CHICAGO — There was clarity in misery.
There was no reason to pretend anymore. The Broncos looked like the worst team in football, a title they had earned over the past two years. When they allowed another touchdown late in the third quarter and the incessant air horn blared on the scoreboard and the drum line played, their awful status appeared cemented.
Then something weird happened. The Broncos showed fight. This is all Broncos Country – at least those not rooting for a tank for Caleb Williams – wanted. A team that cared, that showed more resistance on defense than a water slide.
With the franchise clinging to relevance, the Broncos rallied from a 21-point deficit for an improbable 31-28 victory at Soldier Field.
“We have to clean some things up,” said coach Sean Payton, who received a game ball. “But we showed urgency at halftime. There is a lesson to be learned. I have won my last five games here, even after so many years to win here (in Payton’s home) is special. Hopefully, it’s the first of many.”
Irony replaced misery.
Trailing 28-21, the NFL’s most maligned defense stood up. Hello Jonathon Cooper. Scoop, there is is. He recovered a quarterback fumble and raced 35 yards with a Justin Fields fumble to even score with 6:55 remaining. He might have saved reeling defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s job in the process based on the vitriol he has received on social media. Cooper outraced his former Ohio State teammate to the end zone following Nik Bonitto’s strip sack.
“That was the biggest play of the game,” Payton said of the momentum swing. “Our edges played better.”
Added a smiling Cooper, "That is the first time I have scored a touchdown since high school. I am sure I have going to have a lot of my coaches hitting me up about it"
One more stop was required to complete the biggest comeback since Peyton Manning overcame a 24-point deficit vs. the Chargers in 2012. The Bears faced a fourth-and-1 at their own 18-yard line with 2:57 remaining. Linebacker Alex Singleton stuffed Khalil Herbert as he plunged into the line. The Broncos sideline erupted.
"We have to learn from this, but you have to (bleeping) enjoy the win as well," Singleton said.
Russell Wilson, who finished 21 of 28 yards for 233 yards and three scores, made it matter. The Broncos drove 48 yards in five plays, including a long strike to rookie Marvin Mims Jr. Wil Lutz delivered on his promise as clutch with a 51-yard field goal with 1:46 remaining.
"It was a we thing. We did it all together," said Wilson, whose team finished 6-for-11 on third down. "It's all about resilience."
The Broncos are no longer winless. Or hopeless. They are 1-3 with a chance. Safety Kareem Jackson sealed it with his second pick of the season with 32 seconds remaining.
"I know the guys we have on this side of the ball. We have a ton of competitors. We have pretty much the same guys as last year when we were one of the top defenses," Jackson said. "If we communicate, we can be tough to beat."
The idea that the defense won it was hard to believe. Fields set a franchise record with 17 straight completions. Then, with the game hanging in the balance, he burst 20 yards with his legs on one of the few plays when everyone was covered. But the Bears showed why they have lost 14 straight games with repeated penalties and that bizarre fourth-down attempt when they were in field goal range at home, stuffed by Singleton.
Denver started the comeback when staring at a 28-7 deficit. Wilson engineered a seven-pay, 75-yard drive, capped by a 4-yard scoring toss to Brandon Johnson. Then came the most impressive march of the season.
The last time the Broncos defense ranked dead last in 2010. They comfortably occupied that status at halftime. But they started grinding and believing and talking and tackling..
"We are passionate about this," said Jackson about extolling teammates on the sideline. "With that comes pride and ego when it comes to doing our job. When it's not looking the way it should be we know. And sometimes that passion comes out."
No one argues that the defense missed star safety Justin Simmons and linebacker Josey Jewell, both sidelined with groin injuries. But there should be enough scheme and effort to prevent the type of missteps that began with Washington’s 32-point onslaught over the final 33 minutes.
When Fields found tight end Cole Kmet wide open in the end zone – no one was within 10 yards – the numbers became mind boggling. At one juncture of 110 minutes of game time bridging two weeks, Denver had been gashed for 110 points. Not even Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams scored with this proficiency. As with any Broncos stat, it becomes worse with digging.
As the Bears took the 14-7 lead, Fields hadn’t started a game like this since he was at Ohio State. Or maybe Harrison High School in Georgia.
Over the past two first halves, Miami’s Tua Tagovailo and Fields connected on 32 of 33 passes for 437 yards and five touchdowns. When they trailed 21-7 at half, the Broncos had allowed 123 points over their past eight-plus quarters on 13 touchdowns, including eight passing. The Bears entered the game averaging 250 per game and had 261 at half with six plays of more than 20 yards.
After halftime, the momentum shifted.
"We never gave up," Wilson said.
The Broncos began with promise early on. They held the Bears on their first possession.
Held is a loose term. For reasons that made no sense, the Bears elected to punt on fourth-and-1 at midfield as boos cascaded down on them. The Broncos reintroduced their tight ends into the passing game with Chris Manhertz and Nate Adkins and kept the Bears off balance with sprinkled in runs. Jaleel McLaughlin — he finished with 10 touches and 104 total yards — finished the drive by showing great patience on a dump pass, scampering 18 yards for the score.
Denver led 7-0 with 5:18 remaining. Then the transmission dropped.
Fields responded with a 29-yard touchdown to a toe-tapping D.J. Moore. He entered the game with three touchdowns and four interceptions, while completing 58 percent of his passes. He completed all of them in the first half Sunday until a Hail Mary at the buzzer, going 16-for-17 for 231 yards and three scores.
The misery began for Denver after the Moore score. Rookie Marvin Mims Jr. allowed the kick to hit off his facemask. He recovered the fumble, but Denver went three-and-out after taking over at the 4-yard line. A meager 38-yard punt set up Fields to riddle a Broncos defense that is getting no pressure with its front four and cannot close on any pass in zone coverage.
That’s the most unnerving part of Denver’s defensive mistakes. Their downs were a series of wide-open receivers, shaking heads and pointing fingers.
But the Broncos rebounded.
“We knew how bad we played in the first half. We started off terribly,” Singleton said. “But we cleaned it up. It feels good.”
Gregory out of starting lineup
When I asked Payton last week about Randy Gregory needing to step up, he insisted that no defender played well defensively last week. While that's fair, Gregory struggled more than most, especially in rush defense.
Vance Joseph apparently saw the same thing as Nik Bonitto started Sunday. On the first series, Bonitto posted a sack and a tackle for loss. Gregory entered on the second series, and was in on a combo tackle on his first snap. Bonitto finished with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble that changed the game.
Ja'Quan McMillian also replaced Essang Bassey at nickel corner.
Justin Simmons (groin) missed his second straight game, leaving the Broncos secondary compromised. Simmons had a setback last Friday. He missed several weeks of training camp with a groin injury. Delarrin Turner-Yell started in Simmons' place.
Starting running back Javonte Williams hurt his hip early in the first half and did not return. He felt going into this week he would hit his stride, but finished with two carres for zero yards. ...
The Broncos' inactive list featured no surprises. Safety JL Skinner remains a project, explaining why he was not activated. Josey Jewell (groin) missed his first game of the season, but made enough progress last week to possibly return vs. the Jets.