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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.