After following up their bye week with two down-to-the-wire, prime-time wins, the Broncos put together one of their most complete performances of the season in a 29-12 win over the Browns. Denver's 17-point margin of victory was its largest of the season and extended the Broncos' winning streak to an AFC-best five games.
Against the league's leading total defense, Denver's offense found an edge against Cleveland's front and imposed its will in the run game. The Broncos ran for a season-high 169 rushing yards and a pair of red-zone touchdowns, while limiting the Browns to a single sack. Denver's defense continued to force turnovers, recovering three fumbles to give the Broncos a plus-two turnover margin. Though the teams entered the fourth quarter separated by just five points, Denver closed out the Week 12 matchup in convincing fashion with 12 unanswered points in the final frame. Here are seven of the plays that swung the outcome in the Broncos' favor.
QB Russell Wilson finds WR Courtland Sutton for 31-yard gain on third down
Situation: Third-and-8 from the Cleveland 34, 8:59 remaining in the first quarter, tied at 0-0
Breakdown: The Broncos offense has scored nine times in its 11 opening drives this season – including six touchdowns — and the unit started off fast against the NFL's leading defense. The drive culminated in a bruising 3-yard rushing touchdown by running back Samaje Perine, but a third-and-long conversion earlier in the drive set up the score and ensured the Broncos wouldn't settle for a long field goal. In man coverage against Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II, wide receiver Courtland Sutton started on the right side of the Broncos' formation but created separation on a cut and found open space on the opposite side of the field. Quarterback Russell Wilson lofted a pass right into Sutton's arms, and Sutton took the pass in stride inside the 5-yard line. While Sutton was wide open, the play required Wilson to throw a pass in Sutton's vicinity with a pair of Cleveland rushers crashing down. Wilson's throw was right on target and gave Denver the surge it needed to complete yet another opening touchdown drive and take a lead it would never surrender.
They Said It: "Sometimes, the progressions take you there. Sometimes, depending on the play obviously, [Courtland] plays [the] 'X' [position], so when you're getting some man-coverage looks, that's the receiver close to you. Shoot, he has another catch they call OPI on, which — I'll say he has another catch. ... Listen, [Courtland's] a leader, he's strong, he practices his tail off and I'm happy for him." - HC Sean Payton
DL Mike Purcell recovers Browns' fumble on fourth-and-1 attempt
Situation: Defending fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 49, 4:40 remaining in the first quarter, Denver leading 7-0
Breakdown: The Broncos may have taken longer to record their first takeaway than has become standard at times during their five-game winning streak, but the seemingly inevitable trend of generating turnovers proved true once more in the final minutes of the first quarter. Cleveland lined tight end Harrison Bryant under center for a fourth-and-1 rushing attempt, but Bryant lost control of the football and it tumbled under the Browns' offensive line. Defensive lineman Mike Purcell recovered the fumble, gifting the Broncos' offense the football in Cleveland territory. The fumble recovery was the first of many highlight plays for the Broncos' defensive line during the afternoon and sparked another stout performance by the Broncos' defense.
They Said It: "We all balled today, and we take pride in that up front. We put them on our backs to start and we're in the trenches, so it has to start there." - Purcell
Wilson keeps it on an option play and breaks free for 19-yard run
Situation: Second-and-7 from the Cleveland 26, 12:38 remaining in the second quarter, Denver leading 7-0
Breakdown: The Broncos' season-best rushing day included four different players rushing for gains of more than 10 yards, and one of the key contributors in the ground game was Wilson. After losing a fumble in the first quarter, Wilson redeemed himself with a red-zone rushing touchdown and 34 rushing yards. His longest run came on the Broncos' second touchdown drive and was the result of inspired play design, sound run blocking and Wilson's athleticism. Wilson caught the snap, faked a handoff to running back Javonte Williams and rolled out to his left side. Wilson's fake completely fooled his read on the play, Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, and Garrett took himself out of the play by committing to the run. That left Wilson with plenty of open space on the left side, with fullback Michael Burton just ahead as his lead blocker. Wilson scampered 19 yards untouched before stepping out of bounds at the Cleveland 7-yard line. A couple of plays later, Wilson kept it again and scored his first rushing touchdown of the season to give Denver a two-possession advantage.
They Said It: "We kind of got out there and saw a couple [of] looks that we wanted to get to. We played fast, made key plays [and] guys did a great job up front. I thought Burton did a really good job of lead-blocking down the left sideline, when I pulled it to the left sideline." - Wilson
DT D.J. Jones pounces on the football after Cleveland fumbles its reverse attempt
Situation: Defending second-and-7 from the Cleveland 41, 15:00 remaining in the fourth quarter, Denver leading 17-12
Breakdown: The Browns scored on three consecutive drives spanning the second and third quarters, and they had an opportunity to take the lead as the fourth quarter began. After a penalty on Baron Browning, the Browns held possession near midfield, albeit without injured starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Cleveland's attempt at trickery resulted in disaster. Browns receiver Elijah Moore fielded the handoff from backup quarterback P.J. Walker and tossed the ball backward to wide receiver Pierre Strong Jr., but Strong couldn't secure the football off the toss. The ball bounced into the hands of defensive tackle D.J. Jones, who quickly diagnosed the play. After the ball bounced free again, Jones dove to the ground and pounced on the loose football. The Broncos took over possession at the Cleveland 20-yard line and scored three plays later, turning a one-possession lead into a two-score game. Though Jones' teammates gave him plenty of flak for not completing the scoop-and-score, the veteran defensive tackle still made one of the most important plays of the afternoon; the recovery boosted Denver's win probability by 18.6 percentage points to 86.3 percent, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
They Said It: "Just like anybody else, I love contributing to the team. I should have scored. I should have got it, but I am glad I got it for the offense." - Jones
TE Adam Trautman stays in bounds for remarkable 8-yard touchdown reception
Situation: Third-and-goal from the Cleveland 8, 13:37 remaining in the fourth quarter, Denver leading 17-12
Breakdown: The Broncos' passing game has stepped up with near-miraculous touchdown receptions throughout the season. Against Cleveland, it was tight end Adam Trautman's turn to make the highlight reel. Facing third-and-goal, Wilson improvised in the backfield and evaded defenders before firing a pass Trautman's way along the right sideline. Trautman caught the ball cleanly and dragged his left knee along the end-zone grass, but the margin was so close that the game's referees initially ruled the pass incomplete. After replay review, the referees reversed the initial incomplete call to give Trautman his second touchdown catch of the season, securing a two-possession lead for the Broncos instead of the eight-point advantage that a field goal would have provided. After the game, Trautman revealed that he thought his knee was out of bounds when the play happened, but he learned from Payton's reaction on the sideline that he might have plenty to celebrate. The NFL Next Gen Stats model measured the play's chance of completion at 24 percent, making it the fifth-least likely completion of Week 12.
They Said It: "Trautman did a tremendous job of getting his knee down. When you get a knee down, it's considered two feet. Just a heck of a catch. As soon as I threw it, I knew he was going to catch it. We just believed that was going to be a touchdown. Tremendous, tremendous play by him and a great effort by the offensive line giving me enough time." - Wilson
OLB Nik Bonitto brings the heat for his first sack since Week 5
Situation: Second-and-11 from the Cleveland 24, 12:53 remaining in the fourth quarter, Denver leading 24-12
Breakdown: Outside linebacker Nik Bonitto was one of the afternoon's defensive stars, as he notched 1.5 sacks and helped record the Broncos' game-sealing safety. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Bonitto pulled an ingenious move out of his repertoire to take down Walker and force a third-and-long attempt. At the snap, Bonitto charged at Browns offensive tackle Geron Christian Sr., then used Christian's backward momentum against him. Bonitto planted his left foot into the Empower Field grass and pulled off a lightning-quick spin move. At the same time, Walker moved up in the collapsing pocket and right into Bonitto's arms for a sack. Bonitto continued to wreak havoc on the next play, pressuring Walker into an errant throw on third down. The sequence forced Cleveland to punt and spoiled a crucial Browns fourth-quarter drive, while increasing the Broncos' win probability to 94.1 percent.
They Said It: "The sacks are great to have — that's what we strive for going on the field everyday — but just talking with the older guys in the group and my coaches, they knew it was coming from me, as long as I kept doing what I was doing every week, kept getting around quarterbacks, kept being disruptive. … They just said, 'Keep working, it's going to come.'" - Bonitto
S P.J. Locke strip-sacks Cleveland's P.J. Walker for Broncos' third takeaway
Situation: Fourth-and-14 from the Denver 33, 8:28 remaining in the fourth quarter, Denver leading 24-12
Breakdown: The health status of safety P.J. Locke was one of the Broncos' main storylines in the week leading up to their matchup against the Browns, and Payton said after the game that Locke "truly was questionable" throughout the week and that Denver didn't want to risk further injury if Locke wasn't at full health. Locke was ultimately cleared to play and emerged as a difference-maker in the secondary, playing 74 percent of Denver's defensive snaps. His best play came on a fourth-down blitz on a fourth-quarter Cleveland drive. Before the snap, Locke lined up across from Browns tight end David Njoku, but he came off the line like a rocket and had a free path to Walker in the backfield. Locke wrestled Walker to the ground while hooking Walker's elbow, and the ball came free and into the arms of inside linebacker Alex Singleton. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Locke's strip-sack was one of the quickest sacks of Week 12 at 3.6 seconds. More importantly, Locke's forced fumble gave the Broncos their third takeaway of the afternoon and allowed Denver to bleed more than four minutes off the clock. Denver also added a field goal on the ensuing drive, which pushed its lead to 15 points.
They Said It: "I just had a blitz [on the] back side. I kind of showed a man-[coverage] demeanor on the tight end, and the quarterback was not even looking at me. I knew I was going to probably come free. We practice hooking the elbow to get the ball out. That is what I did. The practice came to fruition." - Locke