Hail Mary can’t save day
BY CHRIS TOMASSON firstname.lastname@example.org
The Gazette, Colorado Springs
It looked as if it might be the moment that turned things around for the Broncos and first-year coach Sean Payton. As the clock hit all zeros, wide receiver Brandon Johnson emerged from a mass of bodies with the ball in his hands. Johnson had just caught a 50-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to get the Broncos within two points of Washington on the final play from scrimmage Sunday at Empower Field at Mile High. All they needed was a two-point conversion to force overtime and perhaps give Payton his first Denver win. “Brandon came down with the touchdown, which was huge,’’ Wilson said. Well, it didn’t turn out to be huge. Wilson failed to connect on a two-point conversion pass to Courtland Sutton as Denver’s players yelled for pass interference to be called. It wasn’t, and the Broncos lost 35-33 to the Commanders to fall to 0-2, with both losses at home. For much of Sunday, the Broncos looked to be on the verge of victory. They led 21-3 in the second quarter after scoring touchdowns on each of their first three possessions and rookie receiver Marvin Mims Jr. was putting on a show. But then they collapsed. Safety Kareem Jackson was ejected late in the first half after a vicious penalized hit on tight end Logan Thomas when he caught a touchdown pass. The Broncos offense stopped moving the ball. And the defense fell apart. “We let them back in,’’ Payton said. “In this league the leads can evaporate quickly, and this one did.” The Broncos had lost their opener at home the previous week, 17-16 to Las Vegas. And now things don’t look good at all for them. From the first Super Bowl season of 1966 through last season, 51 teams had started 0-2 with both losses at home, and just two ended up making the playoffs. And the Broncos now must play two straight games on the road, next Sunday at Miami, and Oct. 1 at Chicago. “I’m not worried about what anyone has to say,’’ said Broncos safety Justin Simmons. “Everyone is going to write us off. We’re 0-2. Everyone is going to have their opinions and they’re going to say what they are going to say. But that doesn’t change that we have a game next week in Miami. We’ve got to go win the game.” Simmons pointed the finger at the defense for the reason the Broncos fell apart Sunday. After Denver took the 21-3 lead, the Commanders went on a 32-3 spurt to go up 35-24. Washington quarterback Sam Howell completed 27 of 39 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns and was very effective throwing screen passes. Brian Robinson ran for 87 yards and caught two passes for 42 yards. “We didn’t do our end of the deal on defense,’’ Simmons said. The defense had started the game very well and so did Denver’s offense. Rookie Jaleel Mclaughlin scored on a 5-yard touchdown run and Wilson threw touchdown passes of 60 yards to Mims and 16 yards to Johnson. That made it 21-3 midway through the second quarter. Mims was barely used in the opener, catching two passes for nine yards. But on Sunday he had two catches for 113 yards, also catching a 53-yarder in the second quarter, a 45-yard punt return and two rushes for 10 yards. “It felt great,’’ Mims said. “Whenever my number is called, you got to do the best you can do.’’ A problem, though, was that Mims’ number wasn’t called in the second half except for one carry for two yards. He wasn’t targeted once through the air. Payton said “some of it was coverage driven” and some of it was the Broncos trying to get the ball to other receivers. Wilson did end up completing 18 of 32 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Commanders began to heat up on offense. Trailing 21-3, they took over at the Denver 49 after Wilson was sacked and lost a fumble. That led to 4-yard touchdown pass from Howell to Thomas with 1:47 left in the first half. On the play, Jackson landed a vicious hit to Thomas’ head. Jackson was immediately ejected after having an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and knocking a player out for the game with a concussion for the second straight game. Against the Raiders, Jackson’s fourth-quarter hit knocked out wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, who missed Sunday’s game at Buffalo. And the NFL had announced Saturday that Jackson was fined $14,819 for that hit. “It was a tough call. … We know Kareem, and we know he likes to tackle, and he likes to make big hits,’’ said Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II. “Seeing him come out of the game was a pretty bad moment, for sure.” Robinson scored on a twopoint conversation run after Thomas’ touchdown to cut the deficit to 21-11. The Commanders then got a 49-yard field goal by Joey Slye on the final play of the first half to cut the deficit to 21-14. The onslaught continued in the second half. Howell threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Terry Mclaurin in the third quarter to tie the score 21-21. After a Wil Lutz field goal gave the Broncos a brief 24-21 lead late in the third quarter, Robinson scored on runs of 2 and 15 yards in the fourth quarter to make it 35-24. At least credit the Broncos for not putting up the white flag then. On a drive in which Denver’s clock management was suspect, Lutz hit a 32yard field goal with 1:50 left in the game to cut the deficit to 35-27. And then came the Hail Mary to Johnson. “It was crazy,’’ he said. “Just an old-fashioned Hail Mary. … I saw it get tipped. I said, ‘ OK, I might have this one.’ I was able to pull it in.” But a dream ending for the Broncos was not to be. The two-point conversion pass to Sutton was incomplete with Commanders cornerback Benjamin St.-juste draped all over him. “There’s enough cameras out there, enough TV coverage that everyone can watch it and figure out themselves what might have happened,’’ Sutton said. Sutton, though, had several teammates say St.-juste should have been called for pass interference. “I thought it was, but obviously the ref made a different call in the heat of the moment of the game,’’ Surtain said. “A shame we didn’t get that call at the end of the game,” Johnson said. “We thought it was a P.I.’’ But it wasn’t. And there would be no dramatic win for the Broncos. They’re simply an 0-2 team desperately searching for a win with two road games on the horizon.