Denver, CO. — Depending on which metric is used, the 7-7 Denver Broncos’ chances of earning a Wildcard playoff bid are very unlikely but still alive. The Broncos currently have a playoff probability of approximately 20% after losing to the Detroit Lions in Week 15 to the tune of a 42-17 beatdown.
With their backs against the wall, Sean Payton’s Broncos need to win the remaining three games on the schedule that start with a Christmas Eve game on Sunday Night Football as they host the 3-11 New England Patriots.
The Pats are coming off a 27-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and many have begun to speculate that six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Bill Belichick could soon part ways with the franchise.
But it’s a Belichick team, so the Broncos can’t sleep on New England. What’ll it take to win?
Here are three keys to a Broncos victory against the Patriots that’ll serve as an early Christmas gift in Denver.
Wilson Must Avoid Paralysis by Analysis
Professional football isn’t rocket science. We make it more complicated than it needs to be, as the simple objective is to gain first downs and score touchdowns on offense while preventing them on defense.
Time after time, Broncos QB Russell Wilson is missing wide-open receivers on a variety of plays. That can be anything from five yards ahead of a defensive back to cutting underneath defensive zone coverages. Payton has gone out of his way to simplify a Denver offense by orchestrating a dink-and-dunk short passing attack with the occasional moon ball to Courtland Sutton deep, downfield.
To be clear, Wilson has studied more defenses and has a significantly more advanced understanding of the game of football than I ever will as an analyst or draft evaluator. But perhaps, the 35-year-old signal-caller is suffering some analysis paralysis and is overthinking this game that he’s played for most of his life.
The stats guy on social media will be the first to point out that Wilson currently boasts a 66.3 completion percentage and is a top-10 QB in total passing touchdowns with 24. But the film continues to show missed opportunities, and this week, Russ faces a top-10 defense that has only surrendered 17 passing scores (tied for fourth-best) this season.
Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel or dazzle the masses with highlight plays from his heyday in Seattle, Wilson needs to keep it simple and take what’s given to him by opposing defenses. On his three-step drops from under center, Russ has the arm strength and footwork to laser in on tight end Adam Trautman on a slant route or get a fastball to rookie wideout Marvin Mims Jr. on a crossing route.
Holding onto the football for an excessive amount of time has resulted in sacks, turnovers, and utter chaos amid broken plays. As former Broncos QB Peyton Manning is famous for saying, “You can’t go broke, taking a profit.”
Payton Obliged to Outclass Belichick
The Broncos were outmatched and beaten down in front of a national audience last week on primetime. The loss showed dysfunction and the apex of frustration as Payton launched a screaming tirade directed at Wilson because of the offense’s lackluster performance in the red zone on one third-quarter drive.
No matter what your opinion is about the one-sided confrontation, the fact of the matter is that it was a bad look for both coach and player, as well as a franchise that has a lot to play for these next three weeks. Winning cures everything in the NFL, and Denver’s dysfunctional duo has an opportunity to get back on the same page in a home game against the Patriots.
Oddly enough, Belichick has received similar criticism for his handling of QB Mac Jones amid the disastrous 3-11 season led by New England’s pathetic offense. The flip-flop nature of going between Jones and backup Bailey Zappe has made many folks wonder whether the future Hall-of-Fame coach has lost touch with the offense or with his team entirely.
For all their differences in style and personality, Payton and Belichick share many similarities. Aside from being shoe-ins for the Hall of Fame, hoisting Lombardi trophies as head coaches, and earning a reputation for being among the absolute best of all time, both men come from the Bill Parcells coaching tree. They’ve also endured times of turmoil, including ‘Bountygate’ and ‘Deflategate,’ while also finding redemption in the NFL.
Payton boasts a .624 regular-season winning percentage (159-96) compared to Belichick’s .651 (264-117). In addition to being able to beat one of the league’s best on Christmas Eve, Payton can also mend fences with Wilson and nurture his team in a way that has escaped ‘The Evil Emperor’ Belichick during his most recent chapter in New England.
Lead a Defensive Assault on Zappe
Vance Joseph’s defense made Lions QB Jared Goff look like the second coming of Tom Brady last weekend. The Broncos managed just two sacks against Goff as he threw for 278 yards and five touchdowns en route to Denver’s 42-17 bludgeoning in Detroit.
In pass rusher Nik Bonitto’s absence, Broncos defenders failed to apply pressure on Goff as the defensive line was continually blown off the line of scrimmage. Linebackers Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton were exposed in pass coverage by rookie tight end Sam LaPorta, who caught three touchdowns last Saturday night. Denver’s impressive secondary was unable to create the same barrage of takeaways because it was forced to play on its heels the entire game.
The Broncos might be playing Brady’s former team, but starting Zappe is far from six-time World Champ. The 24-year-old was drafted out of Western Kentucky in the fourth round in 2022 and has played in seven games for New England thus far. He’s coming off a loss to the Chiefs, where he threw for 180 yards and a touchdown.
Denver must get to Zappe at all costs. Whether that be through stunts, twists, blitz packages, disguises, or spies, the goal should undoubtedly be to put him on his back and cause consistent duress.
Zappe was sacked four times last week in addition to a fumble and interception, as the young QB is very turnover-prone. He’s been sacked 13 times in the seven games that he’s played this season behind a rag-tag Patriots offensive line.
Joseph’s unit can’t afford another embarrassing outing that showcases missed tackles, blown assignments, and a lack of preparation. If the Broncos can’t get to Zappe in the backfield, the ‘Belichick Grinch’ could quite literally “loot” Denver’s Christmas on Sunday night.