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The Broncos lost any realistic shot at making the playoffs by falling to the Patriots on Sunday, giving them a 7-8 record -- and just a 1.4% chance of reaching the postseason -- with 2023 winding down. Now they're benching quarterback Russell Wilson for the final two games, as he'll serve as the backup to Jarrett Stidham, per head coach Sean Payton, starting with the Chargers game on Sunday

The Broncos insist the decision to turn to Stidham is meant to provide an offensive "spark" after a 1-3 stretch -- that it has nothing to do with the QB's contract, per CBS Sports HQ Senior NFL insider Josina Anderson. But the writing is on the wall: Wilson had recently sidestepped questions about his future in Denver beyond 2023, while an injury in the final two games would've prevented the Broncos from seamlessly releasing the QB after the season, should the team desire to move on.

Why did Payton make the move from Wilson to Stidham? 

"I can tell you, look, we're desperately trying to win," the head coach said, via 9News Sports in Denver. "The No. 1 push behind this, and it's a decision I'm making, is to provide a spark offensively. Obviously it's difficult, and all of us feel like 'man, we didn't do well enough,' but one of the things we saw when we signed Stidham in the offseason, not only from preseason games but regular-season games, but he's a guy I'm excited to see play. 

"If I didn't feel like he gave us the chance to win, we wouldn't be making that move." 

Per The Athletic, Wilson is expecting to be cut in March. He reportedly knew of his fate with the organization for nearly two months. The Broncos reached out to Wilson's representatives in late October if he did not defer the injury guarantee trigger date that he has for 2025 -- which is $37 million guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year. 

Wilson has certainly improved on his erratic 2022 Broncos debut, leaving Week 16 with 26 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 98.0 passer rating -- his best in three years. But Denver's offense has struggled overall, ranking No. 16 in scoring and No. 25 in yards per game. And then there's the QB's lucrative contract, a $245 million whopper set to count $35.4M against the 2024 salary cap.

Might Payton and the Broncos' relatively new ownership group already prefer to hit the reset button under center? Sure. Again, while Wilson was improved this year, he's 35 and very expensive (No. 5 among annual QB earners). But can Denver move on? Is it even possible for Payton and Co. to get out of Wilson's deal following the 2023 season?

The answer is yes, but it likely won't save Denver much money in the short term.

Here are the details: Wilson is currently signed through 2028, but he's only guaranteed money through 2024. That said, his entire 2025 salary ($37M) will be guaranteed if he remains on the Broncos' roster at the start of the next league year (March 17), per Over the Cap. So it's probable Denver will make a decision on the QB's future before then.

The options: The Broncos can outright release Wilson by March 17, but doing so would actually result in a loss of $49.6M in 2024. Denver is already projected to be at least $18M over the 2024 cap, so cutting him straight-up wouldn't be logical. Designating him a post-June 1 release, however, is a distinct possibility. In that scenario, Denver would eat Wilson's 2024 salary ($35.4M) but actually avoid any financial blow to the 2024 cap. In other words, they'd save nothing immediately, but millions beyond 2024.

The other option, which is far more unlikely: trading Wilson. It's not that the QB wouldn't have any market; odds are he's restored some of his value to other NFL teams after bouncing back from 2022. But a trade before June 1 would result in an immediate loss of $32.6M against the Broncos' 2024 cap. Denver could deal him after June 1 to save $17M -- the best-case financial scenario for splitting with the QB -- but that would require waiting until the summer, well after the start of free agency, to find a trade partner.

The other factor in all of this: Wilson's health for the remainder of 2023. Injured players cannot be outright released -- without a negotiated injury settlement, at least -- so that explains Denver's benching of Wilson for the final two games. The Raiders notably demoted former starter Derek Carr, who had a similar injury guarantee in his contract, at the end of 2022 before releasing him in the offseason. But Carr's benching all but guaranteed an eventual breakup; that appears to be happening in Denver.