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Stidham struggles in first start as Broncos’ defense leads team to 16-9 victory over Chargers

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DENVER (AP) — The Denver Broncos got that spark they were looking for with a quarterback switch — from their defense, anyway.

The red-zone woes are still there for the offense. Same with the struggles to find a consistent ground game. At least, though, the Broncos are headed into a new year on a feel-good note even if they were officially eliminated from the playoff race.

Jarrett Stidham threw for 224 yards and a touchdown in an uneven performance during his first start in place of a benched Russell Wilson as the Broncos beat the Los Angeles Chargers 16-9 on Sunday.

Stidham earned his first career NFL win as a starter thanks to some timely plays, such as a nifty 54-yard catch-and-run for a score by Lil’Jordan Humphrey and a stellar defensive performance. The Broncos (8-8) forced one turnover and held the Chargers to 2-of-11 on third down.

“Once I got back to my locker, texted my wife just what a cool feeling it is to get my first NFL win,” said Stidham, who earned his first ‘W’ as a starter since leading Auburn to a 63-14 win over Purdue in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 28, 2018. “But with that, it’s not about me. … It’s about the team getting the eighth win of the year.”

Despite the victory, the Broncos saw their playoff chances end when Kansas City beat Cincinnati. The Broncos haven’t been to the playoffs since winning the Super Bowl following the 2015 season.

It was a matchup of backup against backup, with Stidham supplanting Wilson in an effort to try to spark a sporadic offense. The Chargers (5-11) went with Easton Stick for a third straight start after the injury to Justin Herbert.

Stidham was both solid and shaky in stepping in for Wilson, who saw the team average 21.7 points a game under his watch.

“(Stidham) was collected, calm,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said. “He was efficient in and out of the huddle.”

Los Angeles made it 16-9 with 1:17 left on a 52-yard field goal from Cameron Dicker and tried an onside kick. It was recovered by Alex Singleton. Stidham took two knees to end the game.

The game changed complexion at the start of the fourth quarter when D.J. Jones knocked the ball out of the hands of Austin Ekeler, with Josey Jewell recovering the fumble in Chargers territory.

Denver turned the turnover into a 20-yard field goal by Wil Lutz to make it 16-6. The Broncos benefited from a pass interference call on Jerry Jeudy near the goal line on fourth down. Two false start penalties, though, moved them back and faced with another fourth-down call, Payton elected to kick.

The Broncos also made a big play on special teams with Zach Allen blocking a 50-yard field goal by Dicker midway through the fourth quarter. They also thwarted a fake punt attempt in the first half.

The Broncos were short-handed at receiver for Stidham, with receiver Courtland Sutton (concussion) and Marvin Mims Jr. (hamstring) sidelined. Humphrey had two catches for 69 yards, while Jeudy made three receptions for 54 yards after being under the weather earlier in the week.

As a team captain, Wilson briefly got on the field for the opening coin flip. He spent the afternoon on the sideline in what could be the first of his last two games with the Broncos. The nine-time Pro Bowler was benched last Wednesday by Payton, who said he was looking for an offensive boost. Wilson later said he was approached after a win over Kansas City on Oct. 29 about altering his contract or risk being benched.

Wilson has a $37 million injury guarantee for 2025 that’s triggered in March if he fails a physical. The Broncos wanted him to push back the date to give them flexibility, but Wilson rejected it. Payton dodged the topic after the game.

“When the season ends, and you have questions specific to all of that — I wasn’t privy to the dialogue — but you’ll be able to ask the appropriate people,” Payton said. “Russ has been fantastic this week.”

Stidham vouched for that.

“We were communicating on the sideline,” said Stidham, who made two starts last season with the Raiders. “I can’t speak highly enough about him.”

Stick finished with 220 yards passing. He stepped in when Herbert broke his right index finger in the second quarter against the Broncos on Dec. 10.

“I’m just really frustrated and I think we all are, because we don’t have the results,” Stick said. “Right now, we’re not winning football games and that hurts.”

MACK’S SACKS

Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack eclipsed the 100-sack mark when he brought down Stidham in the second quarter.

“It’s a landmark number,” Chargers interim coach Giff Smith said. “It’s a crazy number.”

In addition, it was also Mack’s 16th sack of the season, which is a new career best.

INJURY REPORT

Broncos: RT Mike McGlinchey (ribs) and special teams player Delarrin Turner-Yell (knee) left in the first quarter.

UP NEXT

Chargers: Host Kansas City on Jan. 6 or 7.

Broncos: At Las Vegas on Jan. 6 or 7.

___

AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

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