CHICAGO, Ill. — Russell Wilson’s message after the Broncos’ second touchdown on Sunday was simple.
“They know we’re coming back. They know we’re coming back.”
The Chicago Bears had built a quick 28-7 lead early in the third quarter. ESPN’s FPI gave the Bears a better than 98% chance to win the game. Even after the Broncos’ second touchdown, when Russell Wilson said the comeback was on, Denver still had a less than 5% chance of pulling out the win.
“Everybody on the sideline, they believe,” Courtland Sutton said. “But to have our quarterback, our guy, come to the sideline and let it be known, still down 14 points, that we were in this, we still got a chance, I think it really sparked something for all of us. I just love Three, man.”
The Broncos have lost their winning ways in the seven seasons since Super Bowl 50. Fourth-quarter collapses have been more common than comebacks. Last season, the Broncos lost all six games they led at halftime. They blew a 21-3 lead to the Washington Commanders earlier this year.
The Broncos didn’t know how to win, but they learned their first lesson in winning on Sunday by following Wilson’s lead.
“I knew how we left the locker room at halftime and how we stepped on the field in the second half that we were going to fight our way back,” Wilson said.
Later in the game, Wilson spoke with Tim Patrick on the sideline. The wide receiver will miss the entire 2023 season with a torn Achilles but traveled with the team to Chicago. Patrick said the Bears left too much time on the clock and the Broncos had a window.
“He’s a guy that’s been one of our leaders,” Wilson said. “Obviously down and hurt but having that connection and him speaking to me, just a great belief.”
Wilson knows how to win. He’s won 109 NFL games in his career. In his rookie season, Wilson’s Seahawks took down the Bears at Soldier Field. He led a 97-yard touchdown drive to take a lead in the final minutes and an 80-yard touchdown drive to win the game in overtime.
“When the game is on the line, that’s when you’ve got to love it the most,” Wilson said. “You’ve got to have great belief and you’ve got to have no fear. The biggest thing about winning and winning in comeback games and all that, it’s everybody. It’s not just you. Everybody staying poised. Everybody believing. I’ve had some great moments in my career, but that was one of my favorite ones.”
Broncos head coach Sean Payton knows how to win too. He’s won 153 games as a head coach. He had won four consecutive games at Soldier Field before Sunday.
“This game is funny,” Payton said. “There are momentum plays. The sack fumble touchdown I think is significant.”
Payton knew that the Bears had lost 14 of their last 15 games when they tied or lost the turnover battle. He knew that when an offense scored 21 points against the Bears, that offense had won nearly 20 consecutive games. He knew which coverages Chicago was likely to run to protect their young cornerbacks, and how to exploit them.
But to win a football game, the players on the field must make plays, like when Nik Bonitto strip-sacked Justin Fields and Jonathon Cooper picked the ball up and ran it into the end zone to tie the game.
“When you score on defense you’re going to win a lot of games,” Payton said. “That ended up being the case today.”
Another turning point in Sunday’s game came when safety Kareem Jackson, winner of 87 games in the NFL, called the defense together. At that point in the game, the Broncos had allowed touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. Jackson was heated and told his teammates in no uncertain terms that they weren’t doing enough.
Delarrin Turner-Yell, a second-year player who started next to Jackson at safety because of injuries, stepped up at the end of the game. He broke up a third-down pass to get the defense off the field. Then, on the Bears’ second-to-last possession, Turner-Yell made a tackle in front of the sticks to force a fourth down.
“Two huge plays for him and for our defense,” Jackson said. “He played some good ball today. He tackled well. We communicated well. He made some plays that were huge plays for us.”
Those plays set the table for Jackson to make the game-winning interception. The Broncos made the plays they needed in crunch time to take their first win of the season.
When Sean Payton coached the New Orleans Saints, his teams gained a reputation for their rowdy celebrations after wins. They set up a massive sound system in their locker room, even for road games. Strobe lights and smoke machines, too. They wanted their opponents to hear how much fun they were having. It was called “Club Dub.”
Right guard Quinn Meinerz wouldn’t share the details of the Broncos’ celebration on Sunday.
“I can’t say,” Meinerz said. “That stays in the locker room.”
A full-blown party in the locker room might not have fit the vibe. Despite the win, the Broncos played poorly. Payton was clearly disappointed in his team’s performance. The win came against the worst team in the NFL, and the Broncos are 1-3, tied for last place in the AFC.
But every win in the NFL is hard to come by, and a coach who emphasizes blocking out the future and past while focusing on one week at a time, might not care about the cloud that still hangs over his team, at least for a few minutes. Maybe learning how to enjoy a win is a part of learning how to win.
We may never know how the Broncos spent the 15 minutes before reporters were allowed to enter the locker room, but a win against the Jets this Sunday would be worthy of celebration. The Broncos would have tangible momentum for the first time in at least 12 months. They’d be a win away from formally reviving a season that appeared to be dead after an 0-3 start. The 2023 season wouldn’t be a failure, at least for a few more days.