In three weeks from now, Broncos Country will either be rejoicing in the playoffs, or the Broncos and Russell Wilson will be reflecting on coming up just short.

With three games to go, the Denver Broncos sit at 7-7. 10 teams are ahead of them in the AFC, meaning Denver must win out and get a little help to make the postseason. Currently, they have just a 21.4% chance of making the playoffs, and winning out will increase those chances to 79%.

So, for the 2023 Broncos, it’s make-or-break time if they want to get in the playoffs for the first time in eight years. And for Wilson, these next three games could determine if the team keeps him as their starter in 2024 and beyond.

Russell Wilson has been better, but not good enough for his salary

2022 was a dumpster fire of a year for Wilson and the Broncos.

Some of that was on Wilson. Some was on Nathaniel Hackett. And some was on George Paton for his poor construction of the offensive line and lack of playmakers.

Unfortunately, Paton saddled the Broncos with a massive contract for Wilson before he even played a down in Denver. It amounts to five years for $242 million. And it leaves the team with a key choice this offseason.

Will they keep Wilson, or cut him and take a massive dead cap hit?

Last year was the worst of his career professionally. And compared to that cumulative performance, Wilson’s been much-improved in 2023.

But, even where he sits statistically currently, he’s not worth the amount of money he’s being paid.

Through 14 games, he’s thrown for 2,832 yards, 24 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, losing five fumbles. His four 4th quarter comebacks lead the NFL, but that may be more a reflection of the team than him. Not to take anything away from his clutch play this year, either, but these Broncos have surprisingly hung tough with opponents all season long.

To put the numbers in perspective, they’re basically on par with where Teddy Bridgewater was in 2021 at this point:

Wilson’s passer rating is solid (97.5, 7th), but most folks concede passer rating isn’t a complete picture of QB play. When it comes to EPA/Play, Bridgewater in 2021 had a 0.15 which was 15th. This year, Wilson has an EPA/Play of 0.02, which is 26th. Brock Purdy (0.38) leads all quarterbacks in 2023.

Simply, a mediocre quarterback can’t be getting paid top-tier money.

If the Broncos keep him through June 1, 2024, not only is his $17 million salary guaranteed for 2024—plus a $10M signing bonus—but his $37 million for 2025 is guaranteed, too. They can’t just cut him, though. If the the Broncos release him before his 2025 guaranteed money kicks in, they would incur around $35.4 million in dead cap in 2024 and $49 million in 2025.

Sean Payton has done a great job with the Broncos this year. They started 1-5 but are currently in the hunt for the playoffs. Before the season, he told USA TODAY, “I’m going to be pissed off if this is not a playoff team,” which sounded crazy, but now he has them on the doorstep.

It seems clear he will be the coach for the long-term in the Mile High City.

So, does he think the best route to winning is keeping an aging Wilson, or incurring all that dead cap and cobbling together a roster with a rookie—or possibly journeyman—QB?

Sean Payton and Russell Wilson’s relationship may be on the rocks

As our Doug Ottewill wrote about on Thursday, the future of the Payton-Wilson relationship is at stake right now.

Not only did Payton call Wilson out on the sideline in the loss to the Lions last week, but the coach has dodged blame all year long.

Ultimately, Payton is an offensive-minded head coach who must have the right quarterback. He’s done well to help Wilson bounce back this year, but how impressed has Payton truly has been?

There’s no doubt his playbook has been condensed a bit, and Wilson’s age has limited what the QB can do physically.

If the Broncos cut Wilson next offseason, it will likely mean some more short-term struggles. And a nightmarish cap situation. But, if Denver drafts a strong, young quarterback, they could set themselves up for long-term success.

Even a playoff berth may not be enough for Wilson to stay with Broncos

So, what if the Broncos do win out and make the playoffs?

As Ottewill wrote in his column, making the postseason will make it more difficult for the team and head coach to move away from Wilson. He explained:

After all, if the Broncos make the playoffs, a fanbase that’s all but lost its patience with the Broncos will buy into the notion that with a few improved parts and pieces, the Broncos could be even better next season. That’s an easy sell.

Doug is right. But, is Broncos Country sold with what Wilson’s done this year?

If the rumblings and complaints on Twitter are any indication, no. The fans are not sold on him as the long-term answer at QB.

Wilson’s been good, but not great. He’s been better, but not elite. He’s managed some games well, but found ways to lose others with turnovers, too.

Yes, the offensive line has struggled—hello, Mike McGlinchey—but Wilson holds the ball too long and takes too many sacks (40). He’s also been missing wide-open receivers the last two years, too.

Simply, nothing short of a Super Bowl run should keep Wilson in Denver in 2024 and beyond. Because his contract is insane.

Denver (7-7) faces New England (3-11) on Christmas Eve with a 6:15 p.m. MDT kickoff. The Broncos then have the Chargers and Raiders to finish up the regular season.

It’s make-or-break time in the Mile High City.