Russell Wilson conjured some Sunday night magic.
The Broncos quarterback dinked and dunked and scrambled.
Then he lofted a pass to the back of the end zone and Courtland Sutton hauled in a go-ahead 15-yard touchdown with 63 seconds left in the game.
A failed two-point try kept the score at 21-20 and gave the Vikings a chance, but Denver’s defense came up with one more stop on Minnesota quarterback Josh Dobbs and company.
Winning streak? Alive and well.
A team that started 1-5 is now back to level at 5-5.
Denver has reeled off four straight wins for the first time since 2016 to make that a reality.
Its veteran quarterback had a lot to do with that in prime time after a mostly quiet three-plus quarters.
Wilson on the go-ahead drive completed 6 of 9 passes for 68 yards, four to running back Samaje Perine and the touchdown to Sutton.
The Broncos’ turnover-happy defense made its mark again. Ja’Quan McMillian and the Denver defense twice set up their offense in terrific position, first with a fumble recovery off of quarterback Josh Dobbs on the third play of the game and then again early in the fourth quarter on an interception.
McMillian, a big-play machine in recent weeks, gave Wilson and company the ball first at the Minnesota 30-yard line and then at the 9-yard line.
McMillian also recovered a fumble last week in Buffalo on the first series that led to Broncos points.
Just like last week, however, Russell Wilson and company didn’t fully capitalize on the big play, settling instead for a pair of field goals.
Those field goals represented one part of a massive failure in the red zone and on third down for the Broncos’ offenses in the pair of departments that nearly undid them.
Denver failed on each of its first four red zone trips, settling for field goals on each occasion. They failed on 10 of their first 11 third-down tries on the night, too. None more brutal than a pair of attempts early in the fourth quarter as the Broncos tried to mount a comeback. First, a third-and-1 conversion turned into an illegal formation penalty and then a Wilson sack, leading to Lutz’s fourth field goal of the night.
After inside linebacker Josey Jewell forced a pop-up throw and McMillian interception to set Denver up with first-and-goal, they went backward. But Wilson recognized an all-out blitz on third-and-goal and threw hot to Jerry Jeudy, who broke open on a slant. Go-ahead touchdown? Nope. Jeudy dropped the ball and in the process squandered what would have been a go-ahead score.
Lutz brought Denver within 17-15, but the Vikings mounted a 14-play, 63-yard drive that chewed 7:20 off the clock and ended in a 30-yard Greg Joseph field goal that put the visitors up 20-15 with 3:17 to play.
As it turned out, the drama was only just beginning.
Minnesota entered Sunday night averaging less than 90 rushing yards per game but piled up 85 in the first half, most of it coming on their first three drives.
Dobbs capped one of those marches with a terrific 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Oliver after shedding a sack attempt by Jonathon Cooper. Cooper got him on Minnesota’s next red zone trip to force a field goal, however, helping the Broncos stay within 10-9 at halftime.
When Payton has talked in recent weeks about Denver’s defensive turnaround, he’s often referenced the group’s improved play against the run. Though the rest of the Broncos’ statistics have looked markedly different over the past five games, the group hasn’t consistently shut down opposing rushing attacks. Minnesota clearly took that message despite not being a strong rushing outfit over the first half of the season. The duo of Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler sliced and diced Denver’s front seven, combining for 28 carries and 154 yards.
In order to make an improbable playoff run, Denver likely needs to get to 10 wins on the season, though not all wins are created equal. When teams invariably bunch up around the cut line for the seven-team playoff field in each conference, record against division and conference foes usually comes into play. In that regard, next week’s home game against Cleveland and then back-to-back road games are more impactful than Sunday night against the Vikings or the close of a three-game road set in mid-December at Detroit.
All the same, finding a way past the Vikings at home in prime time for a fourth straight win only serves as further confidence for a team that’s been far from perfect in recent weeks but still has found a way to claw back from a 1-5 start to .500 with a critical stretch of AFC games against Cleveland at home and then on the road against Houston and the Los Angeles Chargers coming up next.
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