DENVER — When it mattered most, Russell Wilson and the Broncos offense finally delivered.
Trailing the 49ers 10-5 with 10:14 remaining and virtually nothing working on offense, Wilson led the Broncos on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that seemed impossible. Wilson, having struggled all night, was exceptional on the drive. First, he scrambled and delivered a 27-yard strike to Kendall Hinton on a third and 10. Second, on third and six, he scrambled 12 yards to pick up another first down. And third, he found Courtland Sutton for a 19-yard gain down to the 5-yard-line, setting up a Melvin Gordon touchdown two plays later — Denver's first red zone touchdown of the year.
"We needed a big drive there at the end," coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "Russell came through. He started running around, making plays — it was a thing of beauty."
A San Francisco interception and fumble on the next two possessions was enough to seal a 11-10 Broncos victory Sunday night in Denver. Thanks to a heroic defensive effort and one — and only one — magnificent offensive drive, the Broncos are 2-1 heading to Las Vegas next Sunday to face the 0-3 Raiders.
"We knew it was going to be a game like that," coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "In the end, it's just about having one more point than the other team."
Denver was stout defensively, holding San Francisco to 267 yards — including a season-low 88 rushing yards — and only 13 first downs. The Broncos also forced a safety and turned the 49ers over three times: a fumble recovery by inside linebacker Josey Jewell, an interception by inside linebacker Jonas Griffith, and a game-winning fumble recovery by safety Kareem Jackson. Jewell, who missed the first two games of the season with a calf injury, totaled nine tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.
"They were outstanding," Hackett said of his defense. "I thought it was just a great performance. Our coaching staff did such a great job. Along with those guys buying into everything we do."
But the Broncos had nothing going offensively, totaling only 261 yards and 14 first downs. On 10 of its 14 possessions, Denver went three-and-out.
A large part of the Broncos' ineptitude on offense has been result of Wilson seemingly not playing up to expectations. Wilson finished Sunday 20 of 33 for 184 yards. Through three games, Wilson is 63 of 106 (59.4%) with 743 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and an average rating of 81.2.
"We're still all learning each other," Wilson said. "We're so close. I've been a part of some good offenses and I think we have a chance to be really, really great... I'm excited because I can feel it — everything is just that close. And once we do, with our defense, we're going to be unstoppable, I think. We've got a chance."
Wilson has shown glimpses of being the elite quarterback the Broncos hope they traded for. Most of those glimpses have come in the fourth quarter, and there's no greater example of that than the drive he put together late Sunday.
"I thought Russell was just unbelievable," Hackett said. "When he started just running around pockets, whether it collapsed, he stepped up into it instead of going backwards and was able to get some yards rushing. And also at the same time, some scramble drills with the guys. When we needed him, he did it. That's what he does."
With Wilson, the Broncos were expected to be a high-flying, explosive offense.
Through three games, that couldn't be further from what the Broncos actually are.
"It's something we have to correct," Hackett said. "We obviously want to score a lot more points and it didn't happen today. We knew it was going to be a slugfest versus this team. And we needed to get it, we got it. We're going to continue to develop and get better as a team.
"However we have to win, we're going to do everything we can."
While it was ugly, the Broncos did earn an impressive win and showed improvement — there were no game management issues by Hackett and only five penalties committed, which is 20 less than they had combined for in the first two weeks.
Now, the Broncos head to Las Vegas with a chance to start 3-1 and 1-0 in the division.
"The best thing you can do is stack wins," Wilson said. "Whatever it takes. It takes what it takes."