Russell Wilson scores first rushing TD of the season (0:16)Broncos QB Russell Wilson turns back the clock and finds the end zone on the ground with his first rushing touchdown of the season. (0:16)
DENVER -- As Denver Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles described the team's efforts in a 29-12 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, the television directly above his locker told the real story.
As Bolles told reporters that "nobody is going to give you a cherry on top of a pie because you win five games (in a row),'' a graphic of the AFC's playoff race flashed on the screen. And right there, in what would have been a pipe dream six weeks ago, the Broncos (6-5) were listed as "in the hunt'' for the first time.
The win at Empower Field at Mile High was the Broncos' fifth consecutive victory -- their first five-game win streak since 2015 when the team finished the year with a Super Bowl 50 win -- and it continued their unlikely climb out of a dismal start that made them a national talking point.
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"We believed in ourselves and we could care less about what everybody else thinks,'' linebacker Alex Singleton said.
There may be two items that have defined the Broncos' remarkable change of fortune the most since a Week 6 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs dropped them to 1-5. The Broncos defense has surrendered fewer touchdowns (nine) in the five-game win streak combined than the team surrendered in a historical Week 3 70-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins alone, and the Broncos have forced 15 takeaways in the last four games.
They have beaten four AFC teams during the current win streak and now have head-to-head wins over Buffalo and Cleveland -- playoff hopefuls outside the AFC West -- in the last three weeks with a trip to Houston (6-5) set for Sunday.
"We just keep thinking next play, next play, next play,'' safety Justin Simmons said. " ... We know, especially the way we've been playing lately, we only need one more play to make something big happen.''
On Sunday that moment came with 11 seconds left in the third quarter. With the Broncos holding a 17-12 lead and Cleveland in a third-and-12 at the Browns' 23-yard line, Browns quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had retreated almost to his own goal-line to escape the Broncos' pass rush. Broncos outside linebacker Baron Browning hit Thompson-Robinson just after he threw the ball.
Thompson-Robinson remained on the ground after the hit for several moments, and a penalty flag was thrown after the end of the play. Browning was called for roughing the passer, a penalty the Broncos, including coach Sean Payton, did not agree with, as Thompson-Robinson suffered a concussion on the play.
Sean Payton has seen his team show plenty of resiliency during its five-game winning streak. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Payton said after the game that it was important for the Broncos to respond to the moment. Referee Adrian Hill, after Thompson-Robinson was escorted to the injury tent on the Browns' sideline, went to Payton to offer a lengthy explanation.
"It's the nature of our game, the more you can condition yourself to tune it out -- the next time we can get one of those changed you let me know,'' Payton said. " ... That's the game, we responded well.''
"(We) saw the play on the Jumbotron and we were like, 'Hey man, we're going to need you on this next series.''' Simmons said. "No matter how much we argue, no matter how much we complain they're not going to take the flag back ... no one cares or not whether it was a flag or not at the end of the day.''
The Broncos got their second of three turnovers on the day two plays later when Browns wide receiver Elijah Moore fumbled a direct snap that was recovered by Denver defensive tackle D.J. Jones. Sunday was the fourth consecutive game the Broncos have had at least three takeaways.
"When we were 1-5 I think that was kind of a problem, when we had bad plays, we kind of focused on them too long,'' defensive end Zach Allen said. "Now it's been moving forward and keep it going.''
"They called it, so what can I do about it?'' Browning said. "It just shows our attitude, we can't control everything, but our response is something we can control.''
Couple all of it with the Broncos 169 yards rushing against the league's No. 1 defense and a team that was left, by many outside of its own building, to wallow in its early October misery, and suddenly it's a team in the hunt.
Quarterback Russell Wilson, who finished 13-of-22 passing for 134 yards on a run-heavy day, has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in four of the five wins during the current streak but has nine touchdowns in the same stretch (eight passing, one rushing).
"We're all here to ball,'' defensive tackle Mike Purcell said. "We're hungry, we're going to keep searching for that ball ... we just got to keep it all going.''