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Wilson gets hot, lifts Broncos past Chargers, 31-28 in season finale

Even with playoff game next week and nothing to play for, Chargers' starters surprisingly played entire first half.

DENVER — Perhaps, Jim Harbaugh from Ann Arbor and Sean Payton from Los Angeles intently watched Russell Wilson and the Broncos play their final regular-season game Sunday.

The game held no meaning for the 4-12 Broncos or the playoff-bound Los Angeles Chargers. For the Broncos, all the matters in their quest to end their disturbing seven-year playoff drought is who owner and CEO Greg Penner chooses to become his new head coach.

Harbaugh, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, and Payton, the former head coach of the New Orleans Saints works game-day Sunday in the NFL FOX studios in Los Angeles, are considered the co-leaders for the Broncos’ head coach job. Penner has made contact with both and interviews with both are coming.

What Harbaugh and Payton may have seen: Wilson started slow, as he has so many times before this season, completing just 2 of 9 passes for 13 yards with 26 seconds left in the first half. He then went on a 11 of 15, 270-yard, 3-touchdown tear, as he did so many times in 10 previous seasons with Seattle, that rallied the Broncos to a 31-28 victory.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson waves to fans following the team's NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Denver, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

"We have a good football team -- we didn't show up this year,'' Wilson said. "There's been a lot of challenges, a lot of injuries. Tough times. A lot of changes. But I know ownership and George (Paton, the Broncos' general manager) will do a tremendous job of putting the best football team on the field next year. And also with the new head coach situation, I know they'll find a great head coach.''

The Broncos snapped their 9-game AFC West losing streak and finished the season with an extremely disappointing 5-12 record. That would have at least got them the No. 5 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft in return for their misery but that first-round pick, and their second-round pick also, was dealt to Seattle in exchange for Wilson.

It was the first-ever head coaching win in the long and distinguished coaching career of Jerry Rosburg, who as interim coach in place of the fired Nathaniel Hackett made a noticeable positive impact on the Broncos in their final two weeks. The Broncos played the 12.5-point favorite Chiefs tough before losing 27-24 last week at Arrowhead, then beat a Chargers team that is heading to the postseason for a first-round matchup at Jacksonville.

Broncos CEO and owner Greg Penner presented Rosburg with a game ball.

“It means everything,'' Rosburg said. "Coaching is really a noble profession, I think, because you're working with young men and you're trying to guide them. You’re working on a game that's difficult to play. It's all competitive and physically and tasking. You have to go through rough spots to get there and we did. So yes, I'm just so grateful.”

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos head coach Jerry Rosburg before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Denver, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

The Chargers surprisingly played their starters in the regular-season finale. Surprising because the Chargers could do no better, and no worse, than their No. 5 AFC playoff seed and first-round matchup next week at Jacksonville.

Yet, Chargers’ head coach Brandon Staley assumingly decided he didn’t want his top players to be rusty for the playoff opener and played his top players through the third quarter. Starting receiver Mike Williams was carted off with a back injury. And for what?

“This isn’t the preseason where you have 90 guys to choose from,'' Staley said. "You only have 48 players to choose from so you have to go out there, you have to feel the football team. So we did it the best we could. We wanted to play well in the game and then we wanted to be safe for next week and that’s what we did.”

Prior to the game, the Broncos held two tributes for Bills safety Damar Hamlin, whose cardiac arrest on the field during a Monday night game at Cincinnati scared a nation – while his encouraging recovery to date has heartened it. 

First, like all NFL home teams, the Broncos held a Moment of Support for Hamlin where the crowd roared its applause for Hamlin prior to the playing off the National Anthem.

And then after the kickoff, both teams gathered on their sidelines where players and coaches locked arms before walking several yards out onto the freshly laid, $400,000 grass playing surface. Meanwhile in the middle of the field, the two players wearing No. 3 on each team – Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson and Chargers’ safety Derwin James Jr. – gathered, hugged each other and dropped to a knee for a quick prayer while rising  with a raised arm.

On a seasonably mild, if cloudy, Sunday afternoon in early January, 60,833 people gathered (13,202 no-shows) to see if the Broncos could snap their nearly two-season losing streak inside their division.

Both teams traded touchdowns off their opening drives. The Denver defense seemed surprised to see the likes of Justin Herbert, Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams out there for the opening series because the Chargers marched 75 yards without breaking much of a sweat, the drive capped by a 14-yard touchdown throw from Herbert to Allen.

Credit: AP
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws against the Denver Broncos during the first half of an NFL football game in Denver, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

But the Broncos answered with their own 75-yard drive that was aided by two personal foul penalties against the Chargers, a strong running game and some creative play-calling. Running back Latavius Murray finished it off with a 2-yard touchdown run and the game was tied, 7-7.

Herbert and company stayed in and on his third possession, he converted three, third downs with completions of 18 yards to Mike Williams, 12 yards to Allen and 3 yards for a touchdown to tight end Gerald Everett.

The Chargers were up, 14-7 early in the second quarter. The Chargers were driving for more but just past midfield Ekeler was stripped by safety Justin Simmons with linebacker Josey Jewell recovering. A 25-yard romp by Murray put the Broncos in field goal position and Brandon McManus converted from 33 yards to narrow the score to 14-10.

But Herbert worked a 42-second drive for a 48-yard field goal by Cameron Dicker.

It was 17-10 with just 26 seconds left in the half.

Wilson had been struggling mightily throwing the ball as with 26 seconds remaining he was 2 of 9 for 13 yards in the first half. Both completions and all 13 yards were consumed by receiver Courtland Sutton on the opening drive.

Wilson seemed to pick up little more than a garbage-time dump-off completion to Murray for 15 yards but garbage time turned to clutch time as with 19 seconds left in the half, Wilson scrambled left and threw deep across his body to Jerry Jeudy, who incredibly was open down the left sideline. Jeudy caught it for a 57-yard gain and on first-and-goal from the 3, Wilson hit tight end Eric Tomlinson for a touchdown with 6 seconds remaining.

The teams into their halftime locker rooms tied, 17-17.

Thanks to strong and swift running by backup running back Chase Edmonds with some Wilson completions to Jeudy mixed in, the Broncos moved their second half-opening possession to the Chargers' 24 yard line. Wilson dumped off a pass in the left flat to running back Tyler Badie, who was signed off the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad earlier in the week. Badie sped down the left sideline while tip-toing inbounds before he dove in for the touchdown. 

The Broncos were up 24-17 early in the third quarter. And the Chargers were still playing their starters.

Wilson then threw a moonball to receiver Freddie Swain, another late-season pickup, for 52 yards before lofting a 20-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Courtland Sutton for a 31-20 lead early in the fourth quarter.

It was a disappointing season for Wilson but he played closer to the Russ of old in the past two games.

“I've asked myself that same question, where is he at?'' Wilson said. "I think that it's been a journey. It’s a lot of new. It's a lot of change; a lot of obstacles, and everything else you need to try and to find that magic within every game, every play, every moment. Sometimes you’ve got to keep searching for it and keep working at it and keep building it and understanding that everything works together. I know that I feel like I fell short of my own standards and my own level of expectations, what I know how to do and how I love to do it. I just want to recapture that.''

Staley pulled Herbert and Ekeler in the fourth quarter but when Broncos' rookie Brandon Johnson badly muffed a punt, the Chargers recovered and backup quarterback Chase Daniel connected with Allen for a 3-yard touchdown with 6:02 remaining. Daniel then threw to Joshua Palmer for the 2-point conversion and this exciting finale was 31-28 Broncos. 

The Broncos' offense greatly improved over the final five games, averaging 24.2 points per game. They averaged a league-worst 13.8 points through their first 12 games.

Murray had 101 yards rushing and a touchdown off 13 carries -- his second, 100-yard game of the season even though he didn't join the team until six weeks in -- and Edmonds added 45 yards off 9 carries. Wilson’s late passing surge lifted his stat line to 13 of 24 for 283 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Jeudy had five catches for a whopping 154 yards.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos running back Latavius Murray (28) runs against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half of an NFL football game in Denver, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Herbert was sharp, completing 25 of 37 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns in three quarters of work. Allen had 8 catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns.

The Broncos were so battered at the cornerback position they had to start undrafted rookie Ja'Quan McMillian, who spent much of the season on the practice squad and was playing in his first NFL game. McMillian replaced Damarri Mathis, who didn't play because of a concussion, and played well.

“It felt great,'' McMillian said. "I was on the practice squad the whole year. I just kept working and kept learning from the older guys. I paid attention in meetings. I never veered away from what we were doing in the meeting room and on the field. I just stayed the course and it felt great to come out here and show what I could do.”

A concussion also knocked out Broncos' nickelback K'Waun Williams early in the game.

Losing returners were another issuebut the Broncos, despite introducing such players as McMillian, Badie and Swain, managed to bate a 10-win team that played its starters for three quarters.

“It felt good to win, especially the way that we won,'' said center Graham Glasgow. "I mean, that is a playoff team. We ended up beating three playoff teams this year (San Francisco, Jacksonville and the Chargers). It feels good. It feels like this was how all the other games were supposed to go.''




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