getty Images

While this article is mostly about discussing the convoluted wildcard picture, we should pay homage to the teams at the top of the conference who are already locks to make it in. 

The Baltimore Ravens have already clinched their place in the playoffs, while the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs are definitely making the playoffs and will be playing at least one home game this January. 

Watch out for the week 17 clash as Miami heads into Baltimore in a matchup that could define who earns the all-important one seed in the AFC.

Jacksonville Jaguars: 

The Jaguars get their own tier because they’re definitely in, but aren’t 100% locked into the top of the AFC South (yet).

Embed from Getty Images

Their schedule is one of the easiest down the stretch, they travel across Florida to play the resurgent, playoff-chasing, Tampa Bay Buccaneers this weekend before playing the Carolina Panthers and Tennesee Titans who are both out of the playoff picture. 

Jacksonville should win out from here thanks to their head-to-head record against the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans, if they can achieve that they will be top of the AFC South and earn themselves the fourth seed in the AFC.

Cleveland Browns:

The Browns are in and Kevin Stefanski needs to be nominated for Coach of the Year after his miraculous work with this team despite all of their injuries. 

They’re 9-5 and probably need one more win to solidify their position in the playoffs, (albeit a wildcard place due to the Ravens’ record atop the AFC North) their schedule is a tough one though. 

Embed from Getty Images

Facing exclusively AFC opponents, Joe Flacco will be the signal-caller as they head to the Texans and the Cincinnati Bengals on either side of a home meeting with the New York Jets. 

While they’re all but in themselves the Browns could play a huge role in the rest of the AFC Wildcard picture playing two of the chasing pack both on the road.

The rest

Now, we’ve named five teams who are in for sure, most seasons we’d be discussing three or four teams who are fighting it out for the final two wildcard spots. 

Not in 2023, this year the AFC is a gauntlet, we have a six-horse race for the final two wildcard spots as we head into the latter part of December. 

Embed from Getty Images

As of week 15, the Bengals and Colts are occupying the final two spots with 8-6 records, just outside because of tiebreakers are the Bills and Texans, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are a game back at 7-7. 

Four of the six are playing backup quarterbacks and the Broncos and Bills have both experienced torrid runs at some stage this season. 

Yet somehow, with three weeks to go, every team is in the thick of the playoff race and it’s looking to be the most compelling run-in we’ve seen in a while. 

Who does everyone face? :

Buffalo Bills (8-6) – @ Chargers, vs Patriots, @ Dolphins 

Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) – @ Steelers, @ Chiefs, vs Browns 

Denver Broncos (7-7) – vs Patriots, vs Chargers, @ Raiders

Houston Texans (8-6) – vs Browns, vs Titans, @ Colts 

Indianapolis Colts (8-6) – @ Falcons, vs Raiders, vs Texans

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7) – vs Bengals, @ Seahawks, @ Ravens 

Who’s in and who’s out? : 

It’s impossible to call, none of these teams convince you that they’re going to run away with it and stroll into the wildcard places, but we can make some educated predictions. 

By the end of week 18, there’s the possibility that we see three teams with 11-6 records in the wildcard spots and two teams sitting on the outside looking with 10 wins and no postseason to show for it, on the contrary, in the NFC we could see teams with losing records make it into the playoffs.

Embed from Getty Images

Buffalo Bills (Current record: 8-6, vs division 2-2, vs AFC 4-5, AFC games remaining – 3, Ninth seed)

Starting with the Bills, they have been rampant since losing to the Broncos on Monday Night Football in early November, despite being unlucky in the early half of the season they’re now earning their own luck and convincingly stringing together strong performances. 

They beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead and blew out the Dallas Cowboys at home, building some strong momentum ahead of their final three games. 

Given their form they should brush past the Chargers and the Patriots and Bills Mafia will have their trip to division rivals, the Dolphins in week 18 earmarked as a potential ‘win and in’ game. 

What complicates that, of course, is Miami could still be playing for the one seed in week 18 so won’t be pulling any punches, conversely, the Bills could find themselves in a situation where, if they win they win the entire AFC East, but if they lose they don’t make the playoffs at all.

Either way, it promises to be a show-stopping game that will likely head the national Sunday Night Football billing in week 18. 

Key game: Week 18 @ Miami Dolphins

Prediction: 10-7

Embed from Getty Images

Cincinnati Bengals (Current record: 8-6, vs division 0-4, vs AFC 3-6, AFC games rem. 3, sixth seed)

When Joe Burrow got hurt it felt like most of the league had given up on the Bengals, no one would have been talking about them being a leading horse in the AFC playoff picture as of week 16. 

As it turns out, Lou Anarumo’s defence has done excellently keeping them in games allowing backup quarterback Jake Browning to play with little pressure and do enough to get them across the line in close games.

The Bengals face a tough schedule though and it’s difficult to see them going any better than 1-2 over this stretch. 

The best they can hope for is beating Pittsburgh on the road (an extremely tough task) and then beating the Browns who may have nothing to play for in week 18 at home. 

Key game: Week 16 @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Prediction: 8-9

Embed from Getty Images

Denver Broncos (Current record: 7-7, vs div. 2-2, vs AFC 4-5, AFC games rem. 3, 11th seed)

The Broncos have the easiest schedule of the chasing pack and do hold the tiebreaker over the Bills as well as facing three beatable AFC opponents in their final three games. 

After starting 1-5 no one expected the Broncos to be anywhere near this conversation and it’s a credit to Sean Payton and Vance Joseph that the Broncos have a chance to make it in. 

The Texans hold a tiebreaker over the Broncos which could be a key factor to follow but facing three backup quarterbacks against teams that have nothing to play for may come into the Broncos’ favour.

Already being a game back at 7-7 their task is simple, you MUST win out and hope some of the teams around them drop games against other playoff chasers, or perhaps even slip up on a nonchalant game against a team that is already eliminated.

Key game: Week 18 @ Las Vegas Raiders

Prediction: 10-7

Embed from Getty Images

Houston Texans (Current record: 8-6, vs div. 2-2, vs AFC 5-4, AFC games rem. 3, eighth seed)

Demeco Ryans is the probable front-runner for Coach of the Year, and for good reason. He’s totally transformed the Texans from a number-one pick candidate to a playoff contender overnight. 

CJ Stroud’s play at quarterback has been phenomenal and stands him in good stead to pick up the Offensive Rookie of the Year award at NFL Honours this February.

However, with Stroud in concussion protocol and Case Keenum starting at quarterback, partnered with a tough schedule featuring two playoff contenders and a division rival, the Texans face a huge challenge to make it in. 

They’re capable of beating anyone on their day and their next two games being at home helps massively, but they won’t want to be in a position requiring them to win on the road in Indianapolis in week 18 if they can help it.

Key game: Week 18 @ Indianapolis Colts

Prediction: 9-8

Embed from Getty Images

Indianapolis Colts (Current record: 8-6, vs div. 3-2, vs AFC 6-4, AFC games rem. 2, seventh seed

The Colts have been on a rollercoaster ride in 2023, going from inconsistent, yet mesmerising play under rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, to the return of ‘Minshew Mania’, the Colts have continued to defy the odds. 

They have the best standing of any of the teams we’ve discussed because their divisional and conference records are superior to any team, but they also have one of the more inconsistent track records of any of the teams that we’ve looked at. 

They scraped past the Patriots in Germany, had a shootout with the Browns, were blown out against the Bengals and blew the Steelers out themselves, it’s so difficult to try and place the Colts on this list because they can go toe-to-toe with the best, but drop a game to absolutely anyone. 

Embed from Getty Images

In week 16 they will head to the Atlanta Falcons who are a game back from the playoffs in the NFC South but are coming off the back of an embarrassing loss to the Carolina Panthers last week and somewhat mirror the Colts in their inconsistencies. 

Arthur Smith is on the hot seat and has resorted to his third quarterback change of the year opting for Taylor Heinicke and this is a game that the inconsistent Colts could drop given their record across the season as previously highlighted.

In their last two games, they welcome the Raiders who can cause any team problems on their day under interim head coach Antonio Pierce, and then fellow AFC South playoff hopefuls the Houston Texans in week 18. 

They’re the toughest team to place but given their divisional and conference records they’re certainly the favourites to make the wildcard round out of all the teams in the race. 

Key game: Week 18 vs Houston Texans

Prediction: 11-6

Embed from Getty Images

Pittsburgh Steelers (Current record: 7-7, vs div. 3-1, vs AFC 5-5, AFC games rem. 2, 10th seed)

It’s well-documented that the Steelers have never had a losing record under head coach Mike Tomlin in his 16 years as head coach in the Steel City. 

While that streak could very much continue it’s difficult to see a scenario where the Steelers come out of their last three games as a wildcard team. 

They’d need to run the table due to their 7-7 record and they face three teams all with their eyes set on the post-season themselves. 

They welcome the Bengals in a huge game on Saturday before travelling across the country to Seattle to play the Seahawks who are currently one game out of the NFC wildcard picture before heading back across to Baltimore in week 18 who may be playing to secure the one seed. 

It’s certainly plausible that the Steelers win two of those games to preserve Tomlin’s streak but they will need to win out to even stand a chance, of getting into the playoffs. 

Key game: Week 16 vs Bengals 

Prediction: 8-9

Final Prediction: 

  1. Baltimore Ravens (13-4) 
  2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) Head-to-head tiebreaker vs Miami
  3. Miami Dolphins (12-5)
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6)
  5. Cleveland Browns (11-6) Head-to-head tiebreaker vs Indianapolis (WC)
  6. Indianapolis Colts (11-6) (WC)
  7. Denver Broncos (10-7) Head-to-head record vs Buffalo (WC)
  8. Buffalo Bills (10-7) (OUT)
  9. Houston Texans (9-8) (OUT)
  10. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-9) Division record tiebreaker (OUT)
  11. Cincinnati Bengals (8-9) (OUT)
Posted on

Takeaways as the Broncos’ playoff hopes take a hit in Detroit

Embed from Getty Images

The Broncos have had two games in the last three weeks that have had a playoff feel about them and they’ve failed to show up in both games, this week they fell apart on national television to boot.

At this stage of the season, every loss stings that extra bit when you’re in a six-way battle for two wildcard playoff spots, but it’s not all doom and gloom, here’s what I took away from Saturday’s performance.

Huge playoff dent 

There’s no escaping it, the loss is a big hit to Denver’s improbable playoff run, especially because all but one of the fellow chasing pack won their games on Sunday, to add salt to Sean Payton’s wounds. 

The Broncos slipped from ninth to 11th in the AFC playoff picture and they are now a game back from both teams in the final two spots of the AFC wildcard picture as well as the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans in the two places just out of the playoffs. 

Embed from Getty Images

It feels like the Broncos missed an opportunity on Saturday but because of the nature of their schedule in comparison to their fellow playoff chasers, they’re far from out of the race for the playoff places in a highly competitive AFC.

Offence misfires again 

This game felt like deja vu for the Broncos when recalling what happened only two weeks ago when they played the Houston Texans in what felt like a game with a similar magnitude given the playoff implications. 

Similar to the Houston game, the offence failed to keep up with their opponent early in the game and quickly fell behind the eight-ball on Saturday night. 

Embed from Getty Images

They failed to score any points in the first half and barely moved the sticks at all before halftime despite the Detroit Lions having a defence that other teams had managed to score points on in past weeks. 

In the second half, they managed to drive the ball with more efficiency but due to their subpar first-half display, they had left themselves with too much to do trying to keep up with the Lions.

Defence picked apart 

Like the offence, the defence also failed to turn up and properly make a difference in the game, barely laying a glove on the Lions. 

They failed to register a turnover and only sacked Jared Goff twice, rarely putting meaningful pressure on the Lions’ offence. 

Embed from Getty Images

As a result, Goff was able to systematically pluck apart the Broncos’ defence and with impressive YAC (yards after the catch) specialists like Amon-Ra St.Brown, Sam LaPorta, Jameson Williams and Jahmyr Gibbs at running back it’s difficult to defend all of their dynamic assets, a task that the Broncos couldn’t undertake.

Three winnable games down the stretch 

The Broncos have three games left of their season to complete their improbable in-season turnaround and make the playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl-winning season in 2015/16.

All three games are against backup quarterbacks and teams with losing records all in the AFC, first up is the New England Patriots, followed by the Los Angeles Chargers at home before travelling to Las Vegas to try and beat the Raiders for the first time in nine attempts.

Embed from Getty Images

If they win out then the Broncos will give themselves a great chance at making the playoffs because every other playoff contender has to play at least one other team in the hunt, meaning the Broncos can take advantage of loses elsewhere.

Week 16 preview

In week 16 the Broncos face the team with the worst record in the AFC, the New England Patriots. 

Embed from Getty Images

The Patriots are a franchise in turmoil with rumours swirling about legendary head coach Bill Belichick and the Broncos couldn’t have a better game lined up to get their playoff run back on track after Saturday’s disappointing loss. 

Russell Wilson is playing with a chip on his shoulder trying to prove to the front office why they should keep him in the team going forward, while Sean Payton will be trying to gauge who he can build his offence around while he is the Broncos’ head coach.

Posted on

Takeaways as the Broncos earn huge road win over AFC West rival Los Angeles Chargers

Embed from Getty Images

For the first time since 2019, the Denver Broncos won an AFC West matchup on the road, toppling the Los Angeles Chargers in Sofi Stadium to improve to 7-6 on the year. 

After a disappointing loss last week, Sean Payton’s team needed to bounce back quickly in a road divisional matchup and they did just that in comprehensive fashion. 

So, on that note, let’s get into my takeaways from the Broncos’ 24-7 victory over the Chargers.

Playoff hopes are alive 

The loss in Houston felt like a real gut punch to Broncos fans and losing a tiebreaker to a playoff-chasing team will always sting. 

With that said the Broncos had still earned themselves the right to be in the playoff mix and due to other results going their way on Sunday they’re back in the thick of the wildcard chase. 

Embed from Getty Images

Beating the Chargers all but eliminated them from playoff contention, while the Las Vegas Raiders also fell to a defeat, condemning them to another year without a playoff game.

Elsewhere, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans both lost in week 13 so they now make up two of the six teams with a record of 7-6 in the AFC wildcard hunt. 

The Buffalo Bills won a close game in Arrowhead to move them to 7-6 as well as holding the Cheifs back to 8-5 (one game ahead of the Broncos in the AFC West). 

The Cincinnati Bengals, led by backup quarterback Jake Browning, also demolished the Colts moving both teams to 7-6, completing the six-way tie for the last two wildcard spots. 

Embed from Getty Images

The playoff race is as tight as ever in the AFC with three teams on 8-5 records and the six aforementioned 7-6 teams all gunning for first place in their division as well as wildcard berths.

With their remaining schedule, there’s no reason why the Denver Broncos can’t sneak into that sixth or seventh seed in the AFC come January.

Defence is back to its best 

The Broncos’ early season defensive struggles have been well-documented, as has their recent resurgence over the last seven games. 

Last week they didn’t have the same venom as they have done in recent weeks and they allowed Houston to get comfortable and produce chunk plays around them. 

Embed from Getty Images

This week, Vance Joseph brought the heat and they didn’t allow Justin Herbert or the Chargers offence any chance to settle into the game. 

Herbert was even taken out of the game at halftime because of a suspected fractured index finger on his throwing hand meaning Easton Stick came into the game in the second half. 

The recipe for the Broncos’ success this season has been winning the turnover battle, in Houston they failed to do so, but this week they were around the ball like Hawks. 

They forced two fumbles as well as an interception, which teed up Javonte Williams to rush in for the go-ahead score. 

Embed from Getty Images

Jaquan McMillian had a standout day flying off the edge, blitzing the quarterback from his nickel-corner position all day long and almost had a strip sack fumble recovery which he took to the house only for it to be called back for an incomplete pass instead. 

If the defence can maintain this level of play like we’ve seen during the miraculous mid-season turnaround then they can beat anyone left on their schedule. 

Offence is struggling to find consistency 

Despite the near-flawless play on defence, the scoreline should have been much more convincing than it was, but the offence just couldn’t get into a consistent groove. 

They struggled to move the ball in the first half and needed a Jonathon Cooper interception inside the 10-yard line to allow them to put up any points in the first half.

Embed from Getty Images

It improved somewhat in the second half and Russell Wilson totted up two passing touchdowns, one to Adam Trautman wide open in the endzone and the other a deep ball to Courtland Sutton which was impressively hauled in taking him to double-digit touchdown receptions in 2023.

Brandon Staley’s defence has been playing well in recent weeks and that can’t be ignored, but if the Broncos are going to make a run the offence needs to back up the great play by the defence and string some drives together to get an early advantage in games.

Six doesn’t go into two

We’ve spoken about all the 7-6 playoff teams, but when it comes down to seeding there are only two wild card spots left to fill. 

The Cleveland Browns are 8-5 and the chances are they will be in the first wildcard spot, with the Baltimore Ravens currently having the one-seed at 10-3.

Embed from Getty Images

In the AFC South, the Jacksonville Jaguars lost to the Browns and are now 8-5 themselves, they’re currently the four-seed in the AFC but the Houston Texans are also lingering at 7-6 just outside of the playoffs coming off of a disappointing loss to the New York Jets. 

Elsewhere, the Steelers, Bengals and Colts are all playing with backup quarterbacks and have shown holes in their games recently. 

The Texans might have to field Davis Mills in their divisional road matchup with the Tennessee Titans next week because CJ Stroud entered concussion protocol in their game against the Jets.

That leaves the Broncos and the Bills, who both have their starting quarterbacks still on the field and both are playing with momentum down the stretch. 

Embed from Getty Images

The Bills have a difficult schedule, in week 15 they welcome the Dallas Cowboys before travelling to Miami in week 18 to face the Dolphins. 

As for Denver, they will take a trip to the faltering Detroit Lions next Saturday before hosting the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders in their final three games. 

A 3-1 record across that run would see the Broncos finish the season 10-7 and most would hope that gets you into the playoffs. 

However, in such a stacked AFC wildcard race you would be a brave person to place any bets on which of the six 7-6 teams will make the playoffs at the end of the season.

Week 15 preview 

In week 15 the Broncos will headline the NFL’s Saturday Showcase window when they enter Ford Field to take on Dan Campbell’s Detroit Lions in primetime. 

The Lions started the season hot and were the subject of conversations having them in the conversion with the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers atop the NFC playoff picture.

Embed from Getty Images

Fast forward eight weeks and their performances have been unconvincing and they’ve lost three games across that stretch including a demolition at the hands of Justin Fields.

They scraped over the line against the Bears as well during that stretch, as well as having narrow victories over the Chargers and the New Orleans Saints, winning by less than a touchdown in each game. 

They’re certainly a team to be got at and the way the Broncos have been playing recently there is no reason to be afraid of the Lions. 

Embed from Getty Images

This could be a huge road win that propels the Broncos into the playoffs ahead of a key two-game home stretch before finishing the year on the road in Las Vegas.

UK viewers can catch the game live on Sky Sports in the early hours of Sunday morning with coverage starting at 1:15 am GMT.

Posted on

Takeaways as the Houston Texans end the Broncos’ five-game win streak

Embed from Getty Images

The five-game winning run came to an end on Sunday and it made a fairly sizeable dent in Denver’s playoff hopes. 

Despite it being the Broncos’ worst performance since the week five loss to the New York Jets the Broncos did come within eight yards of winning the game late in the day once again. 

Without much further ado, here are my takeaways as another week of the regular season is in the books.

The season isn’t over 

No matter how difficult the loss is to take it’s important to remember two things; firstly, the Broncos weren’t supposed to be in this position playing meaningful games in December with genuine playoff aspirations. 

Secondly, the playoff hopes aren’t over yet, the loss to Houston hurts because of its implications with tiebreakers and in-conference records but thanks to other games this Sunday the Broncos are by no means out of the playoff race.

Embed from Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns lost meaning the Broncos are only one game back from both teams as well as the Indianapolis Colts who needed overtime to scrape past the 4-8 Tennessee Titans. 

All three of those teams currently occupy the three wildcard spots and the Houston Texans are also only one game ahead of the Broncos. 

The Kansas City Chiefs also losing to the Green Bay Packers puts the Broncos two games back from the top of the division, adding more salt to the wounds of the loss, but with their game against a resurgent Buffalo Bills team out of their bye week the Broncos could be one game back from the division lead this time next week.

Sloppy first half 

The first half was poor, and much more akin to a performance we’d have seen from the Nathaniel Hackett Broncos last year. 

They couldn’t move the ball and found themselves in insurmountable third and long scenarios far too often. 

On the defensive side of the ball, they allowed Houston to have too many big plays early on, particularly from Nico Collins and ultimately they let CJ Stroud get comfortably in his rhythm early in the game.

Despite this, they should have held the Texans to only nine first-half points which would have made it a 9-3 game at halftime but Alex Singleton’s push on CJ Stroud (after an obvious headbutt from the rookie which the officials didn’t see) gave Houston a fresh set of downs in the red zone and they added seven to their total instead making it a two-score game going into halftime.

Texans’ defence stole the show 

Houston’s defence was electric all day long and they need to be given their flowers for how well they played on Sunday. 

Will Anderson lived in the backfield and toyed with Mike McGlinchey on the right of the offensive line all day long. 

The Broncos couldn’t run the ball effectively and as we’ve seen through this five-game stretch the run game is the basis of this team’s success.

Embed from Getty Images

In the secondary, Derek Stingley Jr. finally announced himself to the league with two interceptions, the second of which was an excellent acrobatic pick. 

As well as the former third overall pick, experienced safety Jimmie Ward also capped off a good red zone stand from the Houston defence by sealing the game with an interception on the Broncos’ game-winning drive attempt late on.

Lost the takeaway battle 

Perhaps the major key for the Texans to win the game was the turnover battle, for the first time since their five–game win streak started they lost the turnover battle.

It’s the first time since week three they haven’t recorded a turnover either so the Texans really shut down both of the areas of Denver’s game which they were using to generate wins, running the ball and forcing turnovers.

Embed from Getty Images

The Broncos did manage to force a fumble when star undrafted cornerback Jaquan McMillian sacked CJ Stroud on a blitz but the Broncos had three bites at the cherry and still couldn’t collect the fumble. 

Consequently, on the same drive, Houston scored and perhaps pushed the game out of reach from Denver, one of the many flashpoints in the game the Broncos found themselves on the wrong side of.

Week 14 preview 

In week 14 the Broncos will have a chance to get back on track with the first of four AFC games that they play, all against teams with losing records, on their run-in. 

It’s the second of their three-game road stretch as they travel to Los Angeles to play a Chargers team that has been inconsistent all season long. 

Embed from Getty Images

Head coach Brandon Staley is on the hot seat and the Broncos can all but end their division rivals’ chances at making the postseason with a win. 

On Sunday they struggled to beat a poor Patriots team, only scoring six total points in a 6-0 win in Foxborough. 

Sean Payton will want to see his unit get back in the win column after a tricky loss, keeping them in the playoff hunt before a really tough road matchup at Detroit in week 15.

Posted on

Takeaways as the Broncos beat the Browns to make it five wins in a row

Embed from Getty Images

From the brink of elimination at 1-5 the Denver Broncos have managed to rally and all of a sudden find themselves at 6-5 and only sitting outside of the playoff picture due to an in-conference tie-breaker with the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts. 

The win streak has now extended to five games and those five have come against teams in or around the playoff hunt in each conference. Sunday’s win was perhaps the most impressive of the bunch and here are my takeaways from it.

Most complete game of the season 

Sunday was the first time this season that it felt the Broncos had played four quarters of well-executed football in all three areas of the game.

Embed from Getty Images

The performance was polished and the football on each side of the ball was complimentary, the offence had an identity and rhythm that it set early, while the defence continued its trend of bruising play forcing turnovers regularly.

In the games prior to this one in the winning streak, we had seen glimpses of what this team could be if they were able to glue everything together and play complementary football for an entire game, and on Sunday we were able to see the closest thing to that, that we have seen all year against one of the AFC’s best teams this year in the Cleveland Browns.

This team can be a playoff team 

When the Broncos began their run of wins they seemed like they’d be a team that would eventually fall away when it got to crunch time due to a really difficult run of games that looked too much for the side we had seen so far in 2023. 

In reality, the team have completely turned their fortunes around and they are deservedly in the playoff hunt and being brought up in meaningful playoff conversations for the first time since Peyton Manning retired.

Embed from Getty Images

Not only are they in the conversations surrounding playoff contention but they are also playing football that could well see them sneak into the playoff back door, they control the time of possession, and take the ball away frequently. A recipe for success it seems. 

A poor in-conference record hampers their projected chances of getting into the playoffs but there isn’t a more in-form team in the NFL right now than the Broncos and they have all the momentum in the AFC heading into a crucial December which will define the AFC playoff picture. 

The blueprint for Sean Payton’s Broncos has been laid out 

Sean Payton’s objective wasn’t to make this team a playoff team overnight, after last season’s horrendous year the expectations were understandably low for this group. 

Payton was tasked with managing Russell Wilson, bringing him back up to a respectable level of quarterback and laying down a blueprint for his Broncos going forward. 

Embed from Getty Images

It’s safe to say he has done both of those and then some only twelve weeks into his competitive Broncos tenure. 

Wilson is looking like a good quarterback again (not to his Seattle Seahawks levels but good enough), and the blueprint is laid for this team. 

This team will outwork their opponent, they will hustle and fight on every down for every yard of the field. When on offence they’re going to bruise you in the run game and open up the field in the passing game after establishing a run game behind a dominant run-blocking offensive line. 

Defensively they will rough you up and knock you off your stride, resulting in takeaways like we’ve seen in the last five weeks.

Still not killing off teams, especially on turnovers

Embed from Getty Images

I said before that the performance was as close to complete as we had seen, but it wasn’t quite perfect and there are still kinks that need ironing out. 

Namely, the lack of points off of takeaways, when the offence can’t score meaningful points off of turnovers, it allows opponents to hang around and in the playoffs, it will always come back to bite you. 

If the offence can become more clinical when the defence gives them the ball with favourable field positions this team could be a force to be reckoned with in the future.

The lack of a vertical threat

In the opening two weeks, it looked like rookie Marvin Mims Jr. would play a big part in Payton’s offence as a vertical threat taking the top off of the defence after the run game draws the defenders in. 

Embed from Getty Images

Through 12 weeks we’ve rarely seen Mims used in that role and he plays primarily as a return man at current in this structure. 

Jerry Jeudy has been used mainly as the deep target but often it feels like the Broncos lack the vertical threat to truly stretch a defence and Mims feels like he has the potential to be that man.

Week 13 preview

In week 13 the Broncos enter playoff football territory and it starts an incredibly tough run of three straight road games. 

The stretch kicks off as the Broncos travel to Houston to face Demeco Ryans’ Texans led by rookie sensation C.J. Stroud.

Embed from Getty Images

Stroud is a shoe-in for AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year and he has lead the Texans to an improbable playoff-challenging run. 

Last week they suffered a costly loss to their division rivals so will be looking to get their playoff surge back on track this Sunday. 

This game could prove to be pivotal for both teams’ playoff hopes acting as a big tie-breaker for playoff seedings come early January. 

For the Broncos their poor in-conference record also adds extra pressure to this game and it feels like the Broncos are in must-win territory now. 

Embed from Getty Images

After Houston they travel to the Los Angeles Chargers before jetting back across the country to face the Detroit Lions in week 15, so a win for the Broncos could just give them an extra push to get them over the line in this tough road stretch and the playoff race in general. 

For the UK Broncos fans, they can catch the game live on Sky Sports NFL on Sunday with the team going on air at 5 pm and kickoff at 6 pm.