Not Packing it in. Broncos secure first home win of season

P.J. Locke interception seals victory as Denver avoids first ever 0-4 home start
Packers Broncos Football
Posted at 10:55 AM, Oct 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-23 12:55:34-04

DENVER – In an upside-down season with bad performances and worse optics, one statistic stood out.


That is how many home wins the Broncos had entering Sunday, dropping their first three season as favorites.

When coach Sean Payton gathered in the team in the post-practice huddle Friday afternoon, he let his frustration out.

“I am tired of talking about losing at home,” Payton said.

The Broncos changed the narrative with a suffocating defense and an improved passing attack spearheaded by Courtland Sutton, topping the Packers 19-17 before a sellout crowd at sun-bleached Empower Field at Mile High.

"It was a hard-fought win. I am pleased for our players. The ability to get onto the next play and put adversity behind you. The teams that have that trait usually fare better," Payton said. "It comes down to those final plays."

In fairness, about half the crowd left disappointed – roughly 30 percent were Packers fans and another 20 percent in Broncos Country would have preferred a loss to improve the team’s draft status. The idea of tanking in October remains jarring for a team that Payton believed would contend for a playoff berth. No one is entertaining that talk but hope flickers for another week with the Chiefs coming to town. Win that game – which would end a 16-game skid vs. the rivals – and the Broncos would match their 3-5 record at the bye.

The Broncos grabbed secured a two-point lead with a 52-yard field goal from Wil Lutz, avoiding becoming the first Denver team to start 0-4 at home. Lutz has converted 12 straight kicks since his opening day miss vs. the Raiders.

“It was nice to finally finish," linebacker Josey Jewell said. "We need to be able to do that every week."

After some nervy moments, the Broncos Zip-Locked the victory with 1:52 remaining. On third-and-20, Packers quarterback Jordan Love fired a ball down the middle of the field. Justin Simmons had tight coverage as P.J. Locke, in for the ejected Kareem Jackson, raced over for the interception.

"P.J. made a one of one play. He did what he was supposed to on his half of the field, kept his eyes up and made a great play on the other side," safety Justin Simmons said. "We kept saying that we need to make a play. And P.J. did."

Suddenly, the Packers cheers went silent. Denver ended the madness.

Three one-win teams triumphed on Sunday – Giants, Bears, Patriots – before the Broncos kicked off. Denver put itself in the mix with a strong first half, leading 9-0. They held a 27-3 record when shutting out an opponent at intermission. That had to be weighed against the past – the Broncos had lost 10 straight games when leading at intermission dating to 2021, an NFL record.

Denver, ranked 29th in third quarter scoring, responded with a touchdown as Russell Wilson lofted a rainbow to a wide open Courtland Sutton for an 18-yard score. A 16-3 advantage turned quickly as controversy introduced itself to the proceedings. Love, a rumor in the first half, lofted a ball toward the end zone late in the third. It was intended for Romeo Doubs. Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II had other ideas, racing back, and leaping into the air. Both players had the ball, and Surtain’s feet landed first, leading the referee expert on the CBS broadcast to explain that it should have been ruled an interception. The officials on the field determined that Doubs secured it, giving Green Bay a touchdown.

The officials said afterward the only issue was whether Doubs had possession, not an evaluation of Surtain's feet.

Leading 16-10, the Broncos picked a bad time for their worst possession. They delivered only their second three-and-out, punting to a suddenly revived Packers offense. Green Bay opened the fourth and Kareem Jackson exited. Love connected with Luke Musgrave on an 18-yard reception down the far sideline. Jackson lowered the boom, drawing a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty and his second ejection off the season. Jackson has been fined four times in six games, exceeding $89,000, and will likely be suspended this week for the Chiefs game as a repeat offender.

"One of the challenges with Kareem is that he has some priors," Payton said. "I wasn't surprised. I haven't seen the real clean shot out of it. We have to keep the head out of it. And he wants to do it right."

The Broncos became disorganized moments later, forcing Payton to burn his second defensive timeout. After a false start, the Packers faced a fourth-and-2 from the 5-yard line. What happened next is hard to reconcile even for a Denver team that is on first-name basis with the abyss and has horrible luck. Love pump faked, then fired a fastball in Doubs’ direction. It tipped off his hands and into the paws of Jayden Reed for a score, the immaculate deflection giving Green Bay a 17-16 advantage with 8:31 remaining.

When this day began, the Broncos faced one of the worst rushing teams in the NFL. So, of course they passed on their first three downs. A diving 33-yard reception by Courtland Sutton kept the train on the tracks – he was the team’s best offensive player in the first half -- allowing Denver to mix in the ground game. However, a 62-drive felt hollow when Javonte Williams’ scoring plunge was negated by a Quinn Bailey holding call. The Broncos settled for a 32-yard Wil Lutz field goal – his ninth straight – to secure the lead.

Given the Packers’ first quarter issues, this initial push cannot be overstated. The Broncos followed with an emphasis on handoffs. Having Russell Wilson pass nearly twice as often as running back carries seemed counterintuitive given how team was constructed with the offseason additions of right tackle Mike McGlinchey, left guard Ben Powers, tight end Chris Manhertz and fullback Mike Burton.

When the Broncos took a 6-0 lead – another drive fizzled as Wilson retreated backward in the face of pressure – they had 54 yards on the ground, including 29 from Williams. By the 6:31 left in the half, Jaleel McLaughlin had 43 yards compared to 34 for the Packers.

On a postcard-perfect Sunday, it was fair to wonder how many how regrets for spending it watching this. It conjured memories of Minnesota-Iowa, where first downs are celebrated like touchdowns. The Broncos led at half 9-0 and held a halftime advantage in their previous three home games against the Raiders, Commanders and Jets and lost. In fact, they entered Sunday having dropped 10 consecutive games when leading at half, their last win coming against Detroit in 2021.

The defense proved dominant statistically, holding the Packers to 100 yards and 47 passing. Denver collected 209 yards, but settled for three field goals, allowing Green Bay to lurk. This created squirms because the Broncos’ ranked 29th in third quarter scoring. The Packers took the opening kickoff and showed signs of functionality. Love, looking like Captain Checkdown, used his legs for a critical third down conversion that facilitated a 29-yard Anders Carlson field goal. It was surprising that Green Bay did not see this as four-down territory, throwing on third-and-4 when the run game was delivering.

The Broncos finished with 145 yards rushing. And Wilson completed 20 of 29 passes for 194 yards.

It was just one win. But it was at home. And that matters for Denver.

"Everybody wants to write us off. Nobody believes in us," said Sutton. "At the end of the day it's all about the character and heart in this locker room."

Fabian Moreau started in place of struggling cornerback Damarri Mathis. The nickel package, at times, featured three edge rushers with Nik Bonitto, Jonathon Cooper, and Baron Browning and two inside linebackers in Alex Singleton and Drew Sanders. Browning provided good pressure in the first half, but also drew two offsides calls. ….

 Three of Denver’s five draft picks from last April were inactive: cornerback Riley Moss, who had been playing on special teams, safety JK Skinner and center Alex Forsyth. …

 Broncos safety Kareem Jackson was ejected for the second time this season. He will likely be suspended for the Chiefs game as a repeated offender