INGLEWOOD – They have been called out for being too conservative, too reckless, too helpless, too limited to recover this season.
So, what happened Sunday at SoFi Stadium before a sea of orange fans deserves recognition and appreciation. Facing a must-win game, the Broncos leaned on their fangs-dropped defense and vanquished the Chargers with a Courtland Sutton catch that could hang in the Louvre.
The final: Broncos 24, Chargers 7.
"We wish we had more time on the clock. I am serious," linebacker Baron Browning said. "Guys are competing to make plays."
The result? The Broncos, who have their noses pressed up against the playoff windowpane since 2015, are firmly in the mix after nearly posting their first road shutout since 1992 at Cleveland. They boast a 7-6 record, one game back in a cluttered race that looks more promising after improving their AFC record to 4-5.
"There's not a lot of reflection. We will take a peek what AFC did today, then it's time to go," coach Sean Payton said.
This is the type of game playoff teams win. Let’s be clear where the credit belongs first. The Broncos defense, maligned and ridiculed after the Dolphins Debacle, has reinvented itself under boss Vance Joseph. As he jogged onto the field Sunday, Joseph maintained the calmer-than-lagoon demeanor that makes him a favorite of players, who will forever appreciate him for not blaming the blame game. Personnel changes led the revival with the insertion of nickelback Ja’Quan McMillian and moving Mike Purcell into the defensive line. Pair that with the healthy return of Justin Simmons and Josey Jewell, and the Broncos defense has been on a heater during this 6-1 stretch.
The Chargers did not convert a third or fourth down until the second play of the fourth quarter. They finished 0-for-12 on third down, marking the third time in franchise history the Broncos accomplished the feat when an opponent had at least 12 chances (done previously in 2012 and 1994).
"Credit to Vance. He is putting us in position to make plays," defensive end Zach Allen said. "This is the best defensive I have ever been a part of."
Joseph has leaned into the fire, bringing pressure repeatedly. McMillian has been responsible for more big plays than Shakespeare the last seven weeks. He came through again with a sack, one of four in the first half. The Broncos made life miserable for the Chargers and Justin Herbert. Herbert exited with a finger injury in the second quarter, finishing 9-for-17 for 96 yards and interception by outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper that set up the Broncos’ first score.
"I was happy to make that play. But it hurt so bad," smiled Cooper, who had his knee wrenched on the tackle.
All the Broncos needed was a little offensive nudge. It came in the third quarter. With enough time in the pocket to pay California state income taxes, Wilson surveyed the field before spinning a rainbow in Sutton’s direction. Sutton has changed the narrative on his career with a new workout routine and body type. He delivered the best catch of his career – many careers – at Buffalo. Sunday’s was a close second. With Chargers cornerback Michael Davis pulling down his left arm, Sutton pawed the ball with his right for a 46-yard touchdown. It shoved the Broncos ahead 17-0 with 5:55 remaining in the third, all but sealing this important victory.
"Credit to the offensive line. They gave me like 35 seconds on that play. I went through my third, fourth and fifth read and came back to him," Wilson said. "He is a special player."
There were some uneasy moments early.
Broncos won the toss improving to 10-3 on coin flips, but it failed to translate to a hot start. Who needs heat when you have good luck? On Wilson’s first pass, he fired to Marvin Mims Jr. The ball was slightly behind him, and he never controlled it as Davis pounced. Originally ruled down by contact, Mims, replay showed, never had control as Davis swiped it.
But Chargerering is a thing. After taking over at the 13-yard line, they faced a fourth-and-3. Embattled coach Branden Staley, as he is wont do to, went for it. If that was the plan, why not run on third? Justin Herbert tried to reward the risk with a loft pass to tight end Gerald Everett with P.J. Locke blanketed on him. Everett lost control as he hit the ground.
The Broncos were doing wrong and living right. Moments later, the Chargers took over at the 7-yard line and Vance Joseph released the fire. Baron Browning sliced inside and deflected Herbert’s pass into Jonathon Cooper’s hands. The Ohio State connection created possession at the 3-yard line. The Broncos converted as Javonte Williams, named the Ed Block Courage award winner this week, plunged in for his rushing touchdown of the season. Williams finished with 66 yards on 17 carries.
The Broncos defense, which pulled the team back into contention, played with its hair on fire, making life miserable for Herbert. The Broncos had three sacks in first 14 drop backs. The offense, meanwhile, punted three times in their first four drives. A prime opportunity vanished when Wilson could not connect with Jerry Jeudy near the 10-yard line. Jeudy got turned around, and found the ball, but it led him to the sideline as it clanked off his hands, though he might not have been inbounds. Regardless, it resembled the squandered chances vs. the Texans. On Denver’s next drive, Wilson sailed a deep pass in Jeudy’s direction, but the Chargers defender ticked it away. Wilson finished 21 of 33 for 224 yards and two scores.
It became part of the fabric of a forgettable first half for Jeudy. In one of their most impressive drives of the season given the time and place, the Broncos left points on the board. Kicker Wil Lutz converted a 23-yard field goal, but a touchdown came off the board when Jeudy inexplicably did not drag his second foot in the corner of the end zone, resulting in an incompletion upon review.
The Broncos held a 10-0 advantage at half, holding the Chargers to 0-for-9 on third and fourth down. They boasted 159 yards – 104 passing, 55 rushing – but went 2-for-7 on third down. The inability to make the Chargers pay on a deep strike loomed, though the defense made a lead feel more comfortable vs. Easton Stick. The Broncos defense posted four sacks, including by nickel cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian and inside linebackers Alex Singleton and Josey Jewell.
Denver had two touchdowns called back. McMillian’s scoop and score was negated when it was ruled Stick’s arm was going forward and Jeudy’s foot lapse.
It stung more given the Broncos’ issues in the third quarter. Hollywood writers would reject Payton’s script, if he used one. The Broncos went three-and-out on the first drive, continuing an alarming trend. They are 0-for-11 on the first drives with nine punts, one missed field goal and one blocked.
It wasn't perfect. But it was convincing. And, thanks to the defense, electrifying.
"We are 6-1 over the last seven weeks. That is the truth of who we are here. I told them on that last kneel down that we have to stay hungry and humble," Wilson said. "We are climbing the mountain and have to stay focused on the peak."
Broncos outside linebacker Nik Bonitto hurt his knee in the first quarter, slamming his helmet to the ground in frustration. After a quick exam, he headed to the locker room on a cart. With Ronnie Perkins inactive, Drew Sanders became the reserve edge rusher. …
Right guard Quinn Meinerz became ill in the second quarter and did not return. Luke Wattenberg replaced him. Source said Meinerz was doing better after being taken to a local hospital with an irregular heartbeat. He will stay overnight as a precaution. This happened to Graham Glasgow a few years ago, and he was fine. Hopefully, same thing happens with Meinerz, who is having a career year. ....
The Chargers inducted tight end Antonio Gates into their Hall of Fame at halftime. LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers attended the ceremony. There was a time that Rivers was public enemy No. 1 for Broncos Country, talking endless trash without cursing. “I gave you a lot to write about,” Rivers told Denver7. …
Ja’Quan McMillian and P.J. Locke collided in the fourth quarter. Both left the field under their own power and returned on the next drive. McMillian is the first Boncos cornerback since Ray Crockett in 1996 to record sacks in back-to-back games.