LONDON, UK — The Broncos are high-stepping and flying home stretched out and happy.
Arriving here early to spend the week in London -- quarterback Russell Wilson saying, to much criticism, he spent part of the nearly 9-hour flight here performing high-knee stretch exercises while his teammates slept -- the Broncos rallied from an early 10-0 deficit to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars, who didn’t arrive across the pond until Thursday, 21-17 here Sunday before a raucous and "Sweet Caroline" singing gathering of 86,215 -- the largest United Kingdom crowd in its 15 years of hosting NFL games -- at mostly cloudy, but always energized Wembley Stadium.
"Yeah, I got high knees on the third down,'' Wilson said of his key 10-yard scramble that kept the Broncos' game-winning touchdown drive alive in the fourth quarter. "We got one of those."
After a sluggish start in which the Broncos trailed, 10-0, the maligned Wilson became a hot thrower late in the first half and early in the second half. He was 6 of 6 for 55 yards on the Broncos' first touchdown drive late in the first half and was 5 of 5 for 88 yards -- with three completions going to rookie tight end Greg Dulcich for 78 of those 88 yards -- to set up a go-ahead, 1-yard touchdown run by Melvin Gordon III on their first possession of the second.
"It was because we were playing fast,'' Dulcich said, referring to the tempo between plays. "We play better when we play fast."
The Broncos' offense then hit a lull with three consecutive three-and-outs, which gave Jacksonville a short-field possession. Behind running back Travis Etienne Jr., who had 156 yards rushing on 24 carries, Jacksonville regained the lead, 17-14, with 3:54 remaining.
That's when Wilson's high-stepping exercises, while widely mocked -- may have helped him deliver when it counted. Flat out, Wilson executed what he was acquired, and paid, to do -- lead a game-winning drive. With a fifth consecutive defeat confronting the Broncos, Wilson instead began the do-or-die series with a 47-yard heave to speedy KJ Hamler down the right sideline. Complete.
The ball was at the Jacksonville 33.
Wilson also picked up a pivotal third-and-5 by scrambling for 10 yards. First down at the Jacksonville 18. Russell of old was back. The stinging criticism doesn't seem to affect him.
"I mean, he's an amazing human being from that standpoint,'' said head coach Nathaniel Hackett. "Everybody says what they want. They say whatever they want. That's part of this game. It comes with the territory.
"As a head coach, as a quarterback, you're always going to get that, especially if you don't win, especially if the offense doesn't look good, like it hasn't.
"It was funny, because even though that beginning wasn't what we wanted it to be, watching how he is and the kind of person he is and how he thinks positively, he was able to battle through that. I thought that was really impressive. That's a hard thing to do, and he did a great job of it."
When you lose, Wilson's unyielding positivity is a bore. When you win, it's the difference. The reason.
A Hamler end-around for 9 yards -- in which he broke a tackle in the backfield before scooting ahead -- and Latavius Murray run for 7 yards set up first and goal at the 2. Murray finished with a 2-yard touchdown run and the Broncos went up 21-17.
It was Murray's second short TD run in two games played in London this year. He had one four weeks earlier as a member of the New Orleans Saints.
When Broncos' slot corner K'Waun Williams picked off Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence with 1:36 remaining, Denver was ready to high-knee its way back for the long flight home with a win.
"Adversity is temporary,'' Wilson said. "I've never shied away from pressure. I think you've got to look right at it and keep going and keep believing and stay the course."
The Broncos snapped their four-game losing streak to improve to 3-5 entering their bye week. Jacksonville, the designated home team for this international game, slipped to 2-6.
Holy bangers-and-mash did Hackett and Wilson need this win. Both have been highly criticized during the Broncos' disappointing start with speculation surrounding Hackett that he may not make it through his first season and Wilson receiving buzz for the way he carries himself amid his disappoining play.
In Hackett's case, even new owner Greg Penner sent the reminder Friday that the NFL is, and always be, a week-to-week evaluation.
"All that stuff I can't control,'' Hackett said. "We've had opportunities to win football games. That's facts. We've hurt ourselves. ... I think this game is more important for us because of how we won it."
Even with all those extra days getting acclimated to the 7-hour time difference, and even with the return of Wilson from a hamstring injury, the Broncos’ offense began playing as inept on foreign half-artificial soil as it was through its six games in the United States.
Wilson’s first series – a dropped interception, a running play, and an up-the-middle sack – was poor. His second series – Wilson underthrew top receiver Courtland Sutton on a back-shoulder attempt and was intercepted by Jacksonville cornerback Tyson Campbell – was hide-the-eyes embarrassing.
In a wild, steak-and-bologna performance, the Broncos' offense both sputtered through essentially six, 3-and-out possessions, yet also had long touchdown drives of 75, 80 and 98 yards. Once they got a first down, they rolled. It was that first, first down that was the hard part.
Meanwhile, Lawrence converted the Wilson interception by putting his team up 7-0 midway through the first quarter on a 22-yard touchdown pass to tight end Evan Engram, who was open in the end zone. It was looking bleak early for Wilson, who was getting heat on his throwing shoulder to stay warm on the sidelines while his team was falling behind.
"I went up to him, tried to explain, take what they give us,'' Hackett said of Wilson. "And he looked at me with this big smile on his face. I think you learn a lot about a quarterback when they throw a pick. Especially early. I’ve had some quarterbacks go in the tank and I’ve had some quarterbacks who look at it, I got that one out of the way. And he got it out of the way early and he was able to rebound come back and make some big plays.”
Wilson finished 18 of 30 for 252 yards in a boom-or-bust-type performance. A winning performance. Lawrence was nearly identical with 18 of 31 passing, but for only 133 yards and two interceptions. A losing performance.
Lawrence was the No. 1 overall selection in the 2021 draft and lucky for the Broncos he has been turnover prone in his first two NFL seasons. He tied for the league-lead with 17 interceptions as a rookie last year and was picked off for a 5th time this year as the Jaguars were about to take a 14-0 lead.
Instead, on first-and-goal from the 1 early in the second quarter, Lawrence rolled right and had his throw to the back of the end zone intercepted by Broncos’ safety Justin Simmons, who was floating and reading the quarterback's eyes before he leaped at the goal line to make the clutch snag.
"That’s tough on the quarterbacks,'' Simmons said. "Anytime you’re a free roamer on that play he’s going to lose you in the pile. The offensive line is standing up. He’s running. So my job is if he wants to make a back-line throw I’m tall enough to hopefully get my hands on it.”
On the next defensive series, Simmons chased down Jaguars’ running back Travis Etienne Jr. following a 49-yard run and while the play led to a Jacksonville field goal by Riley Patterson and a 10-0 lead, give Simmons credit for saving 4 points, 11 points on back-to-back defensive series.
"Yeah, I missed it last week and it cost us 7 against the Jets,'' Simmons said in reference to Breece Hall's 62-yard touchdown run. "So that was on my mind. As a post safety it doesn’t matter, you’ve got to get him down. I did a better job with that."
Maybe that extra time in London, though, helped the Broncos' players keep their legs as the game wore on while fatigue set in for Jacksonville.
“I’m not going to lie, felt comfortable toward the end of the game,'' said outside linebacker Bradley Chubb, who may have played his last game for the Broncos as he's the subject of trade talks. "We got that second wind. I felt like the week helped being out here. It hurts being away from the family but I felt like it worked out for us for sure.”
Murray led the Broncos in rushing with 46 yards on 14 carries. He got stronger in the fourth quarter but still the Broncos cannot get a consistent running game going. Murray and Gordon combined for just 75 yards on 23 carries, a mere 3.3 yards per carry.
It was the Broncos' passing game that produced some nice individual stats. Jeudy had six catches for 63 yards, giving him 13 receptions for 159 yards combined the past two games.
Dulcich had 4 catches for 87 yards and now has 12 catches for 182 yards in three NFL games. Hamler added two catches for 52 yards.
The Broncos have now played two regular-season games in London and the team that spent the full week here won each time. In 2010, the San Francisco 49ers came in early while the Broncos waited to land here on Thursday. The 49ers won, 24-16.
This time, it was the Broncos who arrived Tuesday morning while the Jaguars didn't get here until two days later.
"All the little things we went through this week with the time change and guys not feeling comfortable -- it’s just good to come out of it on the positive side of it and continuing this momentum going forward,” Chubb said.
On the other side of their bye, the Broncos play at the Tennessee Titans, leaders of the AFC South with a 5-2 record, on Nov. 13. The Broncos' schedule was loaded with primetime games, short weeks, long weeks and non-Sunday games in the first half but returns to normal in the second half. The Broncos final 9 games are all on Sunday with only one scheduled for primetime -- against the Chiefs on Dec. 11 at Empower Field.
The Broncos wore white tops with a blue stripe along with blue pants and an orange strip as a way to distinguish the game was played in London. "Some people said they didn't like it,'' Simmons said. "But it worked out for us." ...
Center Lloyd Cushenberry III left the game in the first half with a hip/groin injury and didn't return. He was replaced by veteran Graham Glasgow, who started four games at right guard earlier this season. ...
Penalties continue to trouble the Broncos. They had 12 for 81 yards, including a most unusual delay-of-game penalty on a kickoff. ...
Josey Jewell returned to the lineup after missing the previous two games with a knee injury and led the team with 9 tackles. ...
Dre'Mont Jones and Nik Bonitto each had a sack. Jones celebrated with Chubb by staging a tea-sipping skit. Like Chubb, Jones has 5.5 sacks and is eligible for free agency at season's end. Bonitto had a strip-sack for a 13-yard loss. ...
Rookie receiver Jalen Virgil dressed for the first time but didn't get on the field.
Broncos in London
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