ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — To land the knockout blow against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday afternoon, Head Coach Sean Payton dialed up a play based on tendencies the Broncos found in the Chargers' playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last season. Keying off a play in which the Jaguars gave the ball to running back Travis Etienne for an outside run, the Broncos lined up in the same formation and appeared to run back the same play with running back Javonte Williams.
After appearing to initiate the outside run, quarterback Russell Wilson fooled Chargers defenders — and even his own teammates. Wilson kept the ball, rolled back toward the left side of the field, faked a quarterback keeper and flicked a pass to tight end Adam Trautman, who was standing wide-open in the end zone for an easy 10-yard touchdown completion.
Williams, the play's main decoy, said he was caught off guard by Wilson's pass, but he was thrilled with the play's outcome.
"On the play [Jacksonville] ran, Etienne got the ball and ran around the outside, so Coach Payton felt like if we showed that formation again, they would think I was getting the ball and he could have Russ boot out," Williams said on Monday. "But I actually didn't know [Trautman] would go out for a pass because the whole week in practice, Russ had just been running the ball. So when he threw it, I was shocked. But it worked, so I'm glad he did it."
For Payton, the touchdown — the payoff of the Broncos' creativity and attention to detail — was sweet.
"I don't want to sound shallow, but there's nothing better," Payton said of seeing a play work to perfection. "In other words, you're seeing something on film from a playoff game a year ago. Sometimes, it might be a clip you see two years prior, and you're counting on human behavior, and you're counting on them seeing something and reacting in a way in which you think they're going to. It was a play that came off a fourth-and-1 against Jacksonville last year in the playoffs. You're rewinding it, you're rewinding it, and all of a sudden you see something and then you begin to tinker with it, and you put it in."
While Payton said most of the touchdowns in the NFL each weekend are player-based and a result of top players making game-changing plays, he said Trautman's catch was a satisfying example of how scheming a receiver open and fooling an opposing defense can lead to a score.
"We're constantly, as coaches, looking at ways on how can we not trick them, but how can we give our guys a chance to be in a better position?" Payton said. "That was an example yesterday and … it's addictive."
Kicker Wil Lutz connected on the ensuing extra point moments later to extend the Broncos' lead to 24-7, and a forced fumble by the Broncos' defense closed out Denver's sixth win in its past seven games.
While the Broncos were firmly in command before the Trautman touchdown, Payton said that the play was specific to Los Angeles and motivated by the Chargers' anticipated reaction, so it made sense to call it to close out the game rather than save it for a different opponent.
"It's not like, 'Oh, let's pull out the Wing-T play pass this week,'" Payton said. "It's more opponent-specific … relative to a look that you know they've seen. You're counting on a reaction relative to the look they saw not too long ago."
BRONCOS SEAL GAME WITH SEVEN-MINUTE SCORING DRIVE
Trautman's 10-yard touchdown reception capped off the Broncos' longest fourth-quarter drive of the game, but the plays preceding the score also solidified Denver's control of the game. The 13-play, 75-yard drive took up seven minutes and 26 seconds of regulation, leaving the Chargers with just over three minutes and a 17-point deficit on the next possession.
On the Broncos' sideline, inside linebacker Alex Singleton said he knew the drive was special when the typical punt-team call gave way to continued first downs and third-down conversions.
"You just watch the clock kind of tick down, use the timeouts and it's kind of like, 'Oh, we're getting to the point where they can finish this game,'" Singleton said. "It's a great feeling, and we love when they can do that."
The drive featured four third-down conversions — Trautman's score on third-and-1 among them — and included 34 rushing yards from Williams, the game's leading rusher.
"It was pretty much just trying to run the clock off, run the ball, get first downs and just try to keep the ball in our hands and win the game," Williams said. "It was good just to execute it and finally capped off a long drive with [the touchdown]."
Singleton described the drive as emblematic of the Broncos' brand of "complementary football," which proved to be a difference-maker against the Chargers.
While the Broncos' defense set up Williams' early rushing touchdown on an interception by outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper, the offense gave the dominant unit a breather by controlling the clock in the final frame and ensuring the Chargers wouldn't rally in the final minutes.
"That's huge," Singleton said of the final drive. "That's just complimentary football. To be in the position we were in … it just takes all the time away from them. Even if they were to get the ball back and score … there was just not enough time for them to come back in that game anymore at that point."