DENVER — The NFL demands attention. The league represented 92 of the top 100 watched TV programs in 2022.
It is a sport of tremendous skill, breathtaking scores, big tackles and last-second drama. Just not in Denver. Not this season. Or any of the past seven years that have ended without a playoff berth. It's why the Broncos are seeking their fifth head coach since Super Bowl 50.
But on a chilly Sunday, the Broncos played in a way that reflected their chemistry more than their record. With an offensive revival that served as an indictment of Nathaniel Hackett, the Broncos rallied for a 31-28 victory over the playoff-bound Los Angeles Chargers.
It allowed the Broncos to avoid the indignity of a 13-loss season, never done before in franchise history. And Denver also refused to take the bagel in AFC West games, something the team last accomplished in 1982. Sunday's fight represented players caring, and interim coach Jerry Rosburg walking away celebrating after serving as the adult in the room over the final two weeks. The Broncos finished 5-12.
Under Rosberg and with Justin Outten calling plays, the Broncos doubled the previous scoring output of 15 points per game. Russell Wilson looked more comfortable after an ugly start, finishing with three completions of 50-plus yards and three touchdowns. It doesn't take away the sting of this forgettable season, but provides hope, perhaps, for the next coach.
It was a game that was as entertaining as it was confusing.
The first half provided a lesson: The Broncos have talent, but not enough offensively, and Chargers coach Brandon Staley showed the dangers of mocking logic.
Quarterback Justin Herbert began the game completing 11 of his first 15 passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns. He made throws to all places, all hashes, the new $400,000 grass shipped in for this game from Arizona serving as a red carpet into the postseason. The Broncos struggled with coverage as Keenan Allen and Gerald Everett exploited mismatches. But in the face of reason, Staley kept his starters in, despite the game becoming meaningless before kickoff when the Ravens lost. And it bit him.
Receiver Mike Williams (back) left on a cart with an injury, linebacker Kenneth Murray (neck stinger), Nick Bosa (limped off) were also hurt. It was like Staley was trying to create another opening for Sean Payton.
The Broncos need a new and improved coach — they will interview defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero in person and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh virtually this week, and Payton as soon as Jan. 17. Without better players there will not be significant change in the AFC West. Denver entered the game with a 5-18 record in its last 23 division contests, aiming to avoid its first winless AFC West mark since 1982.
At least they showed competence in interim coach Rosburg's two games, speaking to how far this team has sunk since Super Bowl 50.
While Denver's defense appeared porous vs. Herbert, the Broncos' offense showed initial promise. For only the second time this season, the Broncos scored a touchdown on their opening drive, matching the Raiders home game. So Klint Kubiak and Outten have that on their season resume, but not fired coach Nathaniel Hackett.
The Broncos' drive included a reverse to Jerry Jeudy, a called quarterback draw, a fourth-down sneak and Latavius Murray trucking in from two yards out. This march received a B-12 injection from two Chargers' penalties of roughing the passer and a facemask.
Then things, as they have all year for the league's lowest-scoring offense, the engine stalled. The Broncos collected 89 yards on their next five drives, going three-and-out three times. At one point late in the half, Wilson had 13 rushing yards and, um, 13 passing yards. Their last drive showed promise, and clobbered fans over the head with the reality that Jeudy has replaced Courtland Sutton as the team's No. 1 receiver.
When Jeudy caught a 57-yard pass down the left sideline, Wilson's best throw of the day, he set career highs in receptions and yards, despite missing two full games to injury and the majority of two others.
Jeudy's reception set up Wilson's 3-yard score to tight end Eric Tomlinson, tying the score at 17 at halftime.
The Broncos secured their first lead, 24-17, from an unlikely source. Running back Tyler Badie, plucked off the Ravens' practice squad this week, turned his first reception into his first touchdown, galloping 24 yards down the sideline with 11:42 remaining in the third quarter.
With Herbert still in the game — everyone remained baffled — the Chargers answered with a 36-yard field goal from Cameron Dicker.
Denver seemingly grabbed control when Wilson lobbed a score to Courtland Sutton for his second touchdown in his last 26 games. It represented quite the U-turn for Wilson who had three completions of 50-plus yards after his clunky start.
But nothing comes easily for the Broncos. The Chargers rallied when Brandon Johnson, in for the injured Freddie Swain, fumbled the first punt return of his career in the fourth quarter. Chase Daniel, finally in for Herbert, drove the Chargers 29 yards, connecting with Allen for a score and then adding a two-point conversion. That left it 31-28 with 6:02 remaining.
Show of Support for Hamlin
The NFL community was shaken by the events of last Monday night when Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest following a tackle. After receiving life-saving CPR on the field, Hamlin has made remarkable progress this week, even face-timing his Bills teammates.
Along with outlining the 3s on the field in red and wearing T-shirts saluting Hamlin, the Broncos and Chargers showed their support after the opening kickoff. No. 3 Russell Wilson and Chargers' No. 3 Derwin James kneeled in prayer at midfield with their teams lined up behind them as a picture of Hamlin was shown on the video board.
Punt returner Montrell Washington finished the season inactive, casting doubt about his future with the team. The rookie returned 32 punts for 217 yards. However, he fumbled five times, losing two. Freddie Swain received the first opportunity Sunday, muffing the punt and recovering it. Brandon Johnson fumbled his first attempt in the fourth quarter ...
The season finale featured an attendance of 60,833 with13,202 no-shows, their second highest total this season. ...
Justin Simmons forced two fumbles Sunday to go along with his six interceptions, the most by a Bronco since Champ Bailey's 10 in 2006. ...
Broncos defensive lineman DeShawn Williams hurt his knee in the third quarter. ...
The Broncos finished 12-5 at coin toss this season. So they consistently won at something. ...
Russell Wilson and Brandon McManus served as game captains.