The Broncos have shined on the league's brightest stages, winning in walk-off fashion in Buffalo on "Monday Night Football" in Week 10 and securing another come-from-behind win against the Vikings on Sunday.
The "Sunday Night Football" showdown between two of the league's hottest teams turned out to be more gritty than flawless, and the Broncos left the field acknowledging that all three phases of the game had room for improvement. Still, Denver shined when it mattered most, using three takeaways and a lockdown late-game performance on defense and a crucial touchdown drive on offense to capture a 21-20 win, giving the Broncos the longest active winning streak in the league. Let's dive into seven of the most impactful plays that proved pivotal in Denver's prime-time victory.
Outside linebacker Baron Browning forces a fumble on Vikings' opening drive
Situation: Defending third-and-1 from the Minnesota 34, 13:38 remaining in the first quarter, tied at 0-0
Breakdown: For the second consecutive game, the Broncos' defense set the tone immediately by forcing a fumble on their opponent's opening drive. Minnesota tried to confuse Denver by lining up tight end T.J. Hockenson under center on third-and-short, and after the snap, Hockenson tossed to elusive quarterback Josh Dobbs for a run to the outside. The Broncos were unfazed, charging through the line of scrimmage and nearly stopping Dobbs for a loss. Outside linebacker Baron Browning wrapped Dobbs up from behind and attempted to pry the football free. Cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian — who forced and recovered a fumble on Buffalo's opening drive in Week 10 — caught the fumble in the air to give the Broncos' offense possession on the Minnesota 30. The play swung win probability 11.7 percentage points in the Broncos' favor, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and the offense converted the prime field position into a Wil Lutz field goal to give Denver an early lead.
They Said It: "[Forcing turnovers is] something that these guys really buy into and they understand — it's the number one thing in this league. [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." – Head Coach Sean Payton
Kicker Wil Lutz drills a 52-yard field goal to close the Broncos' halftime deficit
Situation: Fourth-and-5 from the Minnesota 34, 0:05 remaining in the second quarter, Minnesota leading 10-6
Breakdown: The Broncos' offense was at its sharpest at the end of each half, putting together scoring drives in two-minute drills. Operating with just over a minute remaining in the first half, quarterback Russell Wilson used two darts to wide-open tight end Adam Trautman to advance Denver into Minnesota territory. After Wilson's deep throw to wide receiver Jerry Jeudy fell incomplete, the Broncos sent out Wil Lutz for a 52-yard attempt. Lutz's kick had perfect distance and accuracy and split the uprights, cutting Minnesota's halftime lead to one point. Lutz made a career-high five field goals along with the extra point and received the Broncos' special teams game ball. With five field goals and a converted extra point attempt, Lutz's night proved to be a difference-maker in the Broncos' 21-20 victory.
They Said It: "The more you see the ball go in the uprights, the better, right? Like I said, I would love to kick extra points. But with two outstanding defenses like there were tonight, I think it is important to take every point we can get. I am glad I was able to play a big part in that." - Lutz
Defensive tackle D.J. Jones forces Vikings' second fumble of the evening
Situation: Defending first-and-10 from the Denver 34, 2:53 remaining in the third quarter, Minnesota leading 17-9
Breakdown: In Denver territory and holding an eight-point lead, the Vikings had an 87 percent win probability and were on the verge of turning the "Sunday Night Football" showdown into a two-possession game. Instead, defensive tackle D.J. Jones made arguably his best play of the season in a time when the Broncos were in dire need of a takeaway. As Minnesota running back Alexander Mattison took the first-down handoff from Dobbs and accelerated forward, Jones swiped at the football with his free arm before falling to the Empower Field grass. The savvy move loosened Mattison's grip, and the football came free once again and bounced off the ground. Inside linebacker Josey Jewell beat Mattison to the football to foil the Vikings' drive and completely reverse momentum. Nine plays later, Denver found the scoreboard again on a Lutz field goal to shorten their deficit to five points.
They Said It: "The guys are just trusting each other. 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." - Jewell
McMillian picks off a Dobbs pass for his second takeaway of the game
Situation: Defending first-and-20 from the Denver 15, 12:37 remaining in the fourth quarter, Minnesota leading 17-12
Breakdown: Payton said after the game that turnover differential was the key to victory against the Vikings in prime time, and Denver's third takeaway was another turning point in the game. Just two defensive plays after recovering Mattison's fumble, Jewell made another stellar play in pressuring Dobbs on a first-down blitz. Dobbs still attempted a throw toward his right side, but Jewell impacted the pass. The throw's high trajectory allowed McMillian to make a play on the ball. McMillian jumped in front of Vikings receiver Brandon Powell to snag the pass out of the air, and he used his momentum to add on a 9-yard return to the Minnesota 9-yard line. The takeaway marked the Broncos' third-straight game with a turnover margin of at least plus-three and made McMillian the first Broncos cornerback since 2009 with a fumble recovery and interception in the same game. McMillian's interception was the most impactful of Denver's takeaways, resulting in an increase in the Broncos' win probability of 26.9 percentage points. Denver couldn't convert the red-zone trip into a touchdown and settled for Lutz's fifth field goal of the evening, but the back-to-back takeaways were emblematic of the Broncos' defense's gutsy, opportunistic performance and closed the Vikings' lead to 17-15.
They Said It: "It was kind of like a switch release. They switched real quick, so I took [the] No. 2 [receiver] — he did a whip route going outside. Josey did a good job of running through the running back and getting pressure, and he hit the elbow or something on the quarterback. … The ball went straight up in the air, and I was able to make a play on the ball." - McMillian
Courtland Sutton corrals Russell Wilson's fourth-down pass with one hand
Situation: Fourth-and-3 from the Denver 32, 2:27 remaining in the fourth quarter, Minnesota leading 20-15
Breakdown: The Broncos' offense had a quiet evening for the first three quarters, but quarterback Russell Wilson and his teammates delivered in the clutch for Denver's fourth game-winning drive of the season. The drive was in danger of a turnover on downs on its fourth play, with the Broncos' needing to convert on fourth-and-3 to keep its hopes alive. After the snap, Wilson stepped up in the pocket and rolled out to his left side toward the first down. To prevent Wilson from scrambling for an easy first down, Vikings All-Pro safety Harrison Smith ran forward out of pass coverage, opening the field behind him for a Wilson pass. Sutton opened the play running a simple in route, but as Smith left his coverage area, Sutton cut up field and gained a step on linebacker Ivan Pace. Wilson lofted a touch pass to Sutton, and Sutton extended his right arm and caught the pass with one hand with Pace draped all over him. The Broncos declined the defensive pass interference penalty on Pace and used the highlight-reel catch to jump-start a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
They Said It: "We all believe together. Going into that last drive, we just wanted to keep moving the ball down the field, find completions. Try and take some shots if they were there — this or that. I think the [offensive] line did a tremendous job. They gave me enough time to make decisions and to do the things I needed to do." - Wilson
Wilson finds Sutton in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown reception
Situation: First-and-10 from the Minnesota 15, 1:09 remaining in the fourth quarter, Minnesota leading 20-15
Breakdown: After converting on fourth down, Wilson completed four passes to running back Samaje Perine to advance the Broncos into the red zone. But with a five-point deficit and just over a minute left in regulation, settling for a field goal wasn't an option for the Denver offense. Wilson read the Vikings' defense and checked to another part of the Broncos' original play call, then stayed poised in the pocket when Minnesota sent a six-man blitz. With NFC sack leader Danielle Hunter lunging at him, Wilson fired a pass to the end zone while moving forward and gave Sutton a chance to make another incredible catch on a jump ball. Sutton timed his jump perfectly and beat Vikings cornerback Mekhi Blackmon to the football for a 15-yard, go-ahead touchdown. According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, Sutton's reception had a 26.5 percent completion probability, the fourth-lowest of any Week 11 completion, and increased the Broncos' win probability by 22.9 percentage points. The play gave Sutton his eighth touchdown reception of the season and Denver its the lead for the first time since the beginning of the second quarter. After Sutton's touchdown and the ensuing failed two-point conversion, the Broncos held a 63.9 percent win probability.
They Said It: "Once I saw it coming, I knew I was like, 'I can't wait for this to come down.' I knew there were defenders around us, so I had to go and make a play. It was up in the air and you never know, you can run your route and you never know where the ball will go because we have great weapons on offense and you never know where the ball is going to go, who it is going to find. I looked up and saw the ball finding me. It was nice." - Sutton
Broncos' pass rush forces an intentional grounding penalty to thwart Minnesota's final drive
Situation: Defending 3rd-and-10 from the Denver 36, 0:28 remaining in the fourth quarter, Denver leading 21-20
Breakdown: Even after Sutton's late-game heroics, the Vikings had three timeouts and a minute of regulation to make magic happen and keep their winning streak alive. But the Denver defense was motivated, as well. Safety Justin Simmons said after the game that the Broncos' defense embraced the challenge of closing out the game and making the winning plays, and Denver accomplished exactly that. The Vikings' final drive on offense consisted of six incompletions in seven Dobbs pass attempts and ultimately lost yardage. While Dobbs impressed Payton with his scrambling ability, the Broncos' tenacious pass rush and stout pass coverage combined to ensure Dobbs couldn't run or pass for any big gains to get the Vikings back in the game. The pass rush's best play came on 3rd-and-10, when Jones wreaked havoc again by chasing down Dobbs in the backfield. In his attempt to avoid a catastrophic sack, Dobbs committed an intentional grounding penalty, which resulted in a loss of down and a 15-yard loss on the play. Denver closed the game out on the ensuing fourth-and-25 attempt to seal a fourth-consecutive victory.
They Said It: "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 that football game." - Simmons