How the Broncos pulled off a stunner vs. Bills: ‘Russ things’ and reprieves

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — “Don’t party without me!”

Justin Simmons could hear the bass thumping as soon as he reached the concourse following his on-field postgame interview late Monday night. The Broncos had just followed their pre-bye upset of the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs with a 24-22 stunner over the Buffalo Bills in front of a nationally televised audience. The walls were already rattling as Simmons came around the corner. The star safety ducked under a doorway, disappeared into the artificial fog of the visiting locker room, and let the good times roll.

“I’m just proud of these guys, man,” Simmons said. “I’m proud of the way we fight and the way we compete. We’ve just got to keep this thing rolling.”

As Monday night turned into Tuesday morning and the Broncos celebrated their third straight victory, the juxtaposition of vibes was impossible to ignore. It was less than two months ago that these players stared into nothingness inside the visiting locker room of the Miami Dolphins, another AFC East contender. The Broncos had just suffered a humiliating, 70-20 loss and dropped to 0-3. It felt like rock bottom, but the aftershocks of that loss lingered. The Broncos plummeted all the way to 1-5 and another season appeared lost before it had even really begun.

But as Wil Lutz’s game-winning 36-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired — his atonement after a 41-yard miss was wiped out by the Bills’ too-many-men penalty — the season was reborn. The Broncos are still staring up at a logjam of wild-card contenders in the AFC. The math doesn’t suggest a favorable path to the playoffs. But Denver’s belief that it can pull off something special is only growing.

At this point, why shouldn’t it be?

“We’ve got a lot of guys in this room who believe,” said Courtland Sutton, whose incredible, toe-dragging touchdown catch in the first quarter following an acrobatic escape by quarterback Russell Wilson was a preview of the magic the Broncos would conjure Monday. “You hear Russ say it all the time, ‘Believe.’ That’s the biggest thing that is allowing us to have the success. We’ve been able to stack wins.”

And why shouldn’t the Broncos think they can keep the wins flowing after watching their veteran quarterback, who will turn 35 in two weeks, pull off the kind of improvisational, winning-time feats that populated the first decade of his career?

“It was Russ doing Russ things,” Sutton said after Wilson led the Broncos on two go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter. “Russ magic.”

For much of the game, the Broncos followed a similar blueprint that helped them beat the Chiefs for the first time in eight years. Denver forced four more turnovers against the Bills after piling up five takeaways in the Oct. 29 win against Kansas City. On the first defensive play of the game, nickel defensive back Ja’Quan McMillian ripped the ball away from running back James Cook following a short reception, then dove on the ball to give the Broncos possession at Buffalo’s 28-yard line. Lutz kicked a field goal a few plays later to give the Broncos a 3-0 lead.

In all, the Broncos picked off Josh Allen twice and forced two fumbles. They also stopped Buffalo on a fourth-down attempt near midfield to begin the second half. The defense wasn’t perfect. Missed tackles contributed to 192 rushing yards by the Bills on 26 carries, a robust 7.4 yards per rush. But the unit kept making the plays that helped swing the game, like when cornerback Fabian Moreau picked off a telegraphed throw from Allen near the end of the second quarter, setting up a Lutz field goal that gave the Broncos a 15-8 halftime lead.

“I’m sitting here thinking of the adversity we hit and how everyone answered the bell, and I’m just proud of this group,” Simmons said. “All in all, it was good enough to find a way to win today, and that was the biggest thing.”

The Broncos relied on several huge special teams plays from rookie Marvin Mims Jr., who has proven to be one of the most electric return weapons in the league. His punt return of 27 yards helped set up a go-ahead touchdown by the Broncos midway through the fourth quarter.

“If there’s one person running free at him and everyone else is 10 or 15 yards away, good luck,” tight end Adam Trautman said of Mims. “That’s why he’s the best returner in the NFL right now.”

In between, the Broncos kept running the ball, even as they ran up against a seemingly endless stretch of third-and-long scenarios they couldn’t convert. They kept plugging away. They displayed a stubborn refusal to let the piles of penalties or kicking-game mishaps hinder their resolve.

But even after checking so many of those boxes, the Broncos still found themselves needing something extra from Wilson. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Broncos faced 10 third-down plays in which they needed to gain six yards or more for a first down and had failed every attempt. With the game tied, 15-15, the Broncos faced a third-and-10 at their own 46. Their hopes of pulling a season-shifting upset were teetering as the Bills started to carve their edge on the ground. Punt the ball in that situation, and Denver would suddenly be on its heels.

Wilson dropped back and waited patiently as Jerry Jeudy breezed past the first-down marker and settled into a spot in Buffalo’s zone coverage. The quarterback zipped the ball in for a 19-yard gain. A few plays later, on third-and-7, Wilson evaded the rush, scooted into some daylight and flipped the ball to running back Samaje Perine for a nine-yard gain. Soon after that, another third-down conversion, this time a four-yard strike to Sutton. Those conversions were the foundation for a 12-play, 54-yard touchdown drive, ending in a four-yard pass to Javonte Williams, that gave Denver a 21-15 lead.

“He sees the coverage right away,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said of Wilson, who completed 24-of-29 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns. “A lot of times, it’s (finding) the cavities in the rush. It’s not just dropping back and throwing over the rush.”

The Broncos were supposed to have the easy part finished after Wilson found Williams for the touchdown, but punter Riley Dixon dropped the snap on the point-after attempt, spoiling the conversion. That came after Lutz booted the point-after kick that followed Denver’s first touchdown off the uprights. And it came after a Denver penalty on Buffalo’s point-after attempt in the second quarter motivated the Bills to instead try and convert a two-point attempt.

The Broncos had lost the hidden points and when Allen rushed into the end zone from six yards out with 1 minute, 55 seconds left and Tyler Bass added the PAT, Denver was suddenly in a 22-21 hole. Teams that win the turnover battle by three or more takeaways, as Denver did Monday, have won 93 percent of their games since 2000, according to TruMedia, but the Broncos needed more last-minute heroics from Wilson to land on the right side of that math.

Once again, it began with the quarterback’s ability to scramble to a safe space and then find Perine. The flip to the running back turned into an 18-yard gain. It was the life Denver needed to launch a winning march. Wilson took a sack near midfield, but on third-and-10, he recognized the Bills coming with a zero blitz. He lofted up a seam ball for Jeudy, who drew a pass interference penalty on Taron Johnson as he came back for the ball.

The “Hurricane” call came next. The Broncos kneeled with 24 seconds left, the ball at Buffalo’s 23-yard line. Denver’s field goal unit sprinted onto the field and quickly lined up for a game-winning try. They had executed the same scramble kick to end the first half, and the Broncos showed poise even as the seconds ticked away. But as Lutz struck the ball, he watched in horror as it sailed to the right. The crowd at Highmark Stadium roared. The Bills had escaped. The Broncos’ upset bid had ended with an anvil drop on the toes.

Then, they started to spot the flag. The Bills had 12 men on the field, sending one too many players on as Denver scrambled their field-goal unit. Lutz got another chance, this time from 36 yards away.

“I was freaking out,” Simmons said.

This time, the ball sailed through. The Broncos had another signature win. And as the music thumped into the night, an even stronger belief that more are on the way.

(Photo: Timothy T Ludwig / Getty Images)

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