The Broncos bounced back in a big way in Week 14, using a dominant defensive performance and a couple of spectacular gains through the air to upset the Chargers in SoFi Stadium for their first divisional road win since 2019. Denver took the lead on running back Javonte Williams' 3-yard rushing touchdown midway through the first quarter, and the Broncos never looked back. A favorable turnover margin and a six-sack performance from the pass rush were also pivotal to the Broncos' victory.
With the win, Denver maintains strong positioning in the playoff hunt and once again holds a winning record. Today, we'll take a deep dive into seven of the plays that helped the Broncos take command of their must-win divisional matchup.
Broncos foil Chargers' fourth-and-3 attempt in the red zone
Situation: Defending fourth-and-3 from the Denver 6, 10:52 remaining in the first quarter, tied at 0-0
Breakdown: Denver faced adversity early on in Inglewood, California after turning the ball over on its first play from scrimmage on an interception. But instead of surrendering a score afterward, the Broncos' red-zone defense showed up in full force. Despite starting on the Broncos' 13-yard line, the Chargers could not pick up a first down. Still, Los Angeles decided to try for the end zone on fourth-and-3 from Denver's 6-yard line instead of a short-range field goal to take an early lead. Los Angeles receiver Keenan Allen motioned from the right side of the offense over to the left before the snap, and cornerback Pat Surtain II navigated around the defensive backfield to keep Allen in his sights. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert lofted a pass toward that left side, but his intended target was tight end Gerald Everett, who was covered by safety P.J. Locke. Everett extended his arms and appeared to get both hands on the ball, but he couldn't maintain control with Locke in close proximity. The incompletion and resulting turnover on downs kept the score tied and returned the ball to the Denver offense for its second drive.
They Said It: "Obviously when you're down there, we pride ourselves on red-zone defense. Especially if they're not going to kick the [field goal for] three [points], you want to be able to win downs like that. Fourth downs are basically like turnovers if you get them. Definitely was good execution, and it was good for us." – Defensive end Zach Allen
OLB Jonathon Cooper snags an interception off a deflection for Broncos' first takeaway
Situation: Defending third-and-7 from the Los Angeles 12, 5:07 remaining in the first quarter, tied at 0-0
Breakdown: Entering the game as visitors and the underdogs according to NFL Next Gen Stats' win probability model, the Broncos swung the game in their favor with something that has been essential to their midseason resurgence: a turnover. Outside linebacker Baron Browning brought the pressure on Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert and swatted Herbert's pass attempt with his right hand. Outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper read the play perfectly, positioning himself to catch the deflection and securing the interception cleanly. Cooper added a couple yards on the return before being dragged down by Chargers left tackle Rashawn Slater, giving the Denver offense the ball on the Los Angeles 3-yard line. One play later, the Broncos scored their first touchdown of the game and took a lead they would not surrender. Cooper's interception boosted the Broncos' win probability from 45.3 percentage points to 57.5, according to Next Gen Stats.
They Said It: "That's how good teams win. That's how you win in this league. The defense helps the offense." - Cooper
Denver defense impedes Los Angeles again with near-interception on fourth-and-2
Situation: Defending fourth-and-2 from the Denver 29, 3:18 remaining in the second quarter, Denver leading 7-0
Breakdown: With Los Angeles driving in a one-possession game and inside field-goal range, the Broncos needed to make a stop to keep their AFC West rivals from cutting into their lead. Instead of holding the Chargers to a field goal, Denver's defense accomplished a more impressive feat: another fourth-down denial. On the Chargers' fourth-and-2 attempt, Cooper brushed off Everett's block and raced after Herbert, while defensive end Zach Allen brought pressure from the opposite side of the backfield to force the Chargers' star quarterback to get the ball out fast. Herbert released a pass before Cooper and Allen could bring him down, but his intended receiver, Alex Erickson, was well out of bounds. Cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian, though, got his hands on the ball and was nearly able to record an interception. The Broncos declined the Chargers' pre-snap penalty for illegal shift and earned another turnover on downs on the play. The stop boosted Denver's win probability by an extra 7.8 percentage points and thwarted one of Los Angeles' most promising drives.
They Said It: "Our defense has been amazing the last seven weeks-plus. They've been unstoppable. They've gotten turnovers, they're making plays. We're playing together." – quarterback Russell Wilson
TE Lucas Krull makes first career NFL catch on 35-yard reception in two-minute drill
Situation: First-and-10 from the Los Angeles 45, 0:31 remaining in the second quarter, Denver leading 7-0
Breakdown: For the fourth time in their five games following their bye week, the Broncos ended the first half with a field goal in the final two minutes of the second quarter. Denver's 10-play, 65-yard drive on Sunday to set up kicker Wil Lutz's 23-yard field goal had plenty of contributors, but tight end Lucas Krull's 35-yard catch was the most impactful offensive play of the drive and gave the Broncos a chance at a touchdown. A practice-squad signing in August and the target of the Broncos' final offensive play against Houston, Krull found open space downfield on a first-and-10 play and secured his first career catch on quarterback Russell Wilson's deep ball. Chargers safety Alohi Gilman finally pulled Krull out of bounds at the Los Angeles 10-yard line but drew a facemask penalty, which advanced the spot of the ball to the 5-yard line with 23 seconds left in the first half. The Broncos couldn't convert the red-zone trip into a touchdown, but the ensuing Lutz field goal allowed Denver to enter halftime with a 10-point lead and momentum firmly in their favor. Krull's catch also contributed to a promising theme throughout the game for the Broncos offense: the tight ends' ability to make plays in the passing game.
They Said It: "The truth is, in our season we're 5-1 over the past six weeks and now 6-1. … I kept telling the guys that, early in the week, that's the reality. That's the truth of the past seven weeks, now we're 6-1 and I think there's great belief. [I] told the guys in the huddle before the last knee, 'Stay humble and hungry, let's keep going.' We're not even at our best yet, and that's a good thing." - Wilson
Broncos overpower Chargers' offensive line on fourth-and-short stop
Situation: Defending fourth-and-1 from the Denver 40, 8:11 remaining in the third quarter, Denver leading 10-0
Breakdown: The Chargers kept up their fourth-down aggressiveness even after Herbert left the game with a finger injury, but almost every fourth-down attempt brought the same result. On fourth-and-1 from their own 40, the Broncos' front seven swarmed ball-carrier Joshua Kelley behind the line and ensured that the Chargers' rushing attempt had no chance of a first down. Inside linebackers Alex Singleton and Josey Jewell got to Kelley first after sprinting in from the second line of the Denver defense, while Browning added to the group effort after shedding a block. According to Next Gen Stats, the fourth-and-short stuff was the Broncos' most impactful turnover on downs by win probability, boosting Denver's chances of a win by 9.6 percentage points to 85.5. The failed fourth-down attempt also exemplified the Broncos' physicality throughout the afternoon and their success on the ground; Denver outgained their hosts 106-76 in rushing yards.
They Said It: "We knew that they were going to go for it more often than not. I think that they converted one fourth down. I was pleased." – Head Coach Sean Payton
WR Courtland Sutton completes one-handed catch for 46-yard touchdown reception
Situation: First-and-10 from the Los Angeles 46, 6:05 remaining in the third quarter, Denver leading 10-0
Breakdown: Denver's defense buoyed the Broncos' chances at a road win for most of the first three quarters, but quarterback Russell Wilson and wide receiver Courtland Sutton took over the game for the Broncos with another highlight-reel connection to extend Denver's lead. When Wilson's original read broke down, Wilson escaped the pocket and looked downfield to challenge Los Angeles' defense vertically. Sutton initially started to cut back toward Wilson, then took off downfield and made eye contact with his quarterback. Wilson lofted a pass toward the end zone, and Sutton positioned himself perfectly and corralled the pass with a single arm. Sutton completed the catch as he was falling to the ground despite defensive pass interference from Chargers cornerback Michael Davis for his 10th receiving touchdown of the season. Sutton's catch made much more than an impression — the score moved the Broncos' win probability to a commanding 92.4 percentage points and gave Denver its biggest lead of the game.
They Said It: "Russ and I have gotten into a really good spot of being able to find each other on scrambles. I was in the spot I was supposed to be in, but once he gets out of the pocket, another play starts. … I almost came back. I almost ran back towards him, but literally I heard him in my head say 'top down' and I was just like, 'All right, I'm just going to go deep.' As soon as I went deep, we locked eyes from a distance, and he just gave me a chance." - Sutton
Wilson finds a wide-open Adam Trautman for a game-sealing touchdown
Situation: Third-and-1 from the Los Angeles 10, 3:16 remaining in the fourth quarter, Denver leading 17-7
Breakdown: The Broncos' offense sealed the win with a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that consumed seven minutes and 26 seconds and included four third-down conversions. The drive culminated in one of Denver's most inventive play calls of the season, a play-action fake based off the Chargers' tendencies on tape. Head Coach Sean Payton took note of the Chargers' run defense on a 4th-and-1 run Los Angeles failed to stop in its wild-card matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, and the Broncos' play call set up the same formation, with Williams filling in the spot of Jaguars running back Travis Etienne. Instead of handing off to the running back for the short-yardage attempt as the Jaguars had done, Wilson kept the ball and rolled back out to his left. The fake fooled the edge defender, Chargers outside linebacker Tuli Tuipulotu, leaving Los Angeles without any defenders between Wilson and the first down line to gain. Then, Wilson pulled off another fake. After keeping it himself in the Broncos' practice repetitions of the play during the week, Wilson instead looked downfield and flicked a pass toward tight end Adam Trautman, who was uncovered in the end zone. The touchdown and converted extra point returned the Broncos' lead to 17 points and finished Denver's impressive effort against Los Angeles with a flourish.
They Said It: "I don't want to sound shallow, but there's nothing better. 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. … It has to be the right situation. I felt like at third-and-1 with a lead late in the game, it was kind of a similar situation — a 'got to have it,' if you will. … 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