The Denver Broncos beat the Los Angeles Chargers 16-9 on Sunday, but the win wasn’t enough to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham made his first career start for the Broncos and led them to victory, despite an up-and-down performance.
Stidham’s Debut Uneven As Broncos Rely On Defense
Starting in place of injured Russell Wilson, Stidham finished with 90 passing yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. He struggled at times but made some key throws to keep drives going. The Broncos relied more heavily on their stout defense, which sacked Chargers backup QB Easton Stick four times and held Los Angeles out of the end zone.
Stidham called it a “pretty incredible experience” to make his first start. While it wasn’t always smooth sailing, he did just enough while avoiding major mistakes. Broncos coach Sean Payton said Stidham “handled himself well” and gave the offense “a chance to win.”
Table of Stidham’s Key Passing Stats
The defense and special teams set Stidham up nicely all game. An early Chargers fumble led to a field goal, then cornerback Damarri Mathis intercepted Stick and returned it to the 4-yard line to set up another short field goal. A 64-yard punt return by Montrell Washington gave Denver prime field position again in the third quarter, eventually turning into the Broncos’ only touchdown.
Stidham scampered for that touchdown on a 7-yard scramble, diving to the pylon for the score. It wasn’t pretty, but it counted all the same and turned out to be the difference in a defensive slugfest.
Table of Notable Broncos Defenders vs. Chargers
| Player | Tackles | Sacks
| Baron Browning | 1 | 2
| Nik Bonitto | 4 | 1
| Dre’Mont Jones | 3 | 1
Loss Eliminates Broncos From Playoffs
While securing the season sweep over their division rivals with their backup QB was admirable, Denver’s victory lap was short-lived. Moments after the game ended, the players learned that Kansas City had just beat Las Vegas. With the Chiefs win eliminating the Broncos from playoff contention, frustration boiled over with the realization that changes are still sorely needed in Denver for next season.
The Broncos invested boldly in Wilson and new coach Nathaniel Hackett last offseason but sputtered to last place in the AFC West. After Hackett was fired Dec. 26, defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero served as interim head coach for two games before Sean Payton takes over next season. Payton should provide firmer direction for Wilson’s supporting cast and getting the struggling offense to take flight once again.
Table of Broncos’ Final 2023 Record
| Wins | Losses
| 8 | 8
The Chargers also finished a disappointing season at 10-7 after winning the division last year. Injuries hampered star QB Justin Herbert, and Los Angeles now heads into another long offseason searching for answers just like Denver.
Herbert is expected to have surgery soon to repair a core muscle injury on his left side, concluding a rocky year for the young quarterback.
What Happens Now For Denver
While reaching the playoffs was the primary goal, Denver at least built some positive momentum with two straight wins under Evero to finish on a higher note. Payton and new general manager Dave Ziegler now dive headfirst into molding the roster and implementing their vision starting in March.
Tough roster decisions must be made with several Broncos carrying large cap hits next season, including Wilson, OL Garett Bolles, DL Dre’Mont Jones, OLB Randy Gregory, S Kareem Jackson, and CB Ronald Darby. Ziegler and Payton won’t shy away from bold moves if deemed necessary.
“We’ve got a lot ahead of us,” Payton said postgame. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Payton will be coaching Wilson for the first time and faced questions about his level of excitement working with the talented but inconsistent QB. Never one to mince words, Payton simply said the evaluation process will begin in earnest soon and “we’ll see” regarding Wilson’s future.
The first step is sitting down with Wilson to hear the embattled QB’s perspective on this lost season. Payton wasn’t ready to make any definitive declarations minutes after being officially eliminated from the postseason.
Stidham’s Future Up In Air
One person who did make a strong impression is Stidham. The former Patriots draft pick provided a competent enough performance when called upon, proving he can step in and handle coordinator duties.
Stidham is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. After Sunday’s start under his belt, he should garner consideration for backup jobs elsewhere if Denver lets him walk.
“Kid came in and played his ass off and did everything that he needed to do,” said receiver Courtland Sutton. “He moved the ball when he needed to, took what the defense was giving him, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Whether Stidham returns or the Broncos target a more seasoned veteran is unclear. Payton predictably wasn’t ready to make proclamations minutes after his first game. But Stidham stated his case well after patiently waiting four years for significant playing time.
This underwhelming Broncos season finally concluded with one last win. Attention now turns to molding the roster and implementing extensive changes to ensure 2023 bears the fruit of playoff football for Denver once again.
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