ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A day after his first win at Empower Field at Mile High as the Broncos' head coach, Sean Payton reflected on the ways Denver could have executed better against the Packers in its 19-17 win. Payton said that perfectionism is part of who he is as a coach, and it's a mindset that is staving off any sense of complacency after a last-minute win.
"You're searching for that perfect game," Payton said on Monday. "I'm just that way. I'm going to wear my emotions on my sleeve, whether it's defense or offense."
The Broncos raced out to a 16-3 lead, but consecutive Green Bay touchdowns allowed the Packers to take a late 17-16 advantage. Kicker Wil Lutz's 52-yard boot put Denver ahead for good, but the agony of the "what-if" aspect of plays that didn't pan out stuck with Payton.
"I think there's an element of wanting it to be not perfect, but, man, you know what it can be," Payton said. "There are certain things in your preparation that you do. Then you get to that point and there's that perfect [stretch] — and all of a sudden, it's like, 'Ahh'."
One play Payton used as an example was an incomplete pass to the flat in which quarterback Russell Wilson couldn't quite connect with running back Javonte Williams. The play's situation — second-and-5 from the Green Bay 44 with 4:40 left in regulation — meant the incompletion took on even greater significance, as a first down would have moved the Broncos closer to the end zone and taken more time off the clock. Instead, Denver needed Lutz's 52-yard make and a defensive stop on the ensuing Packers' drive to get the win.
"We ran that naked [bootleg]," Payton said. "… We're in a heavy personnel grouping and we get the pick on the Sam linebacker. We're up onto the corner route, Javonte is in the flat, and the throw is low-and-away. ... You're like, 'This is the perfect timing. We're going to gain another [first down]. We're going to finish this game.' Those type of things. Then you're like, 'Did we rep it enough? Did I practice it enough?' Those are the things where you pull your hair out. That's probably the best explanation for it."
The Broncos succeeded in establishing their run game, rushing for a season-high 145 yards, but Payton also reflected on his attempts to find the perfect balance between the run and pass, especially on third down.
"I don't know if you're ever satisfied with it," Payton said. "I ran it one too many times on third down and three or four yesterday and we had to punt, but you have to be willing to try running it on that down. I did not want it to become a drop-back, rush-the-passer sack fest. That defensive front rushes the passer extremely well, even with four. Staying on schedule and managing the game that way was going to be important."
The search for continued growth extends to the defensive ball, as inside linebacker Josey Jewell has adopted his coach's mindset and prioritized continued growth against Kansas City.
"Getting to a new defense, there's always small, little quirks that you have to kind of work out with the players: where they're going to be, where they're going to fit," Jewell said. "And game in and game out, you get that trust for each other, and that's what we've been doing and have been able to do consistently the last couple games. Hopefully, we can keep on moving forward with that, just understanding where we're going to be, and our communication keeps getting better."
PAYTON ENCOURAGED BY OFFENSE'S PERFORMANCE IN HIGH-PRESSURE SITUATIONS
Denver's offense came alive in crucial situations against the Packers, mounting a six-play, 50-yard field-goal drive in the final minute of the first half and a four-play drive to end the fourth quarter that drained the remaining time off the clock.
Payton said the key to success in those situations is preparation.
"One of the things about these situations is you know they're coming, but you just don't know when they're going to come," Payton said. "Some games, you won't see any of them, and then you'll have a game where you see four. You just know they're going to come up. Now some of them come up once every three years, so you have to be willing to prepare for once every three years. You know for a fact it's going to come up once in three years."
At the end of the first half, the Broncos capitalized on a missed Anders Carlson field goal by racing down the field for another score. The drive featured a 17-yard reception by wide receiver Jerry Jeudy and a 21-yard scamper by quarterback Russell Wilson, which set up Lutz for a 35-yard field goal.
Payton praised the offensive execution and acknowledged the importance of that drive in the context of the 19-17 final score.
"I thought we handled the two-minute [offense] at the end of the half well," Payton said. "... I was pleased with how we handled that drive for those three points. That was important, obviously."
After safety P.J. Locke's interception gave the Broncos' offense the ball back with a 19-17 lead and 1:37 remaining, Denver called three straight run plays and ran the clock down to six seconds. On fourth-and-9 from the Denver 27, Wilson took the snap and launched a pass far downfield, allowing time to expire before the ball hit the ground.
Payton explained the calculus of the strategy and said the six-second difference meant a pass made more sense than a punt, which would have given Green Bay a last-gasp attempt.
"At the end of the game, everyone has those little flip cards telling you when you can take a knee and when you can't," Payton said. "If you take a knee for three plays in a row, there's going to be however many seconds left and you're going to be punting. However, if you run it and you are smart when you run it, this thing is going to be down at six seconds. Now north of six, it gets a little hairy on fourth down. [With] six seconds, science tells us that we can get into our last pass, protect it, launch it down the field and end the game without having to punt and risk a blocked punt."
The Broncos reaped the rewards of their diligent preparation for rare late-game situations with a tight home win. With Denver now preparing to play the Chiefs — a matchup that has been within a score in three of the past four games — those situations could make a difference in Week 8 as well.
"When it comes up and your players see it, they understand that all of it matters," Payton said.