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Four on the Floor. Broncos win fourth straight with Sutton catch

Denver struggled offensively, but capitalized when it mattered most
Vikings Broncos Football
Vikings Broncos Football
Posted at 9:30 PM, Nov 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-20 03:05:18-05

DENVER -– Long before kickoff with fans walking around the stadium wearing astronaut helmets, hats with horns and enough orange for a sunset, the emotion was unmistakable.

The Broncos mattered again. With three straight wins, their appearance on prime time brought curiosity, not cringes. Denver had found a road to redemption through an opportunistic defense and just good-enough offense. The elasticity of this strategy nearly snapped against the scalding Vikings.

But Denver’s climb into contention continued as the Broncos triumphed 21-20 before 75,000 racuous fans at Empower Field at Mile High.

"Never a doubt," quipped Broncos CEO Greg Penner as he passed through the postgame media room.

The Broncos took over facing a sobering reality with 3:12 remaining. They trailed 20-15. On fourth-and-3 from the 32, a gasp returned as the Vikings were called for interference on fourth-and-3 on a Courtland Sutton one-handed catch. It was foreshadowing.

Samaje Perine took over on check downs as he gobbled chunks of yardage in the margins.

On first-and-10 from the 15, Wilson gravitated to his favorite target, lofting a 50-50 ball in Sutton’s direction. He skied for the pigskin, muscling the defender for his eighth touchdown of the season, a career-high. It moved the Broncos ahead 21-20 with 1:03 remaining as the Javonte Williams rush on the two-point conversion failed.

"Russ might be the greatest two-minute quarterback in the history of the NFL. When the game's on the line, he's at his best and at his calmest," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "The ability to see things clearly when (crap is) hitting the fan... He played great."

Joshua Dobbs, “The Passtronaut,” took over at the 25-yard line, trying to position Minnesota for its sixth straight win on a field goal. He was a mess when it mattered most as Denver won a fourth straight game for the first time since 2016 to level its record to 5-5.

"The fans were so great. There at the end, we could feel the crowd roaring when the defense came out for the two-minute [drill]. That is where football games are won. I mean, you play the whole game, and I always talk about those four or five plays throughout the game that win or lose the game," said star safety Justin Simmons, who is enjoying the first four-game win streak of his decorated career.

"But at the end of the day, you have an opportunity in the final two minutes defensively to go win the game, and that is what it is going to take. We’re going to have to keep doing that for the rest of the season.”

There were plenty of moments to assign blame throughout the game – the illegal formation in the red zone, the inability of a diving Jerry Jeudy to hold onto a touchdown pass, the blown coverage on third-and-20 – but it comes down to this. The Broncos left themselves vulnerable when they failed to maximize their defense, though they found a way to escape. In their last seven takeaways they have produced 15 points. They slithered away.

At this point they are becoming easier to appreciate than explain.

"I just tried to put the ball in only a place that Courtland could get it and sure enough — I think my head was kind of turned to the side, and I heard the crowd go crazy and I knew he caught it," said Wilson, who completed 27 of 35 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. "We just believe in each other. We just believe in each other. We knew that we were going to win this game. That’s how we felt. That was our mindset.”

Field goals lose games. And that hung over the Broncos in what felt like a must-win to reach the playoffs. But these Broncos are not your brother’s or father’s Broncos.

It began with a smile. And finished with one.

Just when Broncos Country thought they could not fathom a better start, Denver’s defense dropped its fangs and produced its second straight takeaway on the game’s first possession. Joshua Dobbs attempted to run, and Kareem Jackson launched into quarterback, his helmet into the quarterback’s facemask as Baron Browning stripped the ball. It popped into Ja’Quan McMillian’s hands – he ripped the ball away from James Cook on the first play on Monday night – as Denver took over.

The resulting possession produced only a field goal, spoiled by Danielle Hunter’s league-best 12th sack. Replays also showed that Jackson, returning from a suspension, four separate fines and two ejections, led with his helmet, meaning the league is likely to review regarding a fine or additional lengthy discipline.

Lost in the Broncos’ breathtaking, chaotic win over the Bills was a dirty secret. Denver’s rush defense was leaking oil again because of poor tackling. It surfaced on Sunday as the Vikings bullied Denver early on. Minnesota had 71 yards rushing in the first quarter. They averaged 85 per game. On third-and-1 from the 3-yard line, Dobbs made magic, scrambling right, and ducking out of a sack by Jonathon Cooper and firing a dart to tight end Josh Oliver for the score, capping a 10-play, 65-yard drive.

Trailing 7-3 early in the second, the Broncos continued their misery on third down. Russell Wilson made mistake of scrambling laterally as Denver was forced to punt again. While Denvfer failed to convert its first three third downs, Minnesota boast a 50 percent rate on its first six, including Dobbs hitting Brandon Powell in front of outside linebacker Nik Bonitto. Moments later, Dobbs found T.J. Hockenson with a rainbow 29-yarder as Justin Simmons fell in coverage. Cooper did not miss on his next sack opportunity, slamming Dobbs to the turf to force a 34-yard field goal from Greg Joseph.

Facing a 10-3 deficit, it was time for the offense to awaken from its slumber. Wilson connected with Jeudy for a first down and delivered a 33-yard strike to Courtland Sutton down the far sideline. It was short-lived as coach Sean Payton decided to stay conservative and kick on fourth-and-2 from the 12-yard line. Lutz’s second field shaved the deficit to 10-6 with 4:08 remaining in the half. But bad signs hovered as the Broncos remained 0-for-4 on third down and 0-for-2 in the red zone.

The Broncos finished with a flourish. Taking over with 1:11 remaining, Wilson connected on two passes for 33 yards to Adam Trautman as the tight end position showed production for the first time this season. With 11 seconds left from the 34-yard line, Wilson lost his focus, trying to connect with Jerry Jeudy in double coverage. Jeudy turned into a cornerback, knocking the sure interception free and celebrating with the sword placement. Lutz jogged on and drilled a 52-yard at the buzzer as Denver trailed 10-9 at half.

It was a bit of a win given that the Broncos allowed 85 yards rushing, 4 of 8 third down conversions, while failing to convert once on third down in five attempts. They didn’t convert their first third down until the fourth quarter.

Broncos began third quarter showing how they are living on edge offensively, any penalty sabotaging drives. A Marvin Mims Jr. first down was erased by a Nate Adkins holding on first drive, leaving Denver O-fer on third down. Minnesota capitalized on its first opportunity of the half, a Pat Surtain II interference penalty erasing an interception and setting up a field goal. Ground Control to Major Dobbs continued as he eluded sack by D.J. Jones and a tackle by Baron Browning to scoot in for a 10-yard score, shoving Minnesota ahead 17-9 with 7:55 left in the third. It felt bigger because of the Broncos’ inept offense. Denver had yet to convert a third down as the fourth quarter approached.

The defense refused to break even as Minnesota trampled in the run game. With the season teetering, the Broncos delivered their 11th takeaway in three games with the Vikings in field goal range. D.J Jones poked the ball away from Alexander Mattison as Josey Jewell pounced. A field goal followed. That was theme of night.

Moments later, McMillian, the most popular pirate since Johnny Depp, delivered his second pick and fourth turnover in his last three games. What looked like a lead forthcoming turned empty quickly. Marvin Mims Jr was flagged for a facemask to put the Broncos behind the stick. From the 10-yard line, Wilson fired in Jerry Jeudy’s direction. He dived and had his mitts on the ball, but former practice squad defensive back Joejuan Williams tugged at Jeudy’s right arm as ball sprung loose. It led to Lutz’s latest boot, leaving Vikings ahead 17-15 with 10:37 remaining.

This is the type of game the Broncos have lost the past seven years. They wallowed in the disappointment, played the victim. But this is a new team. A new time. The Broncos, if only barely, are back in contention.

"You’re asking me, four wins in a row —yeah, I think we have some momentum going," said coach Sean Payton. "I don’t know if I’m ready to groove yet. ... But I am proud of the fight we showed. And there's nothing like winning. I am happy for these players and sharing in the success.”

I asked Kareem Jackson if he was worried about a possible suspension or fine for his first quarter hit. "I don't what to expect," said Jackson of his strike on Dobbs that is expected to be reviewed by the league office. ...

Cornerback Riley Moss has finally earned some run. The rookie from Iowa replaced Damarri Mathis in the dime package. …

The Broncos inactives were Ronnie Perkins, Alex Forsyth, P.J. Locke, Ben Niemann, Thomas Incoom and Elijah Garcia. Rookie safety JL Skinner was active for the first time with Locke out and Kareem Jackson returning to the starting lineup. The Broncos went with three outside linebackers – Baron Browning, Jonathon Cooper, Nik Bonitto – meaning Drew Sanders was a safety valve at the position. …

Defensive end Zach Allen hurt his back when slammed into by Alex Singleton on a tackle. He appeared OK in the locker room afterward.