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DENVER, Colo. — Sean Payton pressed the wrong button.
With one minute left in the game, the Patriots were content to go to overtime. They had punted on three consecutive drives. Those three drives combined for six yards. They hadn’t picked up a first down.
So, facing a 23-23 tie with 58 seconds on the clock and the ball inside their own 20, the Pats ran the ball.
Sean Payton had two buttons in front of him.
One was to accept New England’s white flag. He could let the clock tick down and take a fresh start in overtime.
The second option was to reject overtime. He had all three of his timeouts. He could call them after each of the Patriots runs. If his defense could stop New England from picking up a first down, the Patriots would punt with about 40 seconds on the clock. Given how the Patriots punter had fared during the game, Denver would catch the punt at about their own 40. They’d need another 20 yards or so to try a field goal, either through a big return—which they’d already gotten once—or a couple of quick passes to the boundary.
Payton pressed the second button, which turned out to be the wrong button.
Denver bottled up the first run for a six-yard gain.
Denver stuffed the second run for one yard.
On 3rd & 3, the Pats hucked a ball up the sideline for a 27-yard gain that carried them across midfield.
New England had enough time to run two more plays, setting up a 56-yard, game-winning field goal, which rookie kicker Chad Ryland made. The Patriots won 26-23.
“We felt like we would get the stop,” Payton said. “We were not able to. All of a sudden, the script is flipped.”
Payton’s decision to force the issue in regulation could have been justified at the time, but his decision led to the Broncos’ doom. The Broncos’ head coach wasn’t the only one with dirt on his hands, though. Just look at the Broncos’ star players.
Denver’s superstar, cornerback Pat Surtain II, was in man-to-man coverage on DeVante Parker on that final third down. He couldn’t prevent the catch.
“I was driving on the cross,” Surtain said. “He went on a double move. [I] should have kept my leverage, but [I] have to correct that.”
Earlier in the game, Parker beat him on a similar play up the sideline for 30 yards, setting up a New England touchdown and a 16-7 deficit for Denver.
Surtain has had a great season, but his worst game came at the worst possible time.
That third-quarter touchdown was almost prevented by Denver’s other defensive star. On 3rd & 9, quarterback Bailey Zappe patted the ball, stepped up in the pocket, leaked out of the side of the pocket and then found tight end Mike Gesicki in the back of the end zone.
All-Pro safety Justin Simmons came within inches of tipping the ball away from Gesicki. If he’d lept a hair farther, New England’s touchdown would have been a field goal instead.
And that touchdown wouldn’t have stung so badly if the Broncos had found points on a promising second-quarter drive.
With a 7-3 lead and six minutes left in the first half, quarterback Russell Wilson found tight end Lucas Krull for an 11-yard gain over the middle that brought the Broncos to midfield.
But it was called back because guard Quinn Meinerz, arguably the Broncos’ best offensive player this season, pancaked a linebacker in pass protection and finished the block. When he jumped on the linebacker, though, he threw a forearm into the defender’s forehead.
That’s a 15-yarder, and the Broncos punted a few plays later.
The Broncos might not have needed to climb back from a 23-7 deficit in the fourth quarter if they had receiver Courtland Sutton—the Broncos’ other arguable top player this season—in the second half. But he sustained an early concussion, and the offense dried up without him.
“It is tough any time you lose a good player like that,” Payton said. “I think it happened early in the game, and there were a couple of adjustments that we made, and then you go play.”
Denver didn’t need its “A” game to beat New England. They simply needed a little more from their stars.
Or more from the head coach or quarterback that they spent significant money and even more significant draft capital on.
Payton didn’t find a way to build an offense without Sutton. In his defense, I don’t know how you build something successful with burnt-out running backs, and receivers and tight ends that can’t create separation.
Wilson provided a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives (complete with successful two-point conversions) that could remind Broncos Country of the Pre-Super Bowl John Elway Era in the right light, or the Tim Tebow Era in the wrong light.
“I was proud of how he battled, especially when we were down two touchdowns,” Payton said. “He is fighting and gets us back in it. It is difficult to do and yet he did it in pretty timely fashion.”
Wilson also walked himself into five sacks worth 45 yards. On one of them, he turned his back away from the line of scrimmage twice before going down.
A little more from Wilson might have been enough.
A little more from Payton might have been enough.
A little more from Surtain might have been enough.
A little more from Simmons might have been enough.
A little more from Meinerz might have been enough.
A little more of Sutton might have been enough.
Outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper isn’t pointing fingers, though.
“We just have to stick together,” he said after the game. “That’s the whole point of staying together as a team. It’s not all on one person, it’s not on one guy, it’s not on one coach, it’s on us all. We win, and we lose as a team. Whenever you feel that little bit of doubt, you lean on your brother, you lean on your teammate. You lean on your captains and the coaches of this team. You believe, and you trust, and you go back to work the next week and focus on that.”
After this season, if the final two weeks play out like expected, we’ll probably say that one more win would have been enough for a spot in the playoffs.
Denver can still finish with a 9-8 record, but that’s unlikely to get them into the postseason. According to The New York Times Playoff Simulator, Denver has a 13% chance to earn a spot if they win both of their last two games.
“I don’t know if there are a lot of words,” outside linebacker Jonathan Cooper said. “Just frustrated. Losing sucks. That’s just how it is, but regardless, we have to stick together. We’ve been having these tough games. Week after week it seems like we’re right there, we’re so close. Coach keeps saying it and we keep saying it. We want things to change and we’re working our [butts] off, but obviously we have to do more.”