DENVER — The Christmas comeback was almost complete. After Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos rallied from a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the score against the New England Patriots on Sunday night, all they needed were a few more big plays to move into range for game winning field goal.
The journey to this point was ugly, stained with coal. The Broncos began their opening drive at the Patriots’ 6-yard line on a first down play. They left with no points. The Broncos punted four straight to start the second half. Oh, and they fumbled a kickoff that the Patriots returned for a touchdown.
Still, there were. Their own 39-yard line. Almost two minutes left. All three timeouts. Wilson and play caller Sean Payton at the controls. A chance to fix all the bugs.
“Then all of a sudden the script flipped,” Payton said.
The Broncos went three-and-out, the latest setback in a season-ending offensive collapse. They were forced to punt the ball back to New England, and Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe hit DeVant Parker for a 27-yard gain on third-and-3. After two more short passes, the Patriots were in range for a 56-yard field goal by rookie Chad Ryland.
Just like that, the Broncos suffered a 26-23 loss that all but ended their playoff chase.
“We had everything to play for,” outside linebacker Jonathan Cooper said. “We just didn’t get the job done. It’s so simple.”
The Broncos know the math. They weren’t officially eliminated from the postseason Sunday night, but that’s almost certainly a mere formality. Denver needed to win its last three games and get a reasonable amount of help. That door is now closed. And as Sunday night ended, the stunning ending still settling in, Peyton uttered a line he’d relied on repeatedly over the past few weeks. It’s a phrase that ends Denver’s disappointing season in more ways than one, and will raise questions about the future.
“There were six or seven different situations in this game where each one played out a little differently … but unfortunately it didn’t,” Payton said. “Our margin for error right now is not where it needs to be and we find ourselves on the losing end of the game.”
As for the season, the Broncos took advantage of any margin for error in December, losing six of their first seven games. They won five straight from there to move above .500, but the road remained treacherous, and Denver never had the talent to walk that kind of tightrope, even as it improved and developed chemistry after a disastrous start.
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But the margin of error from game to game is the more pressing issue. The Broncos on Sunday night opened a gift for the first game. DJ Jones sacked Zappe and recovered the resulting fumble at the New England 6-yard line. The Broncos were 18 feet away from an early lead, ready to hit the formula that helped resurrect their season after a 1-5 start. Four plays later, the quarterback left the field empty-handed after running back Javonte Williams was stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line.
“I felt confident about where we were in terms of field position,” Payton said, explaining his decision to go for it on fourth down, one play after Wilson had almost thrown an interception. “Usually I would say, especially early on, I would kick a field goal. But I felt pretty good if we didn’t get it with where we archived them. Now, in hindsight, you know, but I actually felt like we had two or three good options on the plays that we wanted to run.
That wasn’t the only opportunity the Broncos squandered. Their first three drives of the game started in New England territory, and the Broncos scored just seven points on those chances. Williams fumbled in the second quarter as the Broncos drove inside the Patriots’ 40-yard line, a ball that offensive guard Ben Powers appeared to possess before it was stripped by linebacker Jahlani Tawai. Another promising drive was torpedoed when right guard Quinn Meinertz was called for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.
All of that came before a disastrous start to the second half, when the Broncos punted on their first four possessions while gaining a first down and racking up minus-20 net yards. A costly error by Marvin Mims Jr. was pinched in that stretch. The rookie fumbled while attempting a kickoff right in the end zone. He had full control of the ball, but as he tried to make a play on the outside, he was stripped of the ball and returned by defensive back Cody Davis for a touchdown.
“Personally, I feel like I botched it,” said Mims, who scored Denver’s first touchdown on a 52-yard punt return earlier in the game and caught a 47-yard pass to set up the second touchdown. “It’s a 14-point swing and it cost us at the end. I have to do better. I know that.”
The Broncos finally picked up the pace in the fourth quarter. Wilson, who was sacked five times for a 45-yard killer, got better protection late and hit Mims, Jerry Judy and Brandon Johnson, whose role increased after top wide receiver Courtland Sutton suffered a concussion in the first quarter .
But even after a late surge that saw Wilson throw touchdown passes to Johnson and tight end Lucas Krul and follow those throws with successful two-point passes, the Broncos had no room for error. It was clear when Payton called a screen pass to Samaje Perine on first-and-10 on Denver’s final drive. The Patriots had shut down the play all night and did so again on a key point, tackling Perine for a 3-yard loss. New England followed with two total drives, hitting Wilson’s pass on second down and forcing him to throw high as he scrambled on third down.
“Overall, he wasn’t good enough offensively,” Payton said. “This has to be better.”
After the Patriots drove the ball 6 yards on first down, Payton called a timeout with 52 seconds left. New England rushed for 1 yard on second down and Payton called another timeout, stopping the clock with 47 seconds left and setting up a third-and-3.
“We still had the ability to stop the clock,” Payton said. “We felt we were going to make it to the stop. We did not make it.”
But it was risky given the small margin for error Peyton repeatedly mentions.
On third down, Zappe threw deep left to Parker, who won the one-on-one battle against All-Pro cornerback Pat Certain. Two short passes to Zappé followed, setting up Ryland for a 56-yard touchdown. He had already missed a field goal and a point attempt after the game. But he scored the winning shot with just two seconds left.
“Just disappointed,” Justin Simmons said of the safety. “A chance to win a big game at home. I don’t know what all the playoffs look like, but I know we had to win this one. Disappointed.”
The loss will raise questions about what’s next for the Broncos. The offseason depends on what the Broncos do with Wilson. His five-year, $245 million extension is set to take effect next year. Moving on will come at a significant price, and that’s not to mention how Payton and the Broncos would go about replacing the veteran for whom Denver traded five draft picks and three players less than two years ago.
“I’m just worried about next week and playing great football,” Wilson said. “I came here to win and win a championship for us and find a way to do that. Obviously, I love being here with these guys, these teammates. I’m excited to keep playing the ball and playing hard for us.”
However the Broncos navigate from here, they need to reduce the margin for error. Or there will be more sad Christmas scenarios.
(Photo of Christian Barmore sacking Russell Wilson: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
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