DENVER (AP) — If this was a sign of what's to come in 2023 in Denver, Russell Wilson and the Broncos faithful can breathe easier this offseason.
Wilson rediscovered some of his magic Sunday, throwing for three touchdowns and a trio of bull's-eye deep balls that each covered more than 50 yards in the Broncos' 31-28 win over the playoff-bound Los Angeles Chargers.
“Today he looked like he was having more fun,” Chargers leading tackler Drue Trainquill said. "He hit a few deep shots outside of the pocket, which is vintage Russ. That’s what he’s known for. I thought he did a good job, put the ball where it needed to be put and his receivers got open for him.”
Especially Jerry Jeudy, the man who stood up for Wilson last week when the online vitriol was seemingly running at its peak. On Sunday, Jeudy gained 193 yards from scrimmage with five catches for 154 yards and three runs for 39 more. The highlight was a 57-yard catch during a three-play, 75-yard drive that took 20 seconds and sent the teams into halftime tied at 17.
Again, he had high praise for Wilson.
“I saw the same Russ that didn't give up even though we didn't have the season that we wanted,” Jeudy said after the Broncos (5-12) dodged the franchise's first 13-loss season and its first winless run in the AFC West in a non-strike year since divisional play began in 1970.
The Chargers (10-7) played most of their starters for most of the game, even though they knew before kickoff they were locked into the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs with a first-round game at Jacksonville on Saturday night.
“I know everyone on this team wanted to go out and compete today,” said Justin Herbert, who threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns in his 27th consecutive start with 20 or more completions, the third-longest streak since the merger.
Herbert played three quarters and left with the Chargers trailing 31-20. Backup Chase Daniel threw a touchdown pass and passed for a 2-point conversion after a muffed punt at midfield.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley had many of his stars on the bench by the time the Broncos salted away the win by driving from inside their own 5-yard line to midfield in the final 3:14.
“These aren’t easy decisions,” Staley said. “And hindsight is perfect for everybody on the outside. But these games are not easy to manage. They’re not. Because you don’t have that many players. We did it to the best of our ability.”
Staley's decision to keep his players sharp in an otherwise meaningless game might prove costly, however.
Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams was carted off the field with a back injury and linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. suffered a stinger. Also, Joey Bosa, who just returned from a groin injury last month, was limping along the sideline following his cameo that featured a sack.
“Joey was taken out like the rest of the guys that we were trying to phase out in the game,” Staley responded when asked if Bosa was hurt again.
Justin Simmons capped his best season yet with a pair of forced fumbles and the Broncos handed interim head coach Jerry Rosburg his first win after four decades as an assistant.
Rosburg, 67, took over two weeks ago when Nathaniel Hackett was fired. Although he hedged a bit after the game, he hinted all last week that he'll return to the hyperbaric oxygen therapy venture he was involved with before GM George Paton lured him out of retirement this season to serve as a senior assistant to Hackett.
And the Broncos will continue their search for their fifth head coach since they won Super Bowl 50 seven years ago. On deck are interviews with Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton and the process is expected to take three weeks.
After struggling all season under Hackett, Wilson had his best two games of the season with Rosburg in charge, including last week's 27-24 loss at Kansas City.
Wilson found running back Tyler Badie from 24 yards out to give Denver a 24-17 lead on the opening drive after halftime and added a 24-yard TD throw to Courtland Sutton that made it 31-20.
Wilson promised that whoever the new coach is, he'll find a different Wilson in Denver, one who started to find his way at the end of a lost season.
“I fell short in of my own standards and my own level of expectations and I just wanted to recapture that,” Wilson said. “... And over the last few weeks, I feel like we found that again.”
Broncos CB K'Waun Williams left in the first half with a concussion, and WR Freddie Swain left with a hip injury after hauling in a 54-yard pass in the second half.
Chargers: Headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2018 and will face the surging Jaguars, who have won five in a row.
Broncos: Will be speaking after Jan. 17 with Payton, who's still under contract with the Saints for two more years, and Harbaugh, among several others as they pick up the pieces from their sixth straight losing season.
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