ENGLEWOOD — It came down to this.
Third-and-goal from the 8-yard line. If the Broncos score, they move into the toll lane for a playoff berth. Fail, and they leave the off ramp into a sea of traffic with hazards flashing. The problems, coach Sean Payton admitted, began before the snap.
Three targets lined up on the left side from left to the right: Jerry Jeudy, Lucas Krull and Courtland Sutton. This is a formation they practiced during the week, but something went haywire. There was no movement. Jeudy darted into his route in the middle of the field, Krull waved his arms and was standing still when the ball was snapped. And Sutton backpedaled to the sideline in attempt to create space.
It looked like a mess. Because it was.
“Let’s call the last play Chaos,” Payton said Monday morning.
Wilson avoided the sack by spinning as left tackle Garett Bolles was beaten badly. He set his feet at the 22-yard line, 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and rushed the attempt when there were no other defenders around. He fired low in the direction of Krull. Intended to be a 50-50 ball, it was at defensive back Jimmie Ward’s eye level as he boxed out the Broncos tight end to finish off Houston’s 22-17 victory with an interception in the end zone.
“We finished the game, and we leave a shift off. So, at the snap of the ball, we have three receivers who have not shifted,” Payton said. “The shift doesn’t happen, and we are playing street ball.”
So, no, the Broncos did not design a play for Krull, who has never caught an NFL pass, to become the savior. He was in the progression for Wilson, but not the primary target. A confluence of factors spoiled the potential game-winning moment.
It proved symbolic of a passing game that must improve for the Broncos to remain in the postseason mix. Denver likely needs to win four its final five games, and its final four against AFC opponents, to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015. The Broncos, however, are not getting there averaging 170 yards through the air as they have the past six games.
They require a boost as opponents will continue to look to stop their powerful running attack.
“It starts with protection and our communication has to be on point,” Payton said of improving with the passing game.
The Broncos established a blueprint during their five-game winning streak that made sense but was not sustainable. Denver produced 16 takeaways, an eye-widening number. As the Broncos took it away, they did not give it away. Wilson did not throw an interception during the streak.
Sunday, the plan collapsed. The Broncos failed to produce a turnover, somehow not jumping on C.J. Stroud’s second half fumble. And Wilson fired three interceptions. The defense gave the Broncos an opportunity rally from a 13-point deficit, forcing four straight punts at one point. The Broncos offense, however, needs a shot of espresso in the passing game, and there are no easy answers.
It looks hard for the team to move the ball through air, in part, because the Broncos do not have a consistent presence in the middle of the field. That is where tight end Greg Dulcich began to establish himself last season, but a balky hamstring has limited him to two games and three receptions this year. It leaves Denver reliant on the deep ball and dump offs to running backs.
Wilson finished 15 of 26 for 186 yards against the Texans. However, 86 yards came on two connections to Sutton (45 yards) and Jeudy (41). That means Wilson was 13-for-24 for 100 yards on his remaining attempts. They need more or the air will continue to leave their balloon.
“We have to keep our heads up, understand there's a lot more season left, a lot of ball left. Where we want to go, it's going to be challenging. I've been in seasons where it's a battle, and to get to where we want to go, we can't look too far ahead. You've got to look at right now, look inward – starting with me – and just continue to find ways to make plays and find ways to keep our head up. It's going to be worth it in the end,” Wilson said. “It's going to be worth it in the end. The journey is going to be worth it. We really believe that.”