Frustration boiled over late in the third quarter of the Denver Broncos’ Saturday night loss in Detroit to the Lions.
Given 36 hours to simmer, coach Sean Payton offered an explanation for why he was seen screaming in the face of quarterback Russell Wilson following Denver’s failure in a goal-to-go situation. The most important point coming from Payton: His eruption is not a sign of internal discord.
“Nothing more to share,” Payton said Monday when asked if he had anything more to share regarding the interaction. “It certainly, you know, in-game intensity, heat of the moment, all of those things. But nothing more to add.”
Payton added he hadn’t addressed the matter with the team nor Wilson because there was nothing to address and they haven’t held a team meeting since Saturday’s game, stating he and Wilson have a “great relationship.”
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So why, then, did Payton get so upset in that moment?
“Let’s go through it real quick,” Payton explained. “The second down call is the call that has a chance to be reviewed, that’s Jaleel [McLaughlin]’s play, and so look. Do I … yeah. Hindsight does he get in or not, it’s still hard to tell.”
The play Payton first referenced was a pass to McLaughlin, in which it appeared as if he’d broken the plane for a touchdown when he spun out of an initial hit and was met at the goal line by Lions linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Alex Anzalone. Denver still had third and fourth down to work with, though, discouraging Payton from challenging.
On the next play, Javonte Williams received a toss to the left and was tackled near the goal line by linebacker Derrick Barnes. With a decent vantage point, Payton trusted his eyes in that moment, declining to throw the red flag.
“Javonte’s (run), I had a good enough angle on that, and so we’re sitting at the half yard-line and I’m thinking that we have a good goal-line plan in this game,” he explained on Monday. … “I didn’t feel strong enough that we had crossed the goal line. It certainly looks close. My history relative to (challenging) that type of call has just been average at best.”
Denver still had another chance to score from mere feet away from the end zone. On fourth-and-goal, fullback Michael Burton received the handoff from Wilson and crossed into the end zone easily, but an offside penalty on right guard Quinn Meinerz negated the play, backing Denver to just outside the 5-yard line. Denver settled for a field goal to make the score 28-10, wiping out the Broncos’ best chance of a second-half comeback.
“The anger and frustration in that sequence comes from the fourth-down call and the touchdown then was later called a penalty,” Payton said. “And now we’re sitting at fourth-and-call-it-6 instead of fourth-and-half-a yard. We’re trying to get within two scores, it’s an important sequence relative to the game of trying to climb back in it.”
The Broncos did not, in fact, climb back into the game, falling to the Lions by a final score of 42-17. After the sequence in question, Denver surrendered a six-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a 12-yard Jahmyr Gibbs touchdown run, effectively ending Denver’s chances.
Wilson was eventually pulled from the already-decided game with less than two minutes left to play. Payton delivered notably short answers when asked about the sequence in question after the game, pointing to the offside penalty as the cause of his anger with a brief “that’s all.” He doubled down on such an explanation Monday, ideally ending the conversation regarding the interaction.
At 7-7, the Broncos have already traveled a rather winding road to this point. They began 2023 with one win in their first six games before turning things around, winning five straight to improve to 6-5. With two losses in their last three games, though, time is running out on their chance to pull off an improbable playoff run, increasing pressure and heightening emotions.
As Payton said Monday, his reaction came in the heat of the moment. The heat will only increase in these last three weeks.
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