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Payton seeks Broncos' first winning season since 2016 as Stidham extends audition

Denver7 Keys to Denver victory vs. Raiders while offseason uncertainty looms
Chargers Broncos Football
Posted at 9:23 AM, Jan 07, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-07 15:43:59-05

LAS VEGAS – Justin Simmons.

That is the list. Simmons is the only player remaining on the roster the last time the Broncos posted a winning record. It came in 2016, Simmons’ rookie season.

Sunday offers an opportunity for the Broncos finish on the right side of the ledger. Their playoff absence extended to eight seasons when Denver was eliminated last Sunday. But finishing above .500 has taken on added importance.

Sean Payton wants nine victories. It represents a mile marker in the team’s cultural shift under his watch. He returned to coaching to win, not for the cool gear and road trips.

And let’s be honest. It would be nice to beat the Raiders, right? The Broncos have dropped seven straight to the Raiders overall and seven straight on the road. No wonder the Broncos are a 3-point underdog in the finale as Las Vegas players make their latest case to keep Antonio Pierce as their head coach.

This could be the last Broncos game for free agents like linebacker Josey Jewell, center Lloyd Cushenberry, nose tackle Mike Purcell, safety P.J. Locke and kicker Wil Lutz. And trade speculation will continue about receiver Jerry Jeudy, and could it extend to left tackle Garett Bolles and Simmons if their contracts are not restructured to create salary cap space?

The Broncos prepare to enter an offseason where they need more explosiveness at receiver, speed at linebacker, depth/starter at edge rusher, and help at tight end, though Lucas Krull could figure predominantly at the position moving forward given Greg Dulcich’s injury history.

Did I mention the uncertainty at quarterback? Jarrett Stidham receives his second chance in his audition as the 13th starter since Peyton Manning retired. He figures to return next season, but will he be the No. 1 or competing with a veteran like Jameis Winston, Sam Darnold, Jimmy Garoppolo or keeping the seat for a draft pick like Michael Penix, Bo Nix or Quinn Ewers?

And who will be shaping the roster with Payton? General manager George Paton will return, multiple sources told Denver7 on Sunday. He finished his third season in his role, but it has shifted dramatically since he took over with full power. Payton is now in charge. And Paton is being evaluated on how he works with the coach. The relationship has worked between Payton and Paton. Owner and CEO Greg Penner has supported his new coach – though I expect he wishes the Russell Wilson contract talks over the bye week had been handled differently with Payton first discussing the situation with the quarterback.

In a results-oriented business, Paton could have been let go for his misfires on the Wilson trade — which came with no owner in place — Wilson contract and the free agent signing of Randy Gregory. However, he has also hit with picks like cornerback Pat Surtain II, right guard Quinn Meinerz, outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper and retaining linebacker Alex Singleton.

For now, the Broncos are prepared to move forward with Payton and Paton.

The Broncos are nothing, if not interesting. The churn will continue this offseason with players and possibly a few assistant coaches.

First, Denver aims to win its ninth game and finish the season on an 8-3 run.

My Denver7 keys to a victory:

Start fast
The Raiders want Pierce to remain in charge. They will fly around. The Broncos do not play well enough offensively to rally on the road. Denver has not had a 1,000-yard rusher or 1,000-yard receiver since 2019. It is important to keep this game within reach early.

Protect the ball
Stidham faces the challenge of taking care of the ball and taking chances. Will the passing game continue to show more diversity with crossing routes? Can Jeudy and Lil’Jordan Humphrey produce big plays? Will Courtland Sutton finish ascending, capping the most impactful season of his career?

Run with it
For the pass game to work, the Broncos must not abandon the run. Javonte Williams feels good, but his production has waned. He has not averaged 4 yards a carry in a game in nine weeks. Don’t be surprised if rookie Jaleel McLaughlin continues to see his role grow.

Sack attack
Jonathon Cooper has a shot at 10 sacks, a figure the Broncos’ haven’t reached since 2018. He needs 1.5. Aidan O’Connell gets rid of the ball quickly. But Las Vegas performs poorly on third down, meaning there will be opportunities for Cooper and others.

Take it away
The Broncos rank seventh in takeaways with 26. A top five finish would resonate and provide a reminder of how the defense rebounded under Vance Joseph following the Dolphins debacle. Win the turnover battle, win the game.

To the Maxx
Stidham’s audition remains important. For it to be successful, the Broncos must tame edge rusher Maxx Crosby. He is 8-1 with 12.5 sacks against the Broncos in his career. Garett Bolles and Cam Fleming, playing for the injured Mike McGlinchey, will have their hands full. Bolles has only allowed two sacks in 1,000-plus snaps this season.

Final word
The eye in the sky does not lie. The roster evaluation begins in earnest this week. This is the final time to make an impression for this team and these players. Missing the postseason for an eighth straight season – the second longest active drought – stings. But it would be meaningful to leave with a winning record while snapping the losing skid vs. the Raiders.
TROY’S PREDICTION: Raiders 26, Broncos 22