CHICAGO -- It wasn't easy, it wasn't how he planned it, and it might not have even been suitable for framing, but Sunday's 31-28 victory for the Denver Broncos over the Chicago Bears will always be Sean Payton's first with the franchise.
Owner/CEO Greg Penner presented Payton a game ball after the Broncos' comeback victory. Denver trailed 28-7 with four minutes, 11 seconds left in the third quarter. Payton grew up and played high school football in Naperville, Illinois, a southwest suburb of Chicago, before playing at Eastern Illinois University.
"Greg was great,'' Payton said. "They wanted me to talk a little bit and I've been lucky enough the last five times we've been here, we've won, been in that locker room. ... Hopefully, it's the first of many relative to where we're going; we have a lot of work to do still, but we can enjoy this.''
For almost three quarters Sunday, the Broncos looked as if the hangover of the historic 70-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins last week was going to drag another devastating defeat to the pile. The Broncos were dominated by the Bears, who had also started the day at 0-3, for most of three quarters.
Chicago quarterback Justin Fields was 16-of-17 passing for 231 yards and three touchdowns in the first half -- his only incompletion came on a Hail Mary on the Bears' last play of the second quarter. When Bears running back Khalil Herbert caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Fields late in the third quarter, Chicago had built a 28-7 lead.
"Very easy to lay down in that situation,'' said Broncos kicker Wil Lutz, who played for Payton with the New Orleans Saints and kicked the 51-yard game winner Sunday. "... Pretty cool to see the team stay together.''
"I'm happy for Coach Payton,'' Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson said. "An amazing coach, Hall of Fame coach, a guy who teaches the game at the highest level, for him to get his first win here was exciting for all of us.''
The Broncos' beleaguered defense, which surrendered 10 touchdowns and 726 yards to the Dolphins last week, gave up 471 yards to the Bears (Fields finished with 335 passing yards and four touchdowns), a total that included 171 yards rushing.
But the defense also might have made the two plays that gave Payton his inaugural Denver win. Outside linebacker Nik Bonitto sacked Fields in the fourth quarter (Bonitto had 2.5 sacks in the game), knocked the ball free and outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper scooped up the bouncing ball and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 28-28 with 6:55 to play.
The defense also got a fourth-down stop on the Bears' next possession on a fourth-and-1 from the Broncos' 18-yard line. Bears coach Matt Eberflus elected to go for the fourth-down conversion rather than attempt a field goal.
Linebacker Alex Singleton stopped Herbert for no gain and the Broncos drove for Lutz's game winner five plays later.
"First win for us, [and] the way things we're going, it was great,'' safety Kareem Jackson said.
"The strip fumble was arguably the biggest play of the game,'' Payton said. "You score on defense, you're going to win a lot of games; that ended up being the case.''
Payton, however, also made it clear that while he enjoyed the win, as did the players after the game, Monday's review of all that went wrong before the Broncos saved themselves will be terse at times.
"There will be some tough tape [Monday],'' Payton said. "I don't want to sugarcoat anything, there's some things. We're going to play a lot tougher teams on our schedule, no disrespect to Chicago, to Matt [Eberflus] and what they're trying to do -- I'm sure it's the same here [from the Bears] -- but I think the win was important for the group.''