Russell Wilson, Sean Payton Battle for Blame After Broncos Loss to Texans | Westword
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Russell Wilson, Sean Payton Battle for Blame After Broncos' Loss to Texans

The quarterback and coach brought out each others' worst.
Russell Wilson failed to put on a happy face after the Denver Broncos' loss to the Houston Texans on December 3.
Russell Wilson failed to put on a happy face after the Denver Broncos' loss to the Houston Texans on December 3. Denver Broncos via YouTube
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The physical battle between the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos on December 3 triggered an intense war of the words. On the field, the Texans prevailed by a score of 22-17 — after which pundits on social media promptly launched into a fiery debate over who was most at fault for the Broncos' defeat, quarterback Russell Wilson or head coach Sean Payton.

No victory could be declared, however, since Wilson and Payton earned an equal share of the blame for making a potential playoff invite much more difficult. In the process, they brought out the absolute worst in each other.

The pair had seemed simpatico during the Broncos' five-game win streak — a stretch that included triumphs over the Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns. And the reasons the squad went from 1-5 to 6-5 were abundantly clear: During this stretch, play-caller Payton leaned heavily on runners Javonte Williams and Jaleel McLaughlin and encouraged Wilson to focus on short passes that moved the chains while eating clock. The strategy minimized mistakes and kept each contest close — and the emergence of the defense's proclivity for ball-hawking and an improved connection between Russ and wide receiver Courtland Sutton repeatedly tipped the scales in Denver's direction.

But rather than sticking with this successful formula against the Texans, Payton let his planet-sized ego take his brain for a ride to a very different destination. On the first play, he called on Wilson to target Sutton with a deep shot — a gamble that didn't pay off. Then, for snap number two, he repeated his mistake by directing Russ to do the exact same thing, with similarly negative results. A failed third-down quarterback scramble later, and it was time for punter Riley Dixon to make the first of four appearances in the first half.

Late in the second quarter, with the Broncos' offense as stagnant as the water in an unused swimming pool on a windless day, Payton seemed to realize the error of his ways, and his blueprint blend of rushes and short passes generated a decent drive capped off by a field goal. But at the outset of the second half, Wilson once again went for big strikes and wound up getting sacked twice instead. Welcome back, Riley Dixon.

Payton's hunger for chunk plays was understandable, given how many the Texans' rookie sensation, C.J. Stroud, managed to produce. He and receiver Nico Collins collaborated on one huge gainer after another; Collins ended the day with nine receptions for a brain-busting 191 yards. Meanwhile, the Broncos' D didn't force a single turnover and made some uncharacteristically stupid plays. Exhibit A: a moronic unnecessary-roughness penalty by linebacker Alex Singleton that led directly to a Houston touchdown.

Granted, Wilson helped bring the Broncos back from a 16-3 deficit by way of two touchdown drives after intermission. But the aggressiveness necessitated by this scenario also generated three interceptions of the sort that brought back gruesome memories of his disastrous 2022 season, including a forced throw into the end zone in the waning seconds that wound up in the mitts of Houston's Jimmie Ward and guaranteed Denver's doom.

Was Payton's boredom with dinking and dunking the reason for the defeat? Or did Wilson seal the Broncos' fate by bidding for individual heroics instead of opting for the check-down approach that had worked so well over the past month-plus? Folks on the Service Formerly Known as Twitter had a lot of feels about these questions. Count down our picks for the twenty most memorable takes below:

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