NEW ORLEANS -- Seventy minutes before kickoff, with a Saints fan with a bobblehead directing missives at the team, safety T.J. Ward stood in the tunnel and faced his teammates
He implored them to “stay focused, do their jobs and play like Broncos!”
What does that mean? The Broncos, at their essence, are grinders. They roll up their sleeves and get dirt underneath their fingernails. Not one player on this team is a five-star recruit. They drive trucks, and when doubt cascades down on Dove Valley, eat adversity for breakfast.
This season arrived at a crossroads at the most unlikely places, Bourbon Street. This is where you go to get lost in thought, food and spirits, not find your identity and character.
Challenged to bow out their chest, the Broncos responded with their best first half and their wildest finish. Rookie safety Justin Simmons jumped over the center to block the go-ahead extra point, and defensive back Will Parks scooped it up and raced 84 yards for two points.
You know the usual stuff.
Final score: Broncos 25, Saints 23. Fingernails: 0.
"I make plays," bellowed Parks to Denver7 after his ramble down the sideline stood on review as his shoe narrowly missed going out of bounds. "Justin got it and I took it. I wear white cleats for a reason."
Even for a team that won more close games last season than anyone in NFL history, the Broncos struggled to wrap their heads around what transpired Sunday. They lost. Then they won. Parks and Kick. Just-in Time. Whatever. It worked.
"It's probably the craziest game I have ever been a part of," admitted veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
"I mean guys practice it, but I never seen anything like it actually happen," center Matt Paradis said.
Of course, the Broncos tried to spoil the win with Trevor Siemian’s last drive of the first half, third quarter mistakes by the offensive line and Brandin Cooks’ 32-yard touchdown catch with 82 seconds left. They did their best to paint a mustache on Mona Lisa. Consider this win more graffiti than DaVinci.
In a place known for hangovers and hurricanes, the Broncos drank up their most important victory given the time, place and opponent.
"There are defining moments in a season," coach Gary Kubiak said. "That's a big win for us."
Remember Ward’s plea? He followed his own lead, recovering a fumble with 3:04 remaining as defensive end Jared Crick crunched receiver Michael Thomas. It led to a final Brandon McManus field goal, helping send the Broncos into the bye week with a 7-3 record and all of their goals attainable.
"I am not satisfied. But we are always in a position to make a run," said Ward, whose team expects defensive end Derek Wolfe and Aqib Talib to return from injury for the Nov. 27 game vs. the Chiefs. "We are in great position to get what we want."
It was greasy in the Big Easy.
The Saints took over late in the fourth. Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees connected with Cooks to tie the score, dropping the type of pass Peyton Manning used so brilliantly in Denver. It fell out of the sky from 32 yards out, somehow slipping between the arms of Ward and cornerback Bradley Roby. Only a PAT was needed to move ahead.
"I was mad," Ward said. "That should not have happened."
Then in a blink, it didn't matter.
Simmons stood behind the line, staring at Lutz and holder Thomas Morstead. Simmons practiced this moment all week. He was a triple jumper in high school and had his vertical measured at 40 inches. He was lurking with his "heart beating out of his chest."
"We should have be able to see the look," lamented Saints coach Sean Payton. "The timing by Simmons was good."
Brees, who went 21 of 29 for 303 yards, shook his head: "I am still in disbelief."
With the Saints keeping a predictable snap count, Simmons ran and hopped over the center. He blocked the kick cleanly. In practice, it typically goes back to him. This ball dribbled left and toward Parks, who fanned out looking for a deflection.
"I must be living right," Parks said.
"I was going to beat him up if he didn't score," added Simmons.
After a nervy review, Parks' sprint held up to scrutiny. Two points. One win. And a heck of a time to receive a rest during a season that has featured intoxicating highs and lows.
"Every week is like a playoff game," Sanders said.
The Broncos didn't play their best. But they made plays when it mattered most.
They secured a 20-17 lead with a 10-play, 43-yard drive with 3:23 remaining. The opportunistic defense provided the gateway, with safety Darian Stewart, Sunday’s MVP, producing his third takeaway. Roby punched the ball from receiver Michael Thomas and into Stewart’s paws. Stewart can catch anything after growing up receiving passes from childhood friend Craig Kimbrel, the Boston Red Sox’s 100-mph closer.
"Everyone thinks about him as a guy who makes big hits," linebacker Von Miller said. "He makes big plays."
This was supposed to be the game the Broncos offense did the heavy lifting. They created ulcer spawning. In a way, the afternoon symbolized a team that is perplexing, frustrating and exhilarating.
Under siege and holding onto the ball too long, Siemian finished 25 for 40 for 258 yards, two touchdowns, two picks and six sacks. He showed toughness, and inexperience, admitting, "I made my fair share of mistakes." He produced a six-point swing with 29 seconds remaining in the half, throwing an inexplicable pick to Sterling Moore while staring down Sanders.
"I knew it was coming," Moore said.
Instead of the Saints going scoreless in the first half at home for the first time since 2002, Brees engineered a field goal drive. The Broncos' 10-3 cushion felt like a warning. And proved as much as the Saints scored on their first two second-half drives on Brees' touchdowns to Willie Snead IV.
The encouraging start, if nothing else, provided a margin for error.
For only the second time, the Broncos scored a first quarter touchdown. They marched 75 yards on 13 plays, gorging 7 minutes, 15 seconds. Forget inspired. It was balanced.
"It's obviously not perfect, but it was better," Paradis said.
The Broncos ran six times for 27 yards. Siemian threw six times for 56. Denver converted three third downs and finished 11-for-19, their best rate since 2014. None was bigger than the last, a juggling, bobbling 14-yard touchdown catch by receiver Jordan Taylor. Sunshine, as known by teammates, brought light to the recent darkness with a 7-0 lead.
That the Broncos held an advantage was significant. Denver’s defense fed off Ward’s message. They made stops after missing 12 tackles last week against Oakland. They forced a first-drive punt, allowing the offense to start on level ground. It helped that the Saints’ game plan ran in juxtaposition to the previous month. They attacked the Broncos vertically through the air despite Denver’s vulnerability against the run and on seam routes against linebackers.
Stewart intercepted Brees twice in the first half. He made a perfect read late in the first quarter, racing toward receiver Travaris Cadet. He darted in front of him, never seen by Brees. Moments later, Stewart benefited from a good bounce. Roby delivered tighter than Saran Wrap coverage as the ball ricocheted into air to Stewart.
Siemian bought time and set up a field goal with a short completion to Sanders. Brandon McManus improved to 2-for-4 on field goals of at least 50 yards after going 5-for-7 last season. The Broncos’ cushion ballooned to seven. They left points on the field, but played in a way conducive to a road victory: logging long drives, running the ball and netting turnovers. And yet, it wasn’t safe. Is it ever with this team?
It took one of the weirdest plays in Broncos' history to win. Consider it luck, voodoo or just plain Broncos' magic.
"I have never been part of an ending like that," outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "It was just big, big, big."
- Broncos played Ty Sambrailo at right tackle in the fourth quarter for Donald Stephenson. Team officials confirmed that Stephenson was not injured, so Stephenson was benched. The Broncos line has had issues for weeks, and this situation bears watching going forward.
- Simmons and Parks produced the third two-point, defensive conversion in NFL history. The Saints delivered the first on Dec. 6, 2015.
- Devontae Booker, whose left shoulder was sore afterward, finished with 76 yards on 24 carries. The Broncos rushed for 103 yards on 37 attempts.
- Denver stopped the run better, allowing 80 yards on 21 attempts. They entered the game yielding 128.6 yards per game.
- The Broncos’ captains were Von Miller, T.J. Ward, Kayvon Webster, Dekoda Watson and Demaryius Thomas.
- Darian Stewart delivered three takeaways, recovering two fumbles and netting pick. Stewart can catch any pass. He grew up as childhood friend of Boston Red Sox 100-mph closer Craig Kimbrel. “He threw heat,” Stewart said of his sometime quarterback in high school. Stewart is the first Broncos player to produce three takeaways since Deltha O'Neal had four interceptions on Oct. 7, 2001 against Kansas City. "I said after my second pick, 'Keep'em coming!" Stewart said.
- The Broncos remain hopeful that cornerback Aqib Talib (back) and Derek Wolfe (elbow) will return against the Kansas City Chiefs after the bye week. Talib announced in the locker afterward, "Lib going to be back. Lib going to be back."
- The Broncos had six fewer rushing yards on their first drive than they had last week at Oakland in the entire game (33).
- The Broncos' third down conversion rate was their best since beating the Dolphins in 2014.