ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After getting away from all the things that had propelled them into the AFC playoff conversation, the Denver Broncos are vowing to lean on the lessons they learned during their five-game winning streak to do it again following a close loss at Houston.
The Broncos (6-6) are trying to join the 1970 Bengals, 2015 Chiefs and 2018 Colts as the only teams to make the playoffs after starting 1-5, a quest that took a hit Sunday with their 22-17 loss to C.J. Stroud and the Texans.
Russell Wilson hadn't thrown any interceptions during Denver's winning streak but three of his passes were picked off Sunday, including his last one with 9 seconds left when Jimmie Ward intercepted him in the end zone on a chaotic third-and-goal play.
The pass was intended for tight end Lucas Krull, whose next NFL catch will be his first.
“I don't blame you for looking at that play and kind of wondering where people are and where the ball is going,” coach Sean Payton said Monday. “I was doing the same thing.”
Denver's defense had made takeaways its trademark during the streak, collecting 16 of them, including 10 fumble recoveries. But they had zero Sunday and couldn't bail out an offense that was out of synch.
Even the Broncos' superb special teams failed them when Riley Dixon's punt was blocked in the first half.
Still, they were 8 yards away from stealing the game, something safety PJ Locke took solace in.
“In those types of games when you’re minus-3 in takeaways, most of the time you’re getting beat down. We were 8 yards away from winning the game. That’s huge," Locke said. "And all the things that we saw on film are correctable.
“Like I said, I’m not worried, man. I feel like we’re headed in the right direction. If we get those things fixed up, we’ll be just fine.”
He said the Broncos know exactly what it'll take to go on another heater and make the playoffs for the first time since 2016: all the things they'd done before their slip-up Sunday.
The Broncos have two games left against the Chargers (5-7) starting Sunday at Los Angeles, along with a visit from the Patriots (2-10) and trips to Las Vegas (5-7) and Detroit (9-3).
“All year long we’ve said we’re a tough group, a resilient group, and we’ve shown that,” center Lloyd Cushenberry III said. “Now, these next five games, it’s put up or shut up."
The Broncos finally outscored an opponent in the third quarter, but it was only by 7-3 after yet another sputtering series coming out of the locker room. For the second straight week and fifth time this season, the Broncos went three-and-out to start the third quarter. Overall, Denver has been outscored 74-27 in the period.
WHAT NEEDS WORK
Ten times the Broncos have deferred so they get the ball coming out of halftime, but they have zero points to show for it. They've had eight punts and two field goal attempts, one of which was blocked. The other went wide right.
“Yesterday, I started off the first play of the second half with a naked (bootleg)," Payton said. “We take a minus play, so it’s a bad call by me. I don’t think there’s one thing specifically” that's causing the second-half opening drives to falter.
"But certainly, it’s something we’ve talked about. We may look at putting together a second script between the second quarter and the start of the third quarter. That’s not going to impact whether we defer or not,” Payton added.
Nobody's stock was up after the Broncos blew a chance to gain a foothold in the playoff race.
ILB Alex Singleton's personal foul on C.J. Stroud turned a fourth-and-7 field goal try into a first down the Texans quickly converted into a touchdown, and that four-point swing necessitated the Broncos going for the TD instead of a field goal at the end.
CB Patrick Surtain II injured his left leg early in the game but returned.
0-for-11 — The Broncos' third-down rate.
329 — Touchdown throws for Wilson, surpassing Dan Marino for the second-most ever (Peyton Manning, 181) in his first 12 NFL seasons.
102 — Interceptions thrown by Wilson. By contrast, Manning had 181 interceptions and Marino 185 through their first dozen seasons.
The Broncos are 3-5 against AFC opponents and can't afford another loss within their conference to have any hope of winning playoff tiebreakers. That means they have to beat the Chargers on the road Sunday for the first time since 2019.