ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — It seemed unfathomable not that long ago for the Denver Broncos to pin their hopes of ending a six-year run of losing records on a defense that surrendered 10 touchdowns in their historic meltdown in Miami.
That is, until the same group that needed a mercy kneel-down from the Dolphins to avoid allowing the most points — 73 — ever in the regular season managed to hold the best quarterback on the planet out of the end zone entirely last weekend.
The Broncos skedaddled into their bye week at 3-5 after emphatically ending their 16-game skid against the Kansas City Chiefs with a 24-9 thrashing in which they limited Patrick Mahomes & Co. to three field goals while piling up five takeaways to go with a fourth-down stop.
After beating Andy Reid for the first time in eight years and Mahomes for the first time in 13 tries, the Broncos somewhat surprisingly stood pat at the NFL trade deadline rather than offer up the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Josey Jewell and Justin Simmons at bargain prices.
So, they'll bring back the same defensive group that held Mahomes to a single touchdown in eight red-zone trips this season and an offense that features the league's only trio of running backs with touchdown catches in 2023 as they seek to snap their six-year skid of losing records and even dream of ending their seven-year playoff drought.
With these aspirations comes a bushelful of what-ifs.
What if they had made halftime leads hold up at home against two underdogs: the Raiders — who just fired their coach and GM — and the Commanders — who just traded their pair of star pass rushers?
What if coach Sean Payton had played more to his roster early on and shown the kind of patience with his ground game the way he did last week against the Chiefs?
The Broncos might have swept their nemesis, whom they lost to 19-8 at Arrowhead Stadium when the defense did its job but the offensive game plan lacked creativity and the execution wasn't up to the task like it was 17 days later.
Although the second half of their schedule looks a lot less daunting that it did even a week ago with the Vikings, Browns, Patriots and Raiders all navigating issues at quarterback, plenty of question marks remain for the Broncos, especially on offense.
Quarterback Russell Wilson is playing a lot better than he did last year, but he often draws Payton's wrath for dubious decisions. Only five times in his 11-year career has Wilson thrown for fewer than 120 yards in a game and two have come in the last three weeks, both against Kansas City.
At Arrowhead Stadium, Wilson threw for just 95 yards with a pair of interceptions. He won the rematch in Denver with three touchdown passes and no interceptions but just 114 yards passing. And get this — only five of his 19 passes went beyond the line of scrimmage.
Wilson might not be the biggest problem in Denver, but he's nowhere near being the grand solution, either.
And there's actually a scenario in which we'll see Wilson get benched for backup Jarrett Stidham if the Broncos don't climb into contention down the stretch.
Stidham stepped in last year when the Raiders benched Derek Carr for the final two weeks to avoid any chance of him getting hurt and triggering $40.4 million in injury guaranteed money for 2023-24.
He might have to do the same thing in Denver if the Broncos decide it's too risky to keep playing Wilson, whose 2024 salary is fully guaranteed already, but whose 2025 salary of $37 million also gets locked in on March 17.
Here's the twist: Because injured players cannot be cut, if Wilson were to sustain a significant injury that prevented him from passing his physical in March, the Broncos would be on the hook for that $37 million in addition to his $39 million compensation in 2024.
If they decide to ride with Wilson as their QB long-term, there's no downside in continuing to start him no matter their record. But if they have any doubts, barring a contract restructuring, they might just decide to go with Stidham instead.
And that might invoke another what-if, over not trading away veterans for draft picks they could either use in a roster rebuild or as ammo to move up and grab a top-flight quarterback prospect.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl