ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The screaming receives the attention. The statistics and fit, however, deserve a closer look. When Broncos coach Sean Payton went nuclear on Russell Wilson on the sidelines after a failed goal-line opportunity at Detroit, it became a referendum for many on their partnership. Payton insisted Monday they have a great relationship, and Wilson called his coach’s outburst “frustration” over not scoring a touchdown.
The reality is that Wilson’s future remains more complicated than a single snapshot.
There are multiple factors involved: Does Payton believe Wilson can run his passing offense at optimal level? If Payton chooses to move on from Wilson, who replaces him – Jarrett Stidham, a first-round pick in the upcoming draft? And how does the roster construction work if the Broncos pay Wilson $85 million over two years to not play for them? It would require hits in the draft – Denver only has six picks – and nailing the second wave of free agency if ownership sticks to its plan not to lead the NFL in offseason spending.
These questions linger as Wilson faces the most important stretch of his Broncos career. He came to Denver to win, something he has stated repeatedly. The stage is set. Post three straight victories and the Broncos hold an 81% chance of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2015, according to the New York Times simulator.
As the Broncos climbed back into contention, the defense has done the heavy lifting. The Broncos lead in fumble recoveries (13) and rank third in takeaways (24). Combine that with excellence on third down, and the defense has given the Broncos, save for the Lions game, a chance over the last eight weeks. The blueprint for victories crystallized: a plethora of takeaways, no giveaways, and a few unthinkable catches by receiver Courtland Sutton.
The problem is sustainability. Denver has dropped two of its last three games, revealing flaws. The Broncos, simply put, have not proven they can win if the defense does not produce turnovers.
Against this backdrop, the Broncos return to work Sunday night at 6:15 p.m. on Denver7 against the 3-11 New England Patriots. Denver does not require perfection from Wilson, but it needs efficiency.
Look at the past three weeks, and it is obvious the Broncos require a lift from the passing game even as Payton wants to rev up the ground attack, a hard ask against the Patriots’ second-ranked rush defense.
Wilson During 5-game Winning Streak
96 for 134, 71.64 percent, 894 yards, 8 TDs, 0 INTs, 2 lost fumbles
Wilson During Current 1-2 Stretch
54 for 91, 59.3 percent, 633 yards, 4 TDs, 4 INTs, 1 lost fumble
The differences remain striking and speak to how these games have developed. During the winning streak, Denver never trailed by more than eight points and frequently led. They were solid, if not spectacular against Cleveland, on the ground. An efficient Wilson became a vehicle capable of steering a victory. When the Broncos trailed 13-0 at Houston and 21-0 at Detroit, the passing game could not rally on the road. There were reasons – the team speed on both sides of the ball for those opponents presented a huge problem – for not overcoming deficits. But the passing attack is not without blame.
It creates an interesting final chapter to the season. Can the Broncos diversify the air attack and provide more of a boost when needed?
The Broncos passing game has been described in NBA terms: Denver shoots layups and 3-pointers. There is no mid-range game. The Broncos have ranked near the bottom all season in completions in the middle of the field. Tight end Greg Dulcich’s absence has amplified this issue. He has played one half of two separate games, and there is no guarantee he returns this week because of a new foot injury as he rebuilds endurance from a hamstring absence.
NFL Matchup’s Greg Cosell, a 44-year veteran of NFL Films, believes Wilson is leaving throws on the field because he is an “eyedropper,” a quarterback who puts his head down in the face of the rush. Wilson has shown proficiency out of the pocket, and when he moves north and south, he acts more like a point guard, forcing the defense to make tough decisions. But can he do more of that down the stretch? Can he take chances while taking care of the ball?
Sutton has rebounded like Dennis Rodman this season. After posting two scores in his previous 26 games, he boasts 10 touchdowns this season, third best in the NFL behind Miami’s Tyreek Hill (12) and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (11). However, Sutton has 770 yards, leaving him on pace for 935. Jerry Jeudy, who bounced back against Detroit after a poor game at the Chargers, is projected to finish with 55 catches for 705 yards and two touchdowns. Rookie Marvin Mims Jr. has 18 catches, and Brandon Johnson, whose three receiving touchdowns are tied for second with tight end Adam Trautman, has not caught a pass since returning from a hamstring injury three weeks ago.
The Patriots pass defense is not typical of a Bill Belichick team. While he is the master at taking away an opponent’s best offensive player – that would be Sutton – New England allows 223 yards through the air, has only nine interceptions and 29 sacks, the latter of which ranks 29.
The Broncos know who they are offensively and want to run the ball. But over the final three weeks, they need added production from Wilson. The playoffs are within reach. This is why he came to Denver. And how this plays out could help determine his future.