ENGLEWOOD — The juxtaposition threatened logic.
With everything on the line, the Broncos delivered an offensive performance worthy of leather helmets and mirror-lid television for 45 minutes. When their best was required, they provided their worst offensively. The 60,186 human otterpops in attendance – there were a season high 16,015 no-shows – rained down boos in the third quarter, a blend of anger and frustration.
And just when you thought it could not get worse, it did. In a 10-second sequence late in the third quarter, the Patriots scored a pair of touchdowns, threatening to crush the Broncos’ playoff dreams and drawing into question Russell Wilson’s future.
Then, a Christmas miracle, if only briefly. Using an uptempo offense, the Broncos overcame a 15-point fourth quarter deficit, tying the score at 23-all with 2:53 remaining. After a quick three-and-out the Patriots took over and the Broncos burned timeouts trying to get the ball back rather than take it to overtime.
New England capitalized as Chad Ryland nailed a 56-yard with two seconds remaining, sending the Broncos to a heart-in-a-blender 26-23 loss.
"We felt like we could get a stop. And we couldn't and the script flipped," coach Sean Payton said. "It was a disappointing end."
The final score only hinted of the disappointment. Nothing could match make up for this under the tree as Payton's decisions late drew criticism.
"I don't even have words. We had everything in front of us and we couldn't get it done," linebacker Jonathon Cooper said. "This one really hurts."
Down 23-15, the Broncos marched down the field, navigating 78 yards on 11 plays. With noses red and fingers tingling, Wilson, who cut the fingers on his throwing glove, connected with Brandon Johnson for a 21-yard touchdown. A short toss to Javonte Williams tied the score.
The Broncos entered the Sunday night primetime event knowing they required three straight victories to wiggle into relevance. Instead, it nearly faded to black with mind-bending third quarter ineptitude. The Broncos totaled minus-15 yards. And the Patriots scored 20 points on two passing touchdowns and a scoop and score on a fumbled Marvin Mims Jr. kickoff. Just like that, the promise of the first postseason berth since 2015 began to dissolve on a refrigerator cold evening.
As Denver climbed back into contention with a five-game winning streak and 6-2 record over the last eight games, a simple truth emerged. The Broncos only won when they won the turnover battle. The Broncos fumbled twice, and their passing game, for three quarters, proved incapable of doing any heavy lifting with Courtland Sutton lost in the second quarter with a concussion and Wilson and the offensive line reaching new depths of slumps.
"Overall it was not good enough offensively," Payton said.
Wilson has played solid at times this season, but the past three games began to raise legitimate questions about his fit in Payton’s offense. During the 1-2 stretch, Wilson had four touchdowns and five turnovers. There is no diversity in the attack. It is the NBA equivalent of layups and 3-pointers. And there were no shots beyond the arc Sunday. Mims was the only receiver to catch a pass in the first half as Wilson was 10 of 13 for 66 yards.
"I was proud of the way Russ battled," Payton said. "I told the players I am disappointed and disappointed for them."
Even as Wilson tried to gain rhythm, his line failed him. Wilson was sacked five times for 44 yards entering the fourth quarter as the Patriots’ Christian Barmore wrecked drives. The Patriots secured a 23-7 lead on a 11-yard touchdown reception by Mike Gesicki and a scoop and score by Marte Mapu.
Denver sought its fifth straight win at home for the first time since 2014. The offense showed life midway through the fourth when Wilson connected to a diving Mims for a 47-yard gain. This is the thing about Wilson this season. He is easier to appreciate than explain. He overcame a 21-point deficit in Chicago for the team’s first win. He found a leaping Sutton late to topple the Vikings.
But given the time and place, this was his biggest comeback. Until it wasn’t.
"We showed heart," said Wilson, who finished 25 of 37 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. "We needed one more big play."
The Broncos could not possibly lose this game, could they? The thought, blasphemous at kickoff, began to take on veracity as the Patriots captured their first lead early in the third quarter. Ezekiel Elliott hurdled Ja’Quan McMillian for a 15-yard touchdown. Kicker Chris Ryland chunked the extra point, but a blend of anger and resentment reverberated throughout the sellout crowd with the Patriots ahead 9-7. For good reason.
All week, the Broncos talked confidently about rebounding, of bathing in the spotlight. The defense wanted nothing more than to Febreze the stench from the Lions game. On the first play nose tackle D.J. Jones mauled quarterback Bailey Zappe, popping the ball loose for a sack and pouncing on it at the 6-yard line.
The Broncos accepted the present and re-gifted it. On four plays, Denver moved the ball five yards, and that only hints of the cringe. Wilson nearly threw an interception on third down, and Javonte Williams plunged short on fourth down on an RPO that featured a walk-in touchdown for Wilson if he keeps it. It was surprising Denver did not take the three points given the projected fist fight nature of this game.
In weather suited for the Iditarod, the teams did not produce a first down in the first four possessions. But Denver’s first three started in New England territory. In fact, their average starting field position of the 26-yard line was the best for any team in any quarter this season, per ESPN. Marvin Mims Jr., all but securing a Pro Bowl berth, salvaged a score with an electric 52-yard punt return, leaving him at 19.4 per attempt for the season. Following a Wilson to fullback Mike Burton nifty completion, Williams plowed in for his second rushing touchdown of the season.
Denver led 7-0 with 5:15 left in the first. The Patriots offense showed all the explosiveness of a sparkler but managed a scoring drive. Zappe connected with Jalen Reagor for 28 yards, setting up a 33-yard Chad Ryland field goal.
It was a forgettable first half. The only way the Broncos were losing was losing the ball. Williams fumbled in the first half, sabotaging a scoring opportunity even though it appeared left guard Ben Powers pounced on the ball. The Broncos attempted to steal the three points lost on the first possession when Wil Lutz attempted a 57-yard field goal, but it sailed wide left at the buzzer.
The first three minutes were nobody’s Christmas wish, unless you had the under. Wilson finished 10 of 13 for 66 yards and one completion to a receiver (Mims). Jerry Jeudy appeared opened but was not targeted until nine minutes. He finally got involved as the offense found its way.
Instead of celebrating the biggest win of his Broncos' career, Wilson was asked about his future in Denver. He said he was focused on the next game.
"I came here to win a championship," Wilson said.
Everything seemed possible. Then the Broncos took a big kick in the teeth, vanishing their smiles on Christmas Eve.
Courtland Sutton went to the locker room in the first half with a head injury and was ruled out with a concussion. He has been the Broncos’ best offensive player this season with 10 touchdowns. …
Safety Kareem Jackson returned from suspension this week but was not activated. The Broncos must decide on his roster exemption Monday. He is likely to return, though it is not simple because he is no longer a starter and does not play special teams. However, he is a captain, and as respected as player in the locker room. …
As listless as the first half was, the halftime light show, equipped with sky divers, was on point. The highlight of the first 30 minutes were the fireworks and a thoughtful hand-written Christmas card from the Broncos PR staff.