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In the third quarter of the Broncos’ game against the Texans, PJ Locke blitzed the right side of the line of scrimmage and knocked the ball out of quarterback CJ Stroud’s hand. Jonathon Cooper was first to the loose ball, but he couldn’t control it, and Houston recovered.
While the Broncos had missed their opportunity to take over just outside the red zone, the Texans punted into the end zone for a touchback on the next play. The Broncos lost 51 yards.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, the Texans tipped and intercepted a pass. They scored a touchdown to take a 22-10 lead a few minutes later.
Who knows how the game could have played out if the Broncos had fallen on the ball after the strip sack?
“We weren’t able to make enough plays today,” head coach Sean Payton said after the game.
The Broncos didn’t make enough plays in any phase of the game. Their biggest problem was that their turnover luck dried up.
In the previous four games, they’d forced 15 turnovers. They’d turned the ball over three times. Their turnover margin was the best in the NFL in that stretch.
In their 22-17 loss to the Houston Texans on Sunday, the Broncos lost the turnover battle 3-0.
“We’ve been a team that’s played well with the takeaways and the giveaways, but that script flipped today,” head coach Sean Payton said after the game.
The Texans fumbled twice but recovered the ball both times. They threw four balls that were tipped or overthrown and landed near a Bronco, but the Broncos couldn’t come up with any of those either.
“When you’re minus-three in the turnover battle, that makes it really, really hard to win games,” Mike McGlinchey said.
The Broncos didn’t sustain the takeaways they’d produced over the past month. They didn’t sustain the lack of giveaways either. The formula that powered the Broncos to a five-game winning streak—take the ball away and don’t turn it over—fell apart in Houston.
And that’s not all.
Denver was one-for-three in the red zone, 0-for-11 on third down, lost the time of possession battle, and was out-gained by 72 yards. In the first half, the Broncos looked lost offensively and gave up explosive plays on defense.
“We just put ourselves in a little bit too big of a hole,” Payton said. “I’ll give it to our guys; we came back and battled.”
Denver got the ball back with 4:36 remaining, facing a five-point deficit. With the help of a couple of fourth-down conversions, they moved the ball down the field and had 1st & Goal from the eight-yard line with less than a minute on the clock.
In a road game against a team with a winning record, the Broncos should drool over that opportunity. Factor in that the Broncos had twice faced 13-point deficits, lost the turnover battle and all of their other miscues, and you could make the case that a chance at the end of regulation was their best-case scenario.
“We have a lot of heart and a lot of confidence in this locker room,” Courtland Sutton said after the game. “Guys know that we can go out there and compete with anybody. We had a chance. We had a chance. Guys went out there and played their butts off to give us a chance.”
The Broncos didn’t prove that they can overcome a big turnover deficit—they didn’t win the game—but they proved they don’t need to play their best football to have a chance to beat good teams.
That’s a small silver lining, given that the Broncos used up half of their breathing room on Sunday. If they lose one more game, they’ll have a great chance to make the playoffs. If they lose two more, they’ll need a hell of a lot of help to make the postseason.
They can only afford one more loss the rest of the way.
“With the way the season started, and then where we’re at right now, the margin for error obviously is slim,” Payton said. “We’re playing for a lot.”
While the margin for error the rest of the way is slim, the margin for error in any given game might not be as slim as we thought before Sunday. Denver’s D-level game was almost enough.
“I thought we were sloppy for most of the game,” Payton said. “We’ve got to do a better job. Credit [Texans head coach DeMeco] Ryans, Houston, those guys earned a hard-fought win. But we didn’t play our best football, and we’re going to have to down the stretch here.”
It’s a good sign that the Broncos put themselves in a position to win despite playing bad football. If they’d played their A-game, they probably would have beaten a likely playoff team.
But this isn’t college football. Wins and losses decide who makes the postseason.
The Broncos are two missteps from an eighth-consecutive postseason-free campaign.