LONDON — This is a story about redemption.
The Broncos' season was thisclose to expiring on a cloudy Sunday afternoon at Wembley Stadium. But rather than spiral into the abyss, where they have rented an Airbnb the past six years, the Broncos opened the blinds and peeked out the front door with a snarl on their face before 86,215 fans, the most ever to watch an NFL game in London.
Final score: Broncos 21, Jaguars 17.
This is all Broncos Country has wanted to see over the past month. Fight. Compete. Show competence offensively. End a stand alone game with the country not talking about firing first-year coach Nathaniel Hackett. This contest ended with Russell Wilson hustling out to the edge of the field, nearly two hours after the game and in a rush to catch the bus, to take one last photo.
"The thing we keep talking about is unwavering belief," said Wilson, wearing his No. 14 Jordan Henderson Liverpool soccer jersey, the city where he and Ciara were married. "That’s what happened tonight."
A forgettable season emerged from the darkness because of two memorable drives. The Broncos entered the game with two touchdowns in 17 attempts when venturing inside the 20. They scored three touchdowns in three red zone drives vs. Jacksonville, the rose finally blooming in unison with Jerry Jeudy (six catches, 63 yards, one touchdown) and K.J. Hamler (three catches, 52 yards).
Trailing 17-14 with 3:49 remaining, Wilson went to work. He connected with Hamler for 47 yards down the right sideline, then scrambled for a first down, setting up Latavius "Mr. London" Murray's touchdown. The Broncos secured the victory with cornerback K'Waun Williams' interception. The Hamler go route came with a back story.
"Russell told me on the sideline that if they went ahead, he was coming to me on the first play," Hamler said. "We weren't leaving London without a win."
A 98-yard third quarter drive put the wheels in motion for the victory. It was not "The Drive" of 98 yards, that will forever belong to John Elway in Cleveland. But it was The Drive of the season that will always belong to Wilson in London.
After a rugged start, Wilson looked more like the Wilson of old than an old Wilson, trusting Jeudy and rookie tight end Greg Dulcich (his functional work in the run game makes it easier to disguise plays). Dulcich's 38-yard reception — he finished with 87 yards receiving — to the 1-yard line set up Melvin Gordon's high-step into the end zone, giving the Broncos a 14-10 lead, their first of the game.
"We absolutely needed that," Jeudy said.
It also represented the Broncos' first third quarter touchdown of the season. Entering the game, the offense had scored three points and the defense two in the period after halftime, an indictment of Hackett. This nine-play march soaked 4:22 off the clock, giving one of the league's best defenses a chance to sip Gatorade, take a breath.
The increased tempo made a difference, offering a hint of something to build on after Wilson finished 18 of 30 for 252 yards and a touchdown.
"That is what is supposed to look like," bellowed Hackett to the players in the locker room, whose Broncos now enter the bye week 3-5 after their first road win of the season.
Early on, it was the same old Broncos. They could not be trusted. They were all belt, no buckle. Or in language Londoners can appreciate: They Did Not Mind The Gap. They fell into it, repeatedly squished by the Underground trains, each time more gruesome than the last. When the Broncos play in a stand-alone-game, as they did on Denver7 with a 7:30 a.m. kickoff, they spiral into a Piccadilly Circus of errors.
They committed 10 first-half penalties, including a delay of game on a kickoff, the type of mistake that puts special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes in a bad light in the wake of multiple blocked kicks and muffed punts.
In the first quarter, before many back home had walked their dogs or swigged their coffee, the Broncos had three drives with two punts and a Wilson face palm interception. His first pass of the game should have been picked and his second was. Denver didn't post a first down until midway through the second quarter. And they finished 2-for-11 on third down.
"We have work to do. We know that. I had a bad start to the game. I gave up a sack," left guard Dalton Risner said. "I played angry after that. The difference is that we executed when we had to today."
The Jaguars capitalized on Wilson's turnover as former No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence threw a dart to Evan Engram for a 17-yard touchdown. Down 10-0 with Jacksonville at the goal line — Travis Etienne (24 carries, 156 yards) set up a score with a 49-yard burst — Justin Simmons kept hope within arms reach. As Lawrence sprinted right, Simmons followed him, leaping for a terrific interception of a terrible pass.
"This season isn't over," Simmons said.
Finally, the Broncos awoke from their jet lag, led by "High Knees" Wilson. After a stretch where he completed 7 of 23 passes from the end of the Chargers game to the second quarter on Sunday, the nine-time Pro Bowler finally looked the part. He connected on six straight, wisely involving Jeudy, the one receiver consistently getting separation as Courtland Sutton struggles on contested balls and on screen blocks.
Wilson capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive with a two-hand touch pass to Jeudy — it was really a jet sweep concept that the former Alabama star has been used as a decoy on for two years — that sliced Jacksonville's cushion to 10-7. The Broncos finally dropped the gloves, if you will. General manager George Paton lamented the group's lack of identity after seven games.
However, there was balance in the second quarter — Gordon finished the half with 47 aggregate yards rushing and receiving — and Wilson moved out of the pocket, creating a point guard vibe as he drew in the defense and used check downs.
Denver trailed 10-7 at half, but revealed grit.
However, the magic of the third quarter drive dissolved with more sputters, leaving Wilson on stage for one last wave of the wand. His connection to Hamler and his "high knees" on a scramble set up a score. Williams' pick sealed it.
"He’s got one arm," said Hackett of Williams, who has a cast on his wrist. "How you catch that, I still don’t know.”
In every season, as Wilson explained, there are defining moments when suddenly the carburetor backfire turns into a soothing purr. It was just one game. But it offered hope as the Broncos prepared to fly nine hours back home.
"I was so tired of talking to you guys about this being the week that we turned it around. I was over that. We finally did it," Gordon said. "Who knows? Maybe I will do some high knees on the plane."
Trade market for Chubb
Edge rusher Bradley Chubb danced onto the field 90 minutes before kickoff. He took in the view, then kneeled to pray. His routine remains the same. But it very well could have been his last game as a Bronco with the Tuesday 2 p.m. trade deadline looming.
Multiple teams have expressed interest, including the Rams, per a source. The Rams have a history of making deals with Broncos general manager George Paton. Paton shipped Von Miller to the Rams for two picks and acquired Kenny Young a year ago. The Rams could be willing to offer a first-round pick, but they don't have one in the upcoming draft, making it less attractive. The Chiefs are looking to add an edge player, though would be an unlikely trade partner for Broncos. It could take a first or a second and a third to move Chubb, who remains the most likely starting asset to be dealt to build draft stock.
Chubb said after the game he has not made plans over the bye week, recognizing he could be traded.
Receiver Jerry Jeudy has drawn calls as well. But a source told Denver7 Saturday night that the Broncos are not motivated to move him unless they receive an overwhelming offer. Jeudy is under a team-friendly contract next season. Speedy K.J. Hamler, who has battled back from injuries, could be on the move. Both showed Sunday why they should be kept and used more moving forward.
Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who has been a healthy scratch the past three weeks, makes sense for a few teams, including the Giants. It would likely take only a conditional late-round pick to acquire him.
Center Lloyd Cushenberry left the game with a hip injury in the second quarter and did not return. Graham Glasgow replaced him. Cushenberry told Denver7 he suffered a groin injury. He has additional time to recover with the bye week. ...
Justin Simmons has the second most picks (24) by a safety since entering the league in 2016. ...
Dre'Mont Jones has 5.5 sacks this season. ...
The Broncos are first team to have 10 penalties in first half of a game this season.