BRONCOS

After weeks of living on the edge, the Broncos died on it in Houston

Dec 3, 2023, 5:44 PM | Updated: Dec 4, 2023, 12:22 pm

HOUSTON — In Texas, everything is bigger — except the margin for error the Broncos have.

In Buffalo, the Bills gave the Broncos some berth by having 12 players on the field when Wil Lutz attempted his game-winning field goal. Against Minnesota and Cleveland, Denver’s cushion came from backup quarterbacks who couldn’t execute the breadth of the Shanahan-McVay offense both teams run.

But a against a similar scheme with a quarterback playing at the top of his game … the margin vanished.

Thus, the 22-17 loss to the Houston Texans. serves as a reminder of where the Broncos sit at the point in their development.

They’re good enough to capitalize off of a top-tier team stumbling around to a lousy day. They’re good enough to take advantage of a team battling issues of its own — particularly at quarterback.

But they’re not yet good enough to win a game against an on-point foe — especially when they immolate themselves in their own miscues.

Houston’s wondrous rookie quarterback, C.J. Stroud, capitalized on miscues on the back end in coverage. Two passes to Nico Collins covering at least 50 yards in the first quarter led to 10 quick points en route to a 13-0 Texans lead.

And from there, the Broncos never caught up.

In their five-game winning streak, the Broncos lived on the edge of the sword.

Sunday in Houston, they died by it. The miscues on which they feasted against Green Bay, Kansas City, Buffalo, Minnesota and Cleveland belonged to the orange and blue.

The Broncos had season-highs in two categories: punts and turnovers. In the former, Sunday stood on its own. In the latter, it matched three other games — all defeats.

No wonder they lost.

AND YET THEY STILL HAD A CHANCE LATE

It spoke volumes about the Broncos’ resilience that they still had one final drive to try and save the game. And they got to the 8-yard line, converting a fourth down along the way, before the drive died on a Jimmie Ward end-zone interception of Russell Wilson.

Until then, it seemed like Denver’s resourcefulness and composure under pressure would serve it well. Four of their six wins this season included fourth-quarter comebacks.

“Well, to us, there’s no reason why we couldn’t have got it done,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “We’ve done it — more than probably anybody in the NFL at this point this year, and we were on the … 8-yard line. We we were right there knocking on the door to punch it in there.”

But that such heroics were required came down to the Broncos’ self-inflicted wounds.

Three Russell Wilson interceptions, including the game-clincher;
Alex Singleton committing an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty that turned fourth down into first-and-goal, and, subsequently, a Houston touchdown;
Miscommunication leading to one of two pass plays of at least 50 yards conceded to Houston wide receiver Nico Collins;
A zero-burger on third downs, where the Broncos went a dismal 0-for-11;
And that third-down bagel meant the Broncos couldn’t sustain drives often enough, as half of their 12 non-kneeldown possessions ended without a single first down.

Put those things together, and the Broncos were out of whack, unable to follow they path they’d discovered during their longest winning streak since Super Bowl 50. They lost the time-of-possession battle, saw their three running backs collectively average under 4.0 yards per carry.

“I thought we were sloppy for most of the game,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said.

He wasn’t wrong.

THE BRONCOS COULDN’T FOLLOW THEIR PATH TO SUCCESS

Sunday, regression — and one player’s ascension — hit them like a Will Anderson Jr. pass rush.

Start with Anderson, who had two sacks of Wilson and a deflected Riley Dixon punt. He wreaked havoc in other ways, too; he deflected a punt that set up a field goal, and deflected a pass that Derek Stingley Jr. intercepted, providing the first of Houston’s three second-half takeaways.

Both sacks set up three-and-outs. The deflected pass preceded a Stroud-to-Collins touchdown pass four plays later.

And then you have the regression … to the mean. The word “unsustainable” received more run in Colorado last week than during any seven-day stretch in the state’s 147-year history. It referred to the Broncos’ recent run of turnovers.

To wit: They had 10 fumble recoveries in the previous four games. No NFL team had notched that many in a four-game, single-season stretch since 2007.

So, when Jonathan Cooper had a chance to fall on a loose football jarred free by a Ja’Quan McMillian strip-sack of Stroud … it seemed pre-destined. Cooper had the football within his reach. But he didn’t corral it; it squirted away.

“I saw a couple of our guys jump on the ball, and then last minute, it kind of squirted out to the side, and then the Texans player jumped on it,” McMillian said.

“It just didn’t roll our way that time,” safety Justin Simmons said.

Someday, the Broncos might be able to overcome that.

But that’s not where this club is at its development. It needs the benevolent bounces, the mistake-free offense and the chance to look across the sideline and witness an understudy quarterback ready to start.

The Broncos had none of those Sunday. They remain a playoff contender. But they have only advanced as far as the precarious middle ground of the NFL, where defeat is one poor turn of the card away.

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After weeks of living on the edge, the Broncos died on it in Houston