Denver were so close to finally making the playoffs, all they had to do was win their final three games, all against backups and all against AFC teams with losing records.
After the loss to Detroit, Sean Payton’s team had to be flawless if they were to make the postseason, unfortunately, they fell at the first hurdle and an old nemesis, the New England Patriots sealed the Broncos’ fate.
Here are my takeaways as the Broncos’ playoff hopes came grinding to a halt in primetime.
Perhaps this result was a message from the football gods, a reality check to remind Broncos fans of the reality of this roster, in truth it just simply isn’t good enough yet to make the playoffs, they showed us that earlier in the season.
Despite a rejuvenation that showed there is hope for the future, when it gets to crunch time this team still lacks the pieces to get themselves over the line and show they’re a proper playoff unit.
There are reasons for Broncos country to be optimistic for the future, and for nine weeks Sean Payton and Vance Joseph had the team riding a wave, unfortunately, the playoff train is over.
Third quarter woes
The Broncos went into halftime winning seven to three, it was a lacklustre offensive first half but the defence kept an underwhelming New England offence in check.
It seemed like the recipe for success was just for the Broncos’ offence to move the ball on one or two drives early in the second half and they could get over the line.
In reality, the opposite happened and a disastrous third-quarter showing took the Broncos from a probable playoff team to middling mediocrity.
Bailey Zappe did well navigating the soft Broncos pass rush climbing up in the pocket on a couple of drives that resulted in Ezekiel Elliott and Mike Gesicki touchdowns to give the Patriots a 17-7 lead before Marvin Mims fumbled the kickoff into the oncoming Patriots who carried it in for another score putting the Patriots up 23-7.
A snowball of errors paired with some questionable playcalling and poor quarterback play saw the Broncos fall too far behind the Patriots to mount a comeback.
Some good high-tempo offence and more explosive playcalling saw the Broncos march down the field twice in quick succession to draw level, but in the end, the Patriots managed to get into field goal range and put the game away for good.
Offensive play calling
It wasn’t until those two drives in the fourth quarter when the Broncos were backed into a corner that the gameplan shifted from running between the tackles on first down, outside on second down, then a long developing route concept on third down, before Riley Dixon stepped on to punt on fourth down.
Sean Payton deserves a lot of credit for how he’s changed the culture of this group and they’ve come a long way from where they were under Nathaniel Hackett last season.
Nonetheless, in the last few weeks the offensive play calling has been questionable and when the opposition stops the run Payton seems to be reluctant to call any high-tempo offence or any explosive offence that threatens to take the top off of the opposition’s defence.
Whether that’s because he doesn’t trust his quarterback or whether he just trusts indefinitely in his offensive scheme is up for debate but somewhere, the playcalling needs to change and become less predictable.
Now the Broncos don’t have to think about the post-season, they can start to look to the offseason beyond and think about who will move on the roster.
The biggest questions come on the offensive side of the ball, what happens at quarterback? Are there any more offensive line additions? Where do they look in the draft?
The future of Russell Wilson is in question, his contract is so big but this offseason is the cheapest ‘out’ they will have across the entire extension he was given in 2022.
There’s a very real possibility that George Paton (if he’s still there), takes the dead cap hit for 2024 and looks to the draft for a rookie to sit behind an affordable veteran for a year or two.
It was announced on Wednesday that Wilson would be benched in place of Jarrett Stidham for the final two weeks of the season, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Wilson’s fate is sealed and some journalists have speculated that the front office is just protecting themselves against a $37 million that Wilson would get guaranteed if he got injured.
Whoever is the general manager next season has a dilemma to make at the quarterback position as well as with underwhelming receiver Jerry Jeudy (who attracted trade interest earlier in the season) and centre Lloyd Cushenberry III who will be hitting free agency in the offseason but will command a sizeable fee if his services are to be retained.
Week 17 preview
On Sunday it will be Stidham who takes the field against the Chargers with the Broncos’ playoff hopes hanging by a thread.
Two weeks ago the Broncos brushed the Chargers aside 24-7, since that game both teams have lost two games in a row and the Chargers moved on from head coach Brandon Staley.
It will be a game between backups as the Chargers will continue to field Easton Stick under centre while Stidham will take the snaps after Wilson’s benching.
The Chargers will be hoping to not be swept by the Broncos for the first time since 2019, whilst the Broncos are looking to keep their playoff hopes alive in week 18 and chase a first winning season since 2016.