DENVER -- This is what Broncos Country wanted to see. Anger and frustration morphing into clinical execution.
The Broncos players reacted with disappointment and disbelief after losing their bye week and having three of their games rescheduled. They became a pawn in the NFL's chess game to maneuver clumsily around the COVID-19 virus. The Broncos faced a choice: Complain about the inconvenience or vent their frustration on the Patriots.
They came out kicking and screaming. A lot of kicking.
Looking like a team determined to return to relevance, the Broncos produced their biggest win in Vic Fangio's tenure, shocking the New England Patriots 18-12 Sunday at Gillette Stadium behind a gnarly defense and kicker Brandon McManus' historic performance.
"I don’t think there’s any doubt you have to learn how to win," coach Vic Fangio said. "Hopefully we can learn from this. That’s two games in a row. I am proud of the guys."
Of course it came with the accompanying drama. Nothing ever comes easily for the 2-3 Broncos. Holding an 18-3 lead on McManus' franchise record six field goals, the Broncos' defense loosened its grip as Drew Lock fizzled with interceptions on back-to-back fourth quarter plays.
"There were anxious moments," Lock said. "I truly feel like we are truly good team. Special teams and defense carried us today without a doubt."
After stopping a two-point conversion, leaving it 18-9, the Broncos appeared poised to finish. The offense, which had played cleanly, dissolved before Denver's eyes. Lock threw an interception on an miscommunication with receiver Tim Patrick. Lock, who finished 10 of 24 for 189 yards, threw to the sticks and Patrick never turned around.
"That was 100 percent on me," Lock said.
The turnover led to a field goal. At 18-12 with 3:23 remaining, the Broncos needed two first downs to secure their biggest win of the season. Instead, they got another pick, with the Broncos refusing to run despite Phillip Lindsay collecting 102 yards on the ground.
In an eye-opening play call, Lock dropped back and fired down the middle of the field. It was intended for Patrick, and picked again.
"That is this offense," Lock said. "We are going to push the ball down the field."
It came down to this. The Patriots faced a fourth-and-10 from the Broncos' 24-yard line with a minute left. Fangio, who had personality bypass surgery regarding his defensive philosophy two weeks ago, eschewed the conservative stance. He sent Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons on safety blitzes, helping collapse the pocket and leading a dirt ball from Newton.
"Our confidence was at an all-time high in that moment," Simmons said.
Added Newton, "The time off showed. I have to be better and I will be better.”
It should not have come down to this. The Broncos dominated, but were clobbering the Patriots over the head with a PVC pipe. It rang hollow because they failed to reach the end zone. Under Belichick, the Patriots are now 39-1 when not allowing a touchdown.
The Broncos' defense made the unusual math stick with a final fist to the throat.
"I love it. Guys stepped up. I am proud of our guys," Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris told Denver7. "It's the first time we have finished a game off like that since I've been here."
In truth, the Patriots looked like a team that had barely practiced for two weeks -- which they were -- and the Broncos assumed the role of lions with a piece of steak dangling in front of their face.
The Broncos scored on their first six possessions, shades of the salad days of Peyton Manning. However, Manning eschewed kicks. Denver's scores all came from field goals from McManus as Denver opened a 15-point lead. Their first punt came with 14:03 left in the game, and should have been avoided had DaeSean Hamilton not dropped a long pass, one of several by Denver's receivers.
The Broncos produced three takeaways, remarkable given that they had two for the season. The Broncos entered the game with two takeaways. They posted two Sunday on a diving interception by defensive lineman DeShawn Williams in his first career start and a fumble recovery by Justin Simmons on a strip tackle by rookie Michael Ojemudia. And they finished with four sacks, including two by second-year pro Malik Reed and one by Bradley Chubb.
The Broncos played as if this was personal after this game was rescheduled twice because of multiple positive COVID-19 tests by the Patriots.
"As a whole organization, I think we have dealt with it well," said McManus, the player rep, who indicated that they did virtual meetings on Saturday night after a positive COVID-19 test in the Broncos organization. "Today, there was a different energy. There was an energy from the defense, and they took it on themselves to make a play, like I did. People were flying around and making plays."
It began with a burst that was in juxtaposition to the flailing end.
They were not worried about easing Lock's return with off-speed pitches. He came out firing fastballs, going to the end zone three times on the first two drives. He engineered a field goal on his first drive, connecting with Patrick on a 41-yard gain down the right sideline. McManus converted a 45-yard kick to give the Broncos a 3-0 lead.
A remarkable effort, laced by aggressiveness, created another scoring chance. The Broncos entered the game aware of Cam Newton's issues against the blitz. The Broncos sent pressure at midfield with former hoops star Shelby Harris going vertical with a block. DeShawn Williams, out of the NFL for more than 1,300 days, made a diving catch worthy of a receiver. The Broncos, however, could not punish the Patriots, settling for a McManus 44-yard field goal.
Early on, the game plan began to crystallize: blitz on defense, including safeties in the run game, and take deep strikes to Albert Okwuegbunam. Active for this time this season as his health improved and Noah Fant sat out with a high ankle sprain, the rookie became a magnet for Lock's passes. The former Missouri teammates connected on two passes for 45 yards early on, and he was targeted five times in the half. As with Jerry Jeudy on the first drive, Okwuegbunam failed to pull in a scoring pass in the second quarter.
So the Broncos' start, while encouraging, left them vulnerable. The Broncos settled for a 27-yard boot from McManus -- field goals are typically a recipe to lose road games -- inflating Denver's cushion to 9-0 with 12:03 remaining in the half.
Newton gained rhythm in the second quarter. He completed 9 of first 11 passes, and hung on to make two nice dump throws. The Broncos neutralized the Patriots receivers, but struggled with yards after the catch on short routes. A third down stop -- Newton had pressure in his face on a short hop to Julian Edelman -- led to a 41-yard field goal from Nick Folk, shaving the deficit to six points.
The Broncos understood the road to an upset was paved, in part, on the ground. Winning requires balance, and the Broncos showed a rushing attack that has been missing for much of he season. Their rushing attack was anemic after four games, ranking 29th at 92.5 yards per game. With improved blocking up front and caffeine jolts from Lindsay, the Broncos collected 86 yards on the ground in the first half. Lindsay created a catalytic response with 54 yards on nine carries.
With the Patriots sticking their chins out, begging for a haymaker, the Broncos could not deliver. They settled for McManus' fourth first-half field goal after Lock took a bad sack. The good news is that he popped up with no issues after his first big hit in his return from his right rotator cuff strain. McManus' 51-yard blast shoved him into the record books as he tied Matt Prater for most made field goals of 50-plus yards in Broncos' history, a mark he would later break.
McManus got a game ball. Running backs coach Curtis Modkins, who did not travel after testing positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, will get one as well.
It wasn't perfect. But it was a triumph that offers a potential return to relevance.
"They are a tough-minded group of people. That was on display today," Fangio said. "It could have been an easy win, but sometimes in the NFL it doesn’t turn out."
Left guard Dalton Risner left after the final drive in the first half with a shoulder injury and did not return. He told Denver7 he will undergo an MRI on Monday. "I am always optimistic. But it's too soon to tell (on the diagnosis)," Risner told Denver7. He added with his Wiggins humor, "This hurt way worse than any pig wrestling match hurt me." ...
Bradley Chubb posted a sack for the second straight game, slamming into Cam Newton and stripping the ball loose on the Patriots' first drive. ...
DeShawn Williams produced the big pick. He became the 19th player in franchise history to record an interception in his first career start. He joins Elvis Dumervil as the only defensive linemen in Broncos history to accomplish the feat. ...
McManus has six career games with multiple field goals of 50-plus yards, tied with Justin Tucker for the most in NFL history. His kicks Sunday were 45, 44, 27, 52, 20 and 54.
The Broncos' inactive list included a surprise. Rookie McTelvin Agim was a healthy scratch as former first round pick Sylvester Williams was activated to bulk up the interior defense against the run. He made a big stop to snuff out a two-point conversion. "Feels good, especially after a win," Williams told Denver7. Joining Agim on inactive list were Noah Fant (he should return Sunday vs. Chiefs from his high ankle sprain), Melvin Gordon (not COVID-19 illness), Nenane Muti, Jeremiah Attaochu (out second straight game), quarterback Jeff Driskel (lost backup spot to Brett Rypien), and receiver K.J Hamler (hamstring, could be back Sunday).