Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.
The Gazette, Colorado Springs
Russell Wilson delivered a prayer into the sky. Brandon Johnson answered, and Mile High Magic had returned. “My first Hail Mary,” Johnson said Sunday evening, standing in front of his locker. But these are the Broncos, and the magic is long gone. They know only Mile High Misery. The Washington Commanders beat the Broncos 35-33 at Empower Field at Mile High. Maybe half the 70,000 stuck around to see a completed Hail Mary from Wilson to Johnson, whose Mom told me before the game: “We’re so proud of Brandon. And we just love it here (in Denver).” On the ensuing two-point conversion that would have forced overtime, Courtland Sutton was grabbed by Commanders cornerback Benjamin St-juste. The pass interference went uncalled. “There’s enough cameras and enough TVS out there for everyone to watch it and figure out what happened,” Sutton said, avoiding a fine. Because these are the Broncos, and the magic is gone. They are 0-2 in Sean Payton’s debut season. They know that since 1990 only 11% of 0-2 teams eventually made the playoffs. They know next is a trip to Miami, where they will face a Dolphins track team of Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill — possibly without starting safety Kareem Jackson. The man they call “K-jack” was ejected Sunday and should face an NFL suspension after another dangerous tackle. Jackson was fined $14,000 after Week 1 for knocking out Raiders wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. He will be fined again after knocking out Washington wide receiver Logan Thomas. The NFL this season is publicizing fines for the first time, suggesting it intends to crack down on dangerous hits. Jackson’s was a textbook example and for a second straight week. What will happen next? The Broncos will win five or six games, my preseason prediction, and pretend they are close. But they are not close. What should happen next? The Broncos should reset, this time for real. Crater for Caleb. Dive for Drake. Stink for Shedeur. The 2024 draft class features a couple of no-brainer quarterback prospects at the top of the board: USC’S Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye. If Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders continues to shine in Boulder, add a third top-10 prospect to the list. Yes, it’s time. Two games into the Payton era, it’s already time. Payton has said he would be “disappointed” if the Broncos are not a playoff team. After losing at home to Jimmy Garoppolo’s Raiders and Sam Howell’s Commanders, do the Broncos look like a playoff team? “We’ve got to be better than that, and that starts with me,” Payton said. The Broncos led 21-3 over the Commanders. For the first time in four years, the Broncos scored 21 points in a first half. (They did so at Houston on Dec. 8, 2019, in the “Drew Lock Game.”) That was 55 games and so long ago. And for the first time in 13 years, the Broncos scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions. It felt downright magical. As the final 3 seconds ticked off, Wilson’s Hail Mary heave traveled 55 yards through the air, bounced off Sutton and into Johnson’s hands. The two-point attempt was no good, though the Broncos should have been awarded a mulligan. But they are not good enough. They show a winning record at home only once in the past seven seasons. Broncomaniacs left early, the rule more than the exception during that time. “I just hate that we put ourselves in this spot,” Sutton said. There is hope if you squint. Marvin Mims Jr. had two catches for 113 yards and a touchdown and a 45-yard punt return. Jaleel Mclaughlin scored his first career touchdown. The M&M Boys provide an element of speed that has been sorely lacking within the Broncos offense. “Felt real nice, a special moment,” Mims said. The defense looked familiar. It looked like a Vance Joseph defense. Howell, the Commanders quarterback, was making his first start in an NFL road game. He threw for 299 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 108.8. He looked good. The Broncos made him look great. “I didn’t think we played well (on defense),” Payton said after. “(And) we’re going to see a lot better offenses than that.” The Broncos welcomed back the Super Bowl XXXIII champs for a 25-year reunion. It used to be the sure-fire way to turn a frown upside down: announce Terrell Davis and Steve Atwater’s name over the Mile High loudspeakers. Over a stretch of three seasons, the Broncos of the late 1990s went 23-1 at home. Sunday afternoon, it was maybe 15 minutes after the halftime ceremony the Mile High crowd rained boos over the current Broncos outfit. Again. “We didn’t play good enough on either side,” Payton said. Mile High Magic is gone. This is Mile High Misery. Even answered prayers are not enough.