DENVER — Everything played out as it has so many times before.
Russell Wilson took the field first for warmups, went through his normal throwing routine and represented the Broncos as a captain for the coin toss. Then the game started, and he retreated to the sideline.
What did coach Sean Payton do?
He went to Jarrett.
After a week of seismic change and an underwhelming first quarter, Jarrett Stidham showed why. On third-and-8, Stidham climbed the pocket, bought time, and fired a dart to receiver Lil’ Jordan Humphrey crossing the field. Humphrey then widened eyes with one of the best plays of the season. He changed speeds more than a New York City Uber driver, spinning out of a tackle, breaking another one, running through a pair of defenders and leaping for a 54-yard score.
It was the defining moment in the Broncos’ 16-9 victory in their final home game against the Chargers, closing out with a 5-4 record at Empower Field at Mile High.
"Obviously, it was a good win to get," said Payton.
The Broncos, however, were eliminated from the playoffs with wins by the Chiefs and Steelers. They have not reached the postseason since 2015.
"Look, we kind of had that opportunity (to win) a week ago and then ‘ugh’. I think more importantly than any of that, and that’s very important, is our focus heading into next week and getting our ninth win. That’ll be a good challenge," Payton said. "It was a goal of ours. Yes, it’s disappointing. ... I think it’s important to win period. Obviously. The whole time we’re learning how to prevent beating ourselves. I think it’s extremely important because it’s our last opportunity with this team, and getting to that ninth win means something.”
How the Broncos responded to the drama this week became a central storyline. Players were surprised by Wilson’s benching, creating the refrain that “if it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone.” Had Denver trailed early would disappointment and anger leak into the performance? Payton made it clear this week that a winning record matters, snapping the streak of six consecutive losing seasons. He has repeatedly used the example of the Detroit Lions carrying their 9-8 2022 season into this year, winning their first division title since 1993.
The joy for Humphrey was real. After his third score of the season, Humphrey was not about to give up the football as teammates congratulated him, including Courtland Sutton, sidelined by a concussion.
It shoved the Broncos ahead 10-3 with 6:37 remaining in the half before a crowd of 9,007 no-shows. The Chargers responded with one of the worst fake punts of the season. Nick Niemann fumbled a direct snap as the Broncos took over at the 42-yard line. A Wil Lutz field goal followed, leaving Denver with a 13-3 intermission lead.
Did Stidham provide the spark Payton sought?
Sort of. They showed more dimensions in the passing game, but it was the team's lowest scoring output since Week 6.
After a clunky start, Stidham posted a solid first half, 12 of 22 for 165 yards with one touchdown and a 54-yard completion to Humphrey and a 41-yarder to Jerry Jeudy. It was the most first-half passing yardage since Week 3. In a more apples-to-apples comparison, Wilson went 11-for-20 for 112 yards and one interception in the first half three weeks ago.
"Once I got back to my locker, I texted my wife what a cool feeling it is to get my first NFL win. But with that, it’s not about me, it’s not about a first win, it’s about the team getting the eighth win of the year," Stidham said. "I couldn’t be prouder of the guys in the locker room. We thought we played—definitely thought we left some points out there, but defense played phenomenal as usual. Special teams played great. Offensively, we just have to find a way—especially in the red zone—to put the ball in a little bit more. Really good team win, for sure.”
Stidham finished 20 of 32 for 224 yards in his first NFL victory.
"I thought he was good. I thought he was collected, calm," Payton said. "I thought he played with really good poise."
The offense looked different in two ways: rookie Jaleel McLaughlin took on a much bigger role, and Stidham showed prowess and proficiency on crossing routes from the pocket whereas Wilson excelled off-script and in uptempo.
This represented an important audition given the likelihood Wilson is cut this offseason, leaving the Broncos saddled with dead cap hits of $35.4 million in 2024 and $49.6 million in 2025. Stidham signed a two-year, $10 million contract on the first day of free agency. Stidham paired with a drafted quarterback could help ease the salary cap ramifications of moving on from Wilson.
This isn’t to suggest the Broncos were running on nitromethane. Some of the same issues with Wilson remained, suggesting he was hardly deserving of sole blame. In the first half, the Broncos offensive line remained inconsistent, and other than McLaughlin, the running backs found tough sledding. In the fourth quarter, after a Chargers interference on Jeudy moved the ball to the 1-yard line, Quinn Meinerz and Garett Bolles had back-to-back false starts. This is not an evolved offense. Slightly improved, but not evolved.
Wilson had a saying that belonged on a bumper sticker: “Winning is a lifestyle.” Sunday I offer, "it was more gritty than pretty. It was Stiddy."
Stidham represented the team’s 13th starting quarterback since Peyton Manning retired. He began ominously, completing 1 of 4 passes for four yards, while absorbing three hits. For those who keep track of such things, Stidham connected on his first pass to Samaje Perine for 5 yards.
Stidham delivered his first score on his second attempt. This was a Fred Flinstone drive, powered by legs and feet. Javonte Williams, McLaughlin and Perine combined for 35 yards on the ground. Surprisingly, Payton did not go for it on fourth-and-2 from the 8-yard line when he elected to at the goal line last week. The Broncos took the points as Lutz drilled a 32-yard field goal.
While eyes gravitated to Stidham, Easton Stick briefly matched Stidham in the battle of the backups. He engineered an eight-play, 42-yard drive, settling into range for Cameron Dicker. He booted a 36-yarder to knot the score with 9:43 remaining. Los Angeles, however, was limited by the absences of several high-profile players, including receiver Keenan Allen.
Stidham made good with his audition. But the question at the position remains unanswered moving forward.
"He’s calm in his approach. I feel like he wasn’t phased at all. He was ready to step in. He’s ready to make some plays out there and he did show that today," cornerback Pat Surtain II said. "As a whole, he played a great game and that’s what we expect out of him."
Russell Wilson went through his normal pregame routine Sunday, out early on the field throwing to receivers. Wilson served as the backup because Payton, wanting to win nine games and framing the demotion as a football decision, felt like he gave the Broncos the best chance if Stidham required relief. …
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey hurt his right ribs with 4:47 remaining in the first quarter and did not return. Cam Fleming replaced him. There is hope McGlinchey, who took a helmet to the ribs, will be available against the Raiders. …
Jonathon Cooper posted his 8.5 sack of the season. He is attempting to become the first Broncos player to reach double figures in sacks since Von Miller and Bradley Chubb in 2018. …
Game day captains were Russell Wilson, Mike McGlinchey, and Riley Dixon. Former Broncos safety David Bruton planted the flag to rally the crowd. …
Backup safety Delarrin Turner-Yell injured his knee in the first quarter and did not return. There is fear he suffered a major knee injury. …
The Broncos defensive starters were introduced. Good move after this past week. …
Tremon Smith served as the punt returner with Marvin Mims Jr. sidelined with a hamstring injury.