DENVER — All-Pro safety Justin Simmons started his 30th birthday on Sunday morning with a straightforward birthday wish: a "Sunday Night Football" win against the red-hot Minnesota Vikings.
Thanks to a three-takeaway performance and a gutsy game-sealing drive to end the game from the Denver defense, Simmons got his wish and plenty more to celebrate on his special day.
"I just wanted to come out and win this game," Simmons said after the Broncos' come-from-behind win. "I didn't care … how it looked, I just wanted to come win. Man, the guys played so good and [I'm] just so proud of the team."
After earning a 24-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in its last performance at Empower Field at Mile High, Denver did enough to secure a 21-20 win over the Vikings and quarterback Josh Dobbs.
Denver's defense compensated for its early difficulties against the run by recording three turnovers for the third consecutive game — including a fumble recovery and interception by cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian — and closing out the visitors in the final minutes of regulation.
"With each win you gain more confidence," Head Coach Sean Payton said. "… Guys have bowed up, rolled up their sleeves and gone to work. That's all you can do in this league. You find out a lot about people. I feel like we, organizationally, as a staff and as a team, you get to see the grit. ... I'm proud of the fight and the way these guys are prepared."
Thanks to an opportunistic and aggressive defense and a turnover-free performance by the offense, the Broncos won the turnover margin by at least three turnovers for the third consecutive week. Denver's plus-10 turnover differential over the past three games is its highest since 1984.
Payton said he's made the correlation of winning the turnover battle and victories in the NFL a point of emphasis for the Broncos, and Denver's four-game winning streak — the longest winning streak in the NFL and first for the Broncos since 2016 — has been a perfect illustration.
"It's something that these guys really buy into and they understand — it's the number one thing in this league," Payton said of forcing turnovers. "… [Cornerback Ja'Quan] McMillian has two tonight — he [caused a] fumble last week on the first play of the game. And then it becomes a little bit contagious."
Inside linebacker Josey Jewell said the remarkable increase in takeaways has been the result of collaboration and synergy between the different levels of the defense. Jewell recovered a forced fumble by defensive tackle D.J. Jones in the third quarter, which Denver's offense converted into a field goal.
"The guys are just trusting each other," Jewell said. "One guy holding them up and the other guy punching. Getting the quarterback, making him fumble the ball and getting those picks. The front guys were doing a great job of rushing the quarterback."
The Vikings' primary offensive playmakers, quarterback Josh Dobbs and running back Alex Mattison, sparked Minnesota's offense on Sunday night with elusive runs and scrambles and enabled the Vikings to stay in the lead for most of regulation. Mattison finished with 81 yards and was the game's leading rusher, while Dobbs added 21 yards and a touchdown and impressed Payton with his slippery maneuvers in the pocket.
Yet after the Broncos took the lead on quarterback Russell Wilson's 15-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Courtland Sutton with just over a minute remaining, Denver's defense ensured Minnesota would conjure any magic its final drive.
Despite holding all three timeouts and needing a field goal rather than a touchdown, the Vikings lost four yards on its eight-play drive, including five incompletions in six Dobbs pass attempts.
"[I'm proud of] the way that we're attacking these games, the way that we're handling each other, the way that we're finishing them," outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper said. "In the fourth quarter, we're bringing it. When we come out in the second half, we're coming out with a different type of swag than we have in the beginning and past [games]. I just couldn't be more proud of us."
Simmons said the defense's ability to close the game out "meant everything" and is evidence of the tremendous strides the unit has made over the course of the season. Though Denver's defensive performance left room for improvement, Simmons said the Broncos showed the traits of a great defense with belief and execution, making his special day even more special.
"Man, what an opportunity," Simmons said of the final drive. "We all had the mindset and that look before we took the field, like, 'This is what great defenses do, they find a way to win the game.' … We didn't play good enough throughout those three, four quarters, but we had an opportunity in that two-minute [drill] to go win the football game."