ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The ending unfurled as if Disney was writing the script. The Broncos trailed by one point and Russell Wilson took over at his own 22-yard line with 4:02 remaining on Monday night. The crowd, hoarse from booing Wilson, remained at full throat.
Everything set up for Wilson to walk off as a winner in his return to Seattle. Instead, coach Nathaniel Hackett decided to let Brandon kick rather than Russ Cook.
So on fourth-and-5 from the 46-yard line, McManus attempted to become the third player in NFL history to drill a kick of at least 64 yards. He predictably missed given the odds.
Wilson's moment vanished because the stage seemed too big for Hackett. The coach locked into a plan that once the Broncos reached the 46, they were good. It was equivalent of believing you could pay your mortgage by winning the PowerBall. The data failed to support Hackett's confidence in McManus. The longest field goal in Lumen Field history remains 56 yards.
The success rate of kickers at 64 yards or longer (2 for 41, 4.8%) pales to fourth-and-5 conversions last season (48%), per ESPN.
Hackett said Tuesday that "they definitely should have gone for it." Wilson supported his coach on Monday, never lobbying to stay on the field, knowing the decision was predetermined before the drive.
What set up as a triumphant return ended in bitter disappointment. The advantage is that it was the opener. Sixteen games remain, but the margin for error shrunk for the Broncos after losing to a team most have picked to finish last in the NFC West.
The Broncos can ill-afford another misstep as a 10-point favorite against the Houston Texans in Sunday's home debut. Houston tied the Colts 20-20 last week, showing promise. The Broncos delivered 433 yards on offense against Seattle — Wilson finished 29 of 42 for 340 yards and one touchdown — but it was overshadowed by a red-faced performance in the red zone (three points on three trips inside the 10-yard line, including back-to-back lost fumbles at the 1 and a false start that negated a touchdown).
“I've already moved on forward. We have the next week coming up here, on a short week. So, we have to get rolling. It's that simple. It's the next game. We did a lot of good things," Hackett said. "I don't want to take away from how we moved the ball. Those guys executed all that stuff almost to perfection. Russ was great. The running back, the lines, they were all awesome. They were moving the ball day. We just have to finish. If we finish, then we're not in that situation."
As Hall of Famer Peyton Manning noted, it was a difficult ask for Wilson to face his former team in that environment in his first game. It was the equivalent of a first playoff game environment for many on the Broncos roster. And they were knocking off rust as teams that did not play their starters in the preseason went 3-8 in Week One.
Wilson played well, but there were glitches as plays appeared to be coming in late from the sideline and the noise played a factor in limiting adjustments.
"We are not going to waver. There were positives to take from the first game, " left guard Dalton Risner said. "But we have to finish drives."
In the end, Wilson completed passes to seven different receivers and posted four plays of 25 yards or more, tying Patrick Mahomes, Mitch Trubisky and Carson Wentz for the most in the opening week.
"He’s excellent. He’s accurate, mobile and knows how to buy time. I have been a big fan of his," Texans coach Lovie Smith told the Denver media on Wednesday. "If you are a player facing him, you know what that challenge brings.”
Wilson has only played once in Denver, losing 27-24 in the 2018 season opener. Regaining home field advantage remains critical for Denver. As the Broncos have missed the playoffs the past six seasons, Denver has become increasingly less intimidating. The Broncos boast a 23-26 home record since 2016 with two single-season winning records, games remembered more for losses and no-shows.
That should change under Wilson. And it starts against Houston.