Broncos cap whirlwind week after Russell Wilson's benching with 'bittersweet' win
DENVER — Adam Trautman walked into the locker room after the Denver Broncos’ 16-9 win over the Los Angeles Chargers and asked the first trainer he saw for the score of a game that had ended at the same time, 600 miles to the east.
The tight end didn’t know the outcome at that moment, but he and his teammates could already feel the inevitable hammer dropping. They had prepared themselves for its swing. The Broncos won Sunday, but their door to the playoffs slammed shut. The Kansas City Chiefs stumbled their way into an eighth straight AFC West title with a 25-17 win against the Cincinnati Bengals. When the Pittsburgh Steelers capped a 30-23 road victory against the Seattle Seahawks, the wild-card route had been closed, too.
“You walk in and find out the score, and it’s just like, ‘Ah, man,’” Trautman said.
The Broncos will miss the playoffs for the eighth season in a row. It’s the second-longest active drought in the NFL behind the 14-year dry spell being endured by the New York Jets and their fan base. When the Broncos embarked on their first training camp under the direction of Sean Payton in late July, the veteran head coach made the goal clear: He’d be disappointed if his first team in Denver didn’t reach the postseason.
But Sunday, the Broncos seemed more resigned than resentful. They seemed like a team that had already mourned its fate after a brutal loss to the New England Patriots seven days earlier. After a whirlwind week that featured the benching of veteran quarterback Russell Wilson and the public fallout to follow, the Broncos were done wallowing.
“We were our own enemies in that regard,” veteran safety Justin Simmons said of the Broncos missing out on the playoffs. “We had our shots. We had our home games against Washington, the Jets and, most recently, the Patriots. We lost a tough road game against Houston. We controlled our destiny for the longest time. It’s tough, but what a big win for us at home. It’s a chance for us to close out the season strong next week, go 9-8.”
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) January 1, 2024
Outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper called Sunday’s victory “bittersweet.” It presents Denver with a chance to produce its first winning season since 2016 if it can win next week at the Las Vegas Raiders. It was a team-wide effort that saw the defense force a turnover, the special teams units snuff out a fake punt and block a field goal, and the Jarrett Stidham-piloted offense strike for key big plays while building a double-digit halftime lead. It came amid the turmoil of the Wilson benching and the quarterback’s public claim that he had been threatened by the team with a benching if he did not change his contract. It was a lot, and it was all paired with the very real possibility the Broncos would be eliminated Sunday whether they won or not.
“I’m really just proud of how we came out in this game after what happened in our last game,” said Cooper, who embodied the frustration of the Christmas Eve collapse against the Patriots. “It’s super important for us to have a winning season. It sucks that we got eliminated from the playoffs, obviously, but we were focused on winning this next game. Finishing off the season the right way, 9-8, it’s how this season should go, and we have to make sure we get that done.”
As the Broncos left Empower Field for the final time this season, it was impossible not to think about the what-ifs surrounding their home schedule. The Broncos went 5-4, but all four losses came to teams that will finish the season with a losing record: the Raiders, Washington Commanders, Jets and Patriots. All four came after the Broncos held halftime leads, just as they did Sunday. When the Broncos audit their season in the coming days and weeks, those collapses will loom largest.
“It is what it is,” Payton said of Denver’s elimination from the playoffs. “I mean, look, we kind of had that opportunity a week ago and then ugh.”
The loss to the Patriots is the one the Broncos still haven’t shaken. It changed so much. Had the Broncos, who had the ball and all three timeouts in a tie game with under two minutes remaining, found a way to finish that game, Wilson almost certainly would have been on the field Sunday, finishing the push for the playoffs. He did take the field for the coin toss as a captain in his No. 3 jersey, then returned to the sideline, pumping up his teammates. When Stidham returned to the sideline after the opening offensive series, it was Wilson handing him the tablet for diagramming plays.
“He’s been terrific,” Trautman said. “That kind of thing happens, and it’s really, really tough to deal with. He’s handled it better than I think anyone can, honest to God. You’re super successful. You’ve been a superstar for ‘x’ amount of years, and then you get benched. It’s never happened to him, and you wonder how he’s going to react. But honestly, that’s exactly what I’d expect from him. He’s a true professional, and he’s been great ever since it happened.”
It would be a mistake to put too much on Stidham’s performance in relief, no matter how it unfolded. It was one game against a banged-up Chargers team playing under an interim head coach. The evaluation of Stidham, if he is indeed to be a candidate for next year’s starting job, will need time.
Still, it was an encouraging starting point. He completed 20 of 32 passes for 224 yards and one touchdown while earning his first career victory in his third NFL start. There were some impressive bright spots, such as when he moved up the pocket on a third-and-8 play and hit Lil’Jordan Humphrey on the run. From there, Stidham watched as the wide receiver broke enough tackles — and benefited from enough downfield blocks — to turn a solid first-down reception into a 54-yard touchdown.
Lil’Jordan with a big run after the catch for the TD!
— NFL (@NFL) December 31, 2023
Stidham also protected the ball, helping the Broncos play a turnover-free game for the first time since their Week 11 win against the Minnesota Vikings. The Broncos went a solid 7-of-17 on third down.
Stidham was also off-target on a handful of makeable throws to wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, and the Broncos went 0-of-2 in the red zone, including a failure of a possession after they had a first-and-goal at the 1 and then committed two false-start penalties.
“I thought (Stidham) was collected, calm,” said Payton, who also offered praise for how Wilson handled his role as the No. 2 quarterback. “I thought he played with really good poise. He felt experienced relative to a guy who hasn’t had as many minutes maybe as some others. You certainly didn’t feel that during the course of the game. I thought he was efficient in and out of the huddle. I thought he made some good throws for us overall.”
Stidham will have a chance to go 2-0 this season if he can beat the Raiders next week, the team he quarterbacked for the final two games of the 2022 season. The Broncos can win their first game ever in Las Vegas and snap a frustrating losing streak to the Raiders that sits at seven games and dates back to the 2020 season. Simmons is the only player drafted by the Broncos who was on the team when it last had a winning record, so ending this campaign above .500 is a carrot Denver is trying to chase.
“I think more importantly than any of that … is our focus heading into next week and getting our ninth win,” Payton said. “That’ll be a good challenge. Certainly, that’s a goal (to make the playoffs) when you start the beginning of the year. It was a goal of ours. Yes, it’s disappointing.”
To finish the season the way they want to, the Broncos know they have to leave regret about what could have been in 2023.
(Photo of the Broncos celebrating Lil’Jordan Humphrey’s 54-yard touchdown: RJ Sangosti / Getty Images)
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