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Washed up. Broncos collapse, blow 18-point lead in loss to Commanders

Kareem Jackson ejected for hit on Logan Thomas
Commanders Broncos Football
Posted at 6:53 AM, Sep 18, 2023

DENVER — Excellence assaulted the senses on a sun-splashed Sunday afternoon.

The Broncos, seeking to avoid the indignity of back-to-back home losses, held a pregame ceremony for Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware. At halftime, Terrell Davis, his career immortalized in Canton, strode to the lectern, and explained why the Super Bowl XXXIII team, introduced to roaring cheers, remains the best in franchise history because of its 17 wins and back-to-back crowns.

Watching the players smile and laugh brought a reminder of what winning looked like. What transpired from the current Broncos cemented the notion that this team is clinging to relevancy, unable to finish or produce a big play when it matters most.

Final score: Commanders 35, Broncos 33.

“I’m not worried about what anyone has to say. Everyone is going to write us off, and we’re 0-2. Everyone is going to have their opinions and they’re going to say what they are going to say. But that doesn’t change that we have a game next week in Miami," safety Justin Simmons said. "We’ve got to go win the game. I’m not going to pay attention to what anyone has to say. At the end of the day, we’ve got to go play these games. We have to find ways to win, and we will win.”

Even when things go right, they go wrong, leaving Denver in a 0-2 ditch that few teams ever navigate.

The Broncos had one last breath. Trailing by eight, they got the ball back with 50 seconds remaining. There was no Shedeur Sanders to save them. Russell Wilson, whose terrific start was sabotaged by two turnovers, took over at the 12-yard line with 48 seconds left. The drive began with a false start on Mike McGlinchey. Hope flickered as Brandon Johnson caught a 50-yard Hail Mary with no time left. But Denver's two-point conversion to Courtland Sutton failed on two levels — no interference was called as Sutton hoped and Jerry Jeudy was open on the opposite side of the end zone.

"I know people are going to say it's the same old Broncos, but I guarantee you it's not," McGlinchey said. "It's about having pride and doing your job."

The Broncos opened a 21-3 lead in the first half as rookie receiver Marvin Mims Jr. electrified the sellout crowd and the defense delivered three sacks. Russell Wilson had a near-perfect quarterback rating, then fumbled, and the spiral began. Broncos coach Sean Payton was critical of Wilson afterward for the communication in the huddle and getting to the line of scrimmage slowly. Wilson finished 18 of 32 for 308 yards and three touchdowns. He has played better, but also struggled in big moments.

"There were a number of drives where we were late w/personnel, getting out of the huddle we took a while. That has to change," Payton said. "We had to burn TOs in the 1st half and I’m not used to that. We have to be better. I have to be better. Russ has to be sharper with getting the play out, and then we have to look at how much we have in. If we need to wristband it, we will.”

Over 5 minutes of game time bridging the end of the second half and third quarter, Washington erased Denver’s advantage on receiving touchdowns from Logan Thomas, which led to Kareem Jackson’s ejection, and Terry McLaurin, who caught a 30-yard dime from Sam Howell for the score. Howell carved up the Broncos in his first road start. completing 8 of 9 passes for 122 yards in the second half.

Multiple players admitted that Jackson's ejection impacted the defense. Jackson was not in the locker room afterward.

During the time of Washington’s comeback, the Broncos three drives netted minus yards and produced two punts and a turnover. A running faucet of optimism became a drip of misery.

The Commanders erased an 18-point deficit by outscoring the Broncos over the end of the second and midway fourth 32-3. Howell looked bound for Canton with his second-half wizardry, Denver was unable to get off the field and, its one big play sack from Drew Sanders negated by Fabian Morneau’s holding. Washington took that gift as Brian Robinson chugged in from 15 yards to make it 35-24 with 7:11 remaining. As the Broncos struggled on the next drive, the boos began as Denver failed to go no-huddle.

Briefly, the Broncos caught a break when Washington coach Ron Rivera made a questionable decision. After Jonathon Cooper’s strip sack, Rivera elected for a 59-yard field goal rather than punt and pin Denver’s gasping’s offense. Joey Slye pushed it wide right, his second miss of 55-plus. Denver capitalized with a plodding nine-play, 38-yard drive. What looked like a touchdown vanished when Chase Young sacked Wilson on third-and-2. Wil Lutz’s 31-yard field goal shoved Denver ahead 24-21.

It was short-lived.

Washington responded against a Denver defense that made Howell look really, really comfortable. The inability to finish has been a common thread for the Broncos for years. The Commanders’ drive showed Denver’s vulnerability. With Howell carving up the defense and Brian Robinson finding his footing, Washington regained the lead, 28-24 with 13:25 remaining.

Since the NFL went to seven playoff teams in each conference in 2020, only one of the 23 teams to start the season 0-2 wound up reaching the playoffs: the 2022 Bengals. And just two teams since 1966 have lost their first two home games and made the postseason.

Forget playing for high stakes. The Broncos need to secure a win first.

After honoring Ware before the game, the Broncos finally looked like a team that would make those wearing gold jackets proud.

In a well-conceived first drive that included more runs for playmakers, the Broncos zoomed down the field in seven plays, covering 61 yards. It featured Jerry Jeudy, making his season debut, putting a defender on skates, Wilson striding for 14 yards, Mims Jr. running a reverse and speedy rookie Jaleel McLaughlin racing into the end zone from 6 yards out behind fullback Mike Burton and left tackle Garett Bolles.

It helped that when the Broncos won the toss and chose not to onside kick. The defense showed elastic but held firm when Randy Gregory delivered the team’s first sack of the season. It pushed Slye’s field goal attempt to 49 yards, and he pushed it wide right.

The Broncos held a 7-3 advantage after the first. There were encouraging signs and reminders of the work ahead. Denver produced two first-quarter sacks after serving as one of five teams not to post one last week, and Josey Jewell made a nifty deflection in pass coverage. But the Broncos struggled to get off the field on third down.

That seemed of little concern with the way the offense became caffeinated. After their clumsy plodding and huffing and puffing last week, the Broncos let down their hair and went to the air with Wilson’s 60-yard strike to Mims. The rookie split the safeties and was college open, tracking the moon ball like a center fielder at Coors Field for the first touchdown of his career. It was a one-play, 12-second drive, the Broncos line holding firm and providing Wilson a clean pocket against six rushers for his third touchdown pass of the season.

Given Denver’s recent history, fans figured it was a snapshot. Turns out it was Payton shaking a Polaroid picture. Holding a 14-3 advantage, Wilson delivered his best pass as a Bronco, a rainbow in stride to Mims down the far sideline for a 60-yard gain.

"It's awesome to have all tht stuff, my first touchdown," Mims said. "But I want to win."

Moments later, Wilson zipped a dart to a wide open Brandon Johnson on a crossing route for the score, his first at home in his career. A stunned crowd struggled to wrap its head around the lava spewing. Denver’s 18-point lead was the biggest with Wilson at quarterback and represented more points in 21 minutes than they scored last week or averaged last season (16.9).

It's impossible to overstate Mims impact. The first three times he touched the ball he caught a pass for 53 yards and a touchdown, 60 yards and returned a punt 45 yards. Payton doesn’t need his morning lattes, just watched a video of Mims to feel awake and alive.

Of course, this is the Broncos, so nothing comes easily. Washington countered as Wilson failed to throw the ball away and was stripped. The Commanders capitalized on the turnover, producing a plodding drive that tightened the score and left Denver without captain Kareem Jackson. On fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Howell hit Logan Thomas in the end zone. The former college quarterback and tight end held onto the ball as Jackson left his feet, led with his shoulder, and lowered his head, slamming Thomas into the ground. Offensive lineman Saahdig Charles raced to get into Jackson’s face and center Nick Gates joined the fracas as well. Upon review, the veteran strong safety was flagged for unnecessary roughness and ejected from the game. Jackson faces a potential suspension after being fined $14,819 for a similar hit last week on Raiders receiver Jakobi Meyers that put them in concussion protocol.

From the ejection to dejection, the Broncos were left searching for answers.

"It’s disappointing that we let them back into the game,” Payton said. “We have to be better than that and it starts with me.”

DeMarcus Ware honored
The Broncos honored Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware in a pregame ceremony with ownership presenting him with a self-portrait. Ware teamed with Von Miller to write a diary of havoc in the playoffs as the Broncos won Super Bowl 50. It put on a bow on his career.

“Coming to Denver changed my life,” Ware said.

Ware also believes the Broncos can turn it around Payton, who coached in Dallas when Ware played there.

Footnotes
At halftime, the Super Bowl XXXIII team was feted. The best team in franchise history set records for regular season wins (14) and total wins (17) and remains the only back-to-back champions in franchise lore. Some of those who returned for the ceremony included John Elway, Terrell Davis, the emcee, Howard Griffith, Ed McCaffrey, Rod Smith, Alfred Williams, Neil Smith, Jason Elam, and Tom Rouen. …

Jonathon Cooper produced two sacks in the first three quarters. He entered the game with 4.5 in his career.