ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A cascade of failures for three months shaped the view of this Broncos' season. No playoffs for a sixth consecutive season. No postseason for a seventh straight year.
There were numerous causes — poor game management for two weeks, a league-high 101 penalties, erratic special teams — but the lens of disappointment begins with the offense. Denver has been historically bad scoring points, running a race with the 1966 team for the franchise abyss until two weeks ago.
However, the last two games have offered slivers of hope for embattled coach Nathaniel Hackett. He gave up the play-calling duties to Klint Kubiak on Nov. 20 against the Raiders — the Broncos scored a touchdown on an opening drive for the first time this season — and a month later an identity is emerging. In splitting the past two games, including ending a five-game losing skid last Sunday, the Broncos are averaging 26 points per game, compared to 13.6 entering the Chiefs contest.
They gained traction under two different quarterbacks — Russell Wilson and Brett Rypien. Wilson will return to the starting lineup on Christmas Day at the Rams with the Broncos seeking their first road win on American soil.
He delivered his best performance as a Bronco against the Chiefs before suffering a concussion in the fourth quarter. Wilson rushed for a season-high 57 yards, showing scrambling bravado so common in Seattle, and completed 23 of 36 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns to Jerry Jeudy.
Rypien countered with efficiency vs. Arizona, connecting on 21 of 26 passes for 197 yards and one passing score.
The common thread in the two games? Better balance. The Broncos averaged 5.17 yards per carry in 53 attempts. Compare that to their 3.97 average in the first 12 games. The equity created honesty from the defense. With Wilson using his legs and a mobile pocket against the Chiefs, he found his rhythm. With Lavonte Murray and Marlon Mack gashing the Cardinals in the second half as part of season-best 168 rushing yards — slowing J.J. Watt's relentless pass rush — Rypien was accurate and effective.
Wilson, who has thrown 11 touchdowns with six interceptions in 12 games, should be able to use this model, especially if All-Pro Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald remains sidelined, as expected, with a sprained ankle.
"Confidence is an important thing, without a doubt. Watching ‘Ryp’ execute out there, and watch Russell execute the week before. We’re not doing it one way. I think that’s something that you can really build on. You’re not just stuck on, ‘Hey, we have to throw the ball to Jerry every time.’ You can do play action; you could run the ball. It gives the defense a lot of different things. I think the guys can really build on that because they know every week —they’re all excited to see. ‘Hey, how can I get some points? How can I break out?’ That’s what you want from the offense," Hackett explained.
"That’s what gives them that excitement each week to come in and see what the plan is. It’s definitely something to build on. We just have to string it together for four quarters now.”
Under Kubiak's guide last season, the Vikings ranked 11th in points at 25.0, 12th overall in yards and 17th in rushing. The idea of Hackett's scheme centered on an effective ground game to set up play action chunk plays.
The last two weeks represent progress in a season when so little has gone right offensively. And there are still many issues. The Broncos' third-down conversion rate (28.6) ranks last in the NFL. They have allowed 51 sacks, sitting 31st overall. But three games remain for the Broncos to prove they have towed themselves out of a ditch and are on the right track.
The Rams game offers a chance to show the past two weeks were not an aberration, an opportunity to race to the finish to change opinions on this forgettable season.