DENVER — The Broncos had just defeated the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, narrowly avoiding another second-half collapse and putting an end to a three-game losing streak in their own stadium, but Broncos coach Sean Payton couldn’t keep his mind from darting back to a failed play that could have wrecked it all.
“I would have liked to see that naked (bootleg) at the end of the game be completed,” he said.
It was the second time Payton had mentioned the play during a 10-minute post-game media session that included as much criticism for his team as praise following a 19-17 victory that improved Denver to 2-5. The scenario: The Broncos were trailing by one point after squandering a 16-3 lead and faced a second-and-5 at the Packers’ 34-yard line with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left in the game. Quarterback Russell Wilson rolled out to his right after the snap, a designed movement with running back Javonte Williams sprinting free along the line of scrimmage in front of him. A completed pass would have turned into a first down because there was only open grass between Williams and the first-down marker. It would have allowed the Broncos to burn more clock and push further toward the end zone.
Instead, it was an incomplete pass. It could have been a far better throw from Wilson. And it probably still could have been caught by Williams. Either way, it was a failed play. And when Wilson was then stopped at the line of scrimmage following a scramble on third down, it felt like the kind of moments that have cratered the Broncos too frequently this season.
“One of the things that we need to continue to work on is, there always seems to be like that one play that happens, and we can kind of get caught up,” safety Justin Simmons said. “Maybe a bad call, this that or the other, but you got to move on to the next play.”
📺: CBS pic.twitter.com/fWPOZx32yJ
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) October 22, 2023
It all worked out from there for the Broncos, unlike when they squandered halftime leads in each of their first three home games this season. Wil Lutz made a 52-yard field goal, which stood as his second game-winning boot of the season. On Green Bay’s final possession, P.J. Locke, who replaced Kareem Jackson at safety after the veteran was ejected for targeting a defenseless receiver for the second time this season, intercepted Packers quarterback Jordan Love on a third-and-20 heave. That play sealed a victory that helped Denver avoid the indignity of its first 0-4 start at home in franchise history.
That alone was cause for celebration, especially after all that had gone wrong for the Broncos — at home and otherwise — during their 1-5 start.
“There’s a lot of football left,” Wilson insisted, “and we believe.”
But Payton’s demeanor as he left the locker room and then addressed reporters was unmistakable. He insisted he was happy his players were able to revel in the glow of a win, but he seethed at the mistakes that nearly spelled another gut-punching defeat. For the victory to equate to momentum, and for the Broncos to take another step — like, say, finally beating the Chiefs next week — they can’t keep making life harder on themselves.
“I’m happy we won. I am. I think I was a little happier before I came in here,” Payton cracked before turning serious. “There’s some things that, from experience, you know need to get fixed or they will cost you — or have already cost us. Those are the things that keep you up at night, and we’ve got to keep working on them.”
Let’s start with the good. The Broncos rushed for a season-high 145 yards, with 82 yards coming from Javonte Williams on 15 carries. It was his highest rushing total since Week 12 of his rookie season in 2021, and he would have had a touchdown on Denver’s opening drive had it not been called back by a holding penalty away from the play. The third-year running back continues to round into form as he gets further removed from the ACL injury he suffered 12 months ago, and he was a tackle-breaking force Sunday. As much as they have at any point this season, the Broncos leaned hard into the run, and it helped them avoid many of the lulls that bogged the offense down the previous two weeks.
“We felt like we were going to be able to do that and we felt like that was important,” Payton said. “It’s a really good front rushing the passer, and we just did not want to get in that game. I thought the runners did a good job with it. That was important relative to what we were doing on third down.”
NFL Week 7 takeaways: Ravens look like real contenders; Chiefs’ D swarms Chargers
And for all the issues the Broncos have had in the red zone, including a 1-of-4 mark Sunday, their pivotal lone touchdown came on a perfectly timed call midway through the third quarter. Courtland Sutton was motioned into the slot, with two receivers to his left. Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas followed Sutton to the inside. That signaled the Packers were in man coverage, the look the Broncos were trying to get on the play. As Marvin Mims Jr. and Adam Trautman ran vertical routes, Sutton hesitated for a beat at the snap and then ran a wheel route behind his teammates, toward the front pylon. Douglas tried to jump around the clump of humanity at the start of the play, but it was too late. Sutton peeled away freely and was wide open for his fifth touchdown of the season.
That gave the Broncos a 16-3 lead, and it looked sustainable. Denver’s defense had limited the two-headed Green Bay rushing attack of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon to that point. The Broncos had moved the ball effectively, even if they were typically settling for one of Lutz’s season-high four field goals. But then came a flow of the keep-you-up-at-night mistakes and missed opportunities.
A defensive holding call on a pivotal third down helped fuel Green Bay’s touchdown drive that answered the Sutton score, cutting the lead to 16-10. The drive ended with Love throwing a 16-yard touchdown pass to Romeo Doubs, who wrestled the ball away from Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II as both players fell to the ground. CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore said during the broadcast he believed the pass should have been ruled an interception because Surtain also had control and his two feet hit the ground first.
“I think we’re going to see that was something maybe that should have been called the other way,” Payton said.
Referee Jack Kemp told a pool reporter afterward that Doubs met the criteria of a catch.
“We ruled on the field that the Green Bay receiver controlled the ball while airborne and came to the ground and never lost control of the ball and therefore, by rule, it is a touchdown,” he said.
Asked whether Surtain’s feet being on the ground first impacts the ruling of the play, he said: “No, that does not.”
The call did not draw Payton’s ire as much as his own defense’s confusion. Twice in the second half the Broncos burned timeouts while on defense, the second coming while the Packers were driving for an eventual go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. The second timeout was used to avoid having only 10 men on the field. Much of the personnel confusion seemed to stem from Jackson being ejected midway through the fourth quarter for a personal foul in which he was called for targeting a defenseless receiver — a play that could make him susceptible to a suspension as a repeat offender.
No matter the reason, the dismay that followed nearly led to another Broncos collapse at home. Late in the fourth quarter, Payton could be seen snapping at defensive coordinator Vance Joseph as the unit struggled with its substitutions.
“Listen, don’t get me started,” Payton said. “That needs to be cleaner. It’s the NFL. That shouldn’t happen. We get caught burning timeouts twice with substitution changes and we need to get that corrected.”
What Payton did appreciate, and what players were proud of afterward, is how they reacted to all that went wrong: the calls, the ejections, the blown lead. After Lutz’s 52-yard field goal — his 12th made attempt in a row after missing a 55-yarder in Week 1 — the Packers drove into Denver territory, nearing position for a game-winning field goal attempt. On third-and-long near midfield, Love threw deep for Samori Toure, who was being covered by Simmons. Locke, who missed the first five games of the season as he recovered from an offseason injury, flew in from the other side of the ball to grab his first career interception.
“Everyone knows a big play, but I hope he gets the credit he deserves on that play because that was a heck of a play that not a lot of guys can make,” Simmons said.
From there, the veteran safety was off for a quiet celebration. Another win at home next Sunday, which would end a 16-game losing streak against the Chiefs, would be cause for a far greater uproar. It would feel like a watershed moment.
But Payton knows the Broncos won’t experience it without being far better than they were Sunday.
“There’s a really fine line in winning and losing,” he said. “You saw today. We have to start stringing together these opportunities.”
(Top photo of Javonte Williams: Jamie Schwaberow / Getty Images)