ENGLEWOOD — The Broncos’ loss to the Lions exposed flaws and roiled coach Sean Payton to his flashpoint. He went volcanic on the officials over a fourth down offsides call and then directed his anger at quarterback Russell Wilson on the sideline. Monday, Payton downplayed the interaction, while insisting, “Russ and I have a great relationship.”
“Nothing more to share. It’s certainly in-game intensity, heat of the moment. All of those things,” Payton said. “But nothing more to add.”
The incident sprouted after the Broncos failed to score inside the 10-yard line during their 42-17 loss. It appeared running back Jaleel McLaughlin crossed the goal line on second down and Payton admitted that he probably could have challenged it. Javonte Williams then crashed short and Mike Burton’s touchdown was negated by an offsides call on right guard Quinn Meinerz. It left Payton venting at the refs and Wilson.
Wilson said Saturday he believes Payton still trusts him and explained that coach “was frustrated we didn’t score.”
The interaction has become a national talk radio topic because Payton has criticized Wilson previously. Payton called out Wilson about getting plays relayed too slowly earlier this season, leading to simplifying the wristband, and he has yelled at him on the sidelines multiple times. This is not uncommon in the NFL, but because of the interest in this coach-quarterback pairing it receives more attention.
"This is a very high pressure, results-driven business. It happens it all the time, that is on any team. It is honestly not a big deal at all (with Payton's interaction with Wilson). It gets heated for a second and we forget about it," said tight end Adam Trautman, who played for Payton on the Saints. "We are not worried about it at all in our building
Wilson, who is relentlessly positive, said a few weeks ago he appreciated getting coached hard, and he wanted Payton as his head coach. Seeing Saturday as a referendum on their relationship remains premature. There are three games left, leaving the story unfinished with the team’s playoff odds standing at 83 percent if they win out according to The New York Times simulator.
Reach the postseason for the first time since 2015 or achieve the first winning season since 2016 and that could play into the decision. So, too, could the salary cap – moving off Wilson would create a cap hit of $85 million over two years – and the options to replace him with only six draft picks and Jarrett Stidham as his current backup.
The decision will come into focus over the next few months.
For now, all attention is reserved for this week. The Broncos host the Patriots on Christmas Eve on Denver7. The last three games are playoff games in every. There is no margin for error.
“In the NFL sometimes, you get your (butt) kicked,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “But if we take care of business like we have the last months, I am confident we can get this done.”
The Broncos are expected to win all their remaining games – they are a 5.5-point favorite vs. the Patriots – but the offense must prove it can carry its weight if the defense does not produce takeaways. The Patriots' defense is stout even as Bill Belichick has tied his career-worst with 11 losses this season. Belichick has a history of taking away a team’s best weapon, meaning Denver needs creativity after watching the Lions double-team Courtland Sutton.
“We’ve had a number of games (vs. Belichick). I can recall one game in New England with (Saints tight end) Jimmy Graham, where (former Patriots cornerback Aqib) Talib went wherever Jimmy went and really did a good job shutting him down. It really forced us to find other receivers. It’s one of the things that Bill historically has done very well,” Payton said. “He’s going to try to mute your strengths and I think that’s what good defensive coach coaching is —trying to force you to do things maybe you don’t do as well.”
Diversification starts with an improved ground game. Since posting a season-high 169 vs. the Browns, the Broncos have logged 118, 106 and 83. Javonte Williams has failed to average 4 yards per carry for seven straight weeks, bottoming out at 2.25 vs. the Lions. Could that lead to more playing time for Samaje Perine, who received six carries for 37 yards on Saturday after vanishing from the run game for most of the previous seven weeks?
“Part of it is the downs we’re running (Williams) on. We like to think we have all three of those guys —running backs, I’m talking about— are capable runners. We’ll look at those spreads, and we’ll look at those calls. We didn’t run it as well as I thought we would, and quite honestly, I think that’s an area. Cleveland was the last game where I felt like we ran it really well,” Payton said. “I think in this next three-game stretch, we’re going to have to run it better than we have.”
The Broncos' passing offense lacks dimensions, featuring dump downs and deep strikes, similar to a basketball team shooting layups and 3s. Denver could use a tight end for intermediate completions in the middle of the field, but there is no guarantee Greg Dulcich, cast for that role, will return Sunday after suffering foot pain in his return from a hamstring injury.
“In fairness to the question—I usually don’t like talking about injuries, but I just want to make sure. This was unrelated to his hamstring. He just had some swelling and soreness in his foot. We took him off weight-bearing for a day or two. I’m anxious to see how he does this week. I expect him to play at some point in these final three weeks, but I don’t want you to think it was something that was going to preclude him from doing that,” Payton said. “We’ll see where he’s at this week.”
LB Josey Jewell had his previous fine rescinded for his pistols celebration on a sack after he explained his background shooting clay pigeons. He thought he was OK doing it going forward because the league never said otherwise. Jewell, however, was fined $13,659 vs. the Chargers for doing the celebration. It left him confused. His agent called the league Monday to see if the fine will be rescinded again.