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No joy of six. Broncos rally falls short in loss to Texans

Ward picks off Wilson in end zone to thwart comeback
Broncos Texans Football
Posted at 2:25 PM, Dec 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-04 07:51:07-05

HOUSTON — Three hours before kickoff, the smell of barbecue wafted in the parking lot, painted-face fans walked around NRG Stadium and a throng of orange dotted everywhere the eye could see.

This felt like the playoffs.

The Broncos have played few meaningful games in December since Super Bowl 50. This one checked all the boxes as Denver faced off with upstart Houston. The pair shared the same record and visions of a postseason berth. This was a two-for-one when considering the first playoff tiebreaker is conference record.

After a forgettable first half, the contest lived up to the hype. The Broncos made a spirited comeback. Alas, there was no joy of six. The win streak snapped in a 22-17 loss to the Texans, leaving the Broncos disappointed but resilient.

"We were sloppy," said Payton. "It's disappointing. We kind of rebounded from the slow start, but a tough loss."

The Broncos failed to convert a third down, going 0-for-11. Russell Wilson threw three interceptions, his first since Oct. 12. And the defense did not get a takeaway for the first time in six games, failing to recover a fumble in the second half that might have allowed for a slippery escape.

And yet, the Broncos had a chance.

Trailing 22-17 with 4:38 remaining, the Broncos took over. Wilson connected with a streaking Courtland Sutton for 32 yards down the seam, leaving the Broncos at the Texans’ 48-yard line. Moments later, a pass interference against Samaje Perine kept the drive humming. Wilson converted a fourth down that led to another one with 30 seconds remaining. Denver called timeout – it burned one a few moments earlier to make sure it was the right play – and needed a two-yard gain from the 13-yard line. The Texans, recognizing the magnitude of the moment, countered with a timeout, working the crowd into a frenzy. Wilson converted.

However, two plays later, Wilson evaded a sack but threw off balance and short to a covered Lucas Krull. Jimme Ward intercepted the pass, thwarting Denver’s big for a sixth-straight victory. Krull attempted unsuccessfully to wrestle the ball away from Ward.

"Anytime the ball is in the air is that it's my ball I have to go get it. You put the game in my hands in that situation, I have to be a playmaker and go get that ball," Krull said. "I am a little disappointed in myself. Those are plays I know I can make and expect to make."

The matchup felt different. The track, even in warmups, played fast. This setup had fewer mudflaps and more slicks. The Broncos finally found their fit in the third quarter, which has been a dust bowl this season.

They let down their hair and went to the air.

Trailing 16-3, quarterback Wilson connected with Sutton on a 45-yard touchdown, breathing life into a comeback. It represented only their second third quarter touchdown of the season.

Momentum shifted, the Broncos responded on defense with back-to-back sacks of Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud. However, the last proved pivotal for what did not happen. Ja’Quan McMillian jumped on the quarterback’s back, knocking the ball loose. Somehow in a mass of white jerseys, the Broncos, who lead the NFL in takeaways, failed to recover their 11th fumble of the season.

"He is a great player. I tackled him. I knew I got the ball out and I saw some of our guys jump on the ball," McMillian said. "And then at the last minute, it kind of squirted out and the Texans player got it."

On the first play after the punt rather a possession inside the 30, Wilson fired an interception. Wilson finished 15 of 26 for 186 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed 10 times for 44 yards.

"We felt like we could have won this game. The defense did a great job of keeping us in there and battling," Wilson said. "The reality is that we have to play better and it starts with me. I have to play better."

Texans rookie Will Anderson deflected the pass on the first pick, another entry in his diary of havoc. While he owned the game defensively, Nico Collins wrote his name in 72-point Helvetica on offense. The former third-round pick widened the Texans’ lead to 22-10 with a 3-yard score with 14:16 remaining before the Broncos made it interesting.

Denver showed its hand by going deep twice to Sutton on back-to-back plays to start the game, the second featuring a painful drop by the veteran at midfield.

A 22-yard punt from Riley Dixon followed as it appeared Anderson ticked the boot as it spiraled helplessly out of bounds. Following a coverage lapse that left backup tight end Brevin Jordan cruising for 27 yards, the Broncos stiffened, holding the Texans to a chip shot field goal of 29 yards from Matt Ammendola.

Trailing 3-0 with 10:38 remaining in the first, the Broncos fizzled as the Texans stayed bold. Stroud connected with Collins who raced past Fabian Moreau for a 52-yard reception. What unfolded next placed Denver in its most disadvantaged situation in six weeks. On fourth-and-2 from the seven-yard line, refs called the Texans for a false start. But before the play was dead, Alex Singleton blitzed into Stroud, bumping his facemask as the quarterback talked trash to the linebacker. Offensive lineman Shaq Mason came in to protect Stroud, taking a shot at Singleton. But the careless penalty punished Denver, leaving Houston with a fresh set of downs at the 3-yard line. Dameon Pierce plunged in for a score, widening the Texans’ advantage to 10-0 with 3:53 remaining in the first quarter.

To that point, it was a forgettable opening argument for Denver. The Broncos went nowhere offensively, with three consecutive three-and-outs, had a key drop by Sutton and Pat Surtain II hurt his left knee on the Texans’ 10-play, 78-yard touchdown drive. Denver collected 23 yards in the first period, 1 through the air, compared to 178 for the Texans, an onslaught that brought back memories of the Dolphins Debacle. Denver had permitted 326 yards a game during its five-game winning streak.

Two plays articulated their first-half misery. Sutton’s drop. And Wilson underthrowing a wide-open Marvin Mims Jr. – he was 5 yards behind the defender – on what would have been a touchdown.

Denver finally responded with a late-first half drive, shaving the deficit to 13-3 at intermission. During the winning streak, the Broncos never trailed by more than eight points. Worse, the third quarter is not their friend. Denver entered Sunday outscored 71-20 in the third and had never scored when opening the second half with the ball in nine attempts (Kind of undermines their 9-3 record on coin tosses). Make it 10 times with no points as the Broncos allowed two sacks and went three-and-out. Denver could not block Anderson on Twitter. The Alabama rookie was enjoying a modest season with three sacks. He had two through three quarters on Sunday.

To the Bronco's credit, they fought back. But they left Houston with a problem, likely needing to win four of their final five games to reach the postseason. They sit ninth in a playoff picture that only includes seven teams, a game behind the Colts and Texans. There are no more mulligans left.

"It's frustrating, of course. But I still know we have a lot of heart and a lot of confidence, in this locker room" said Sutton, who leads the Broncos with nine touchdowns. "Guys know we can compete with anybody. Moving forward, we have a chance."

The Texans lost speedy rookie receiver Tank Dell to an ugly ankle injury on Pierce’s first touchdown as was carted off the field. …

The Broncos suffered a battery of injuries, but all the players returned to action, Speedy rookie Marvin Mims Jr. went into the locker room late in the first half with a rib injury, tight end Chris Manhertz went into the blue medical tent after suffering a shoulder injury late in the first half and Quinn Meinerz hurt his shoulder in the fourth quarter and played again.

The Broncos promoted quarterback Ben DiNucci on Saturday, but he was inactive on Sunday, suggesting that another team might have wanted him, or Payton did him a solid for his work in practice.