DENVER -- The Broncos arrived at Mile Stadium trailed by a vapor of criticism. Twelve games into the season, Denver had emptied the bandwagon and threatened the patience of diehard fans.
Eight was enough.
Hello, sunshine my old friend. In 59 degree weather, the Broncos emerged from the shadows before an appreciative loyal gathering of 70,332 of their closest friends. The Broncos boxed the ears of the woeful New York Jets 23-0, providing a soothing balm on a two-month migraine with the first shutout in 12 years.
"You think about the number of players in our league, 1,500, 1,600 guys. Everyone is talented. Every team is good. To hold a team to zero, that's a big accomplishment," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "This felt great."
Broncos players insist they believe in and respect first-year coach Vance Joseph. They have told Denver7 as much in short and lengthy on and off-record conversations. However, in order to keep Joseph -- and that is general manager John Elway's preference, not wanting four bosses in five seasons -- the players have to win for him. The NFL is athletic Darwinism, a weekly made-for-TV episode of "Survivor."
Finally, a stranger returned to the Broncos sideline. Pride and effort illuminated the field. The Broncos delivered their best outing in two months. A great week of practice finally translated to Sunday. Denver became the fifth team in 17 years to blank an opponent while yielding 100 yards or less.
"This just shows what you can be. Now that we've seen it, we have to play up that level every week," said linebacker Todd Davis, who finished with five tackles despite suffering an ankle injury and entering and exiting the concussion protocol. "Our goal is going to be to hold teams to 100 yards. To get that goose egg, felt so good. It felt good to play well for coach (Joe) Woods and coach Vance. They have been putting a lot of time in, and effort into us, and not quitting. They have continued to press and fight for us."
The Broncos scored on an opening drive for only the fourth time this season, a 12-play, 62-yard march. Much-maligned quarterback Trevor Siemian connected on a touchdown with Demaryius Thomas for the first time this year. Thomas moved into second-place all-time in franchise history in receiving yards and in touchdowns, moving ahead of Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe in both categories. His 56 touchdowns leave him 12 shy of Rod Smith.
"It means the world to me," Thomas said.
Siemian recognized, at last, the benefit of the 50-50 pass. Cody Latimer and Thomas awarded his trust with impressive high point catches.
Siemian finished the first half 11-for-18 for 112 yards and one sack, a juxtaposition to last Sunday's Miami meltdown. He looked like the quarterback he was last season. He focused on one side of the field, used bootlegs and threw the ball away when necessary.
"To get Trevor back under center after one week simply to bench him again wasn't fair in my mind," said Joseph on why he stuck with Siemian, who completed 19 of 31 attempts for 200 yards and 90.8 rating. "Again our offensive issues haven't been on one player. I was proud of how he managed the game. He was careful with the football and put us in good plays."
The benefit of a fast start cannot be overstated. The Broncos had scored 34 first quarter points during their eight game slide, one shy of the longest in-season losing streak in team history set in 1967. Playing from behind compromised the defense, leaving it tamed, reactionary and pedestrian. With an advantage, the players' ears pinned back and fangs dropped. The Broncos netted two sacks in the first 30 minutes. Von Miller added one in the third quarter, becoming the franchise's first player with six 10 sack seasons. He added a shimmy dance for good measure. The Broncos defense smothered the Jets, allowing 100 yards and one passing first down.
"I must be allergic to winning," joked Miller as he sneezed multiple times before his presser. "This is a wonderful feeling."
In arguably his best game of the season, linebacker Brandon Marshall produced a strip sack. Safety Darian Stewart intercepted Josh McCown, who left in the second half with a hand injury.
And for something completely different, the special teams found normalcy. At its worst, this group should remain neutral. Jordan Taylor, replacing the benched Isaiah McKenzie (six fumbles), showed intelligence and burst with a battery of strong returns.
"Aside from DT, I think Jordan is the MVP of this game," Siemian said of Taylor, who finished with 62 yards on five returns.
Despite missing his seventh field goal at home this season, Brandon McManus booted three scores, including a 53-yarder with 32 seconds remaining to open a 13-0 bulge at halftime.
"People don't fast for 60 days. So imagine not eating," running back C.J. Anderson said. "That's what losing felt like."
This is what fans long expected: a competitive team that could win at home and hold serve long enough on the road to sneak into the playoffs. The Bills victory in a snow globe Sunday eliminated the Broncos from the postseason, which frankly evaporated with the team's 0-6 record in visiting parks.
What played out Sunday was the same type of performance that stoked optimism during a 3-1 start. Then came the bye week. And, then, good bye season. So gruesome was the losing streak, the Broncos had the ball once in the fourth quarter down by a single score. That came at home against the Bengals, an embarrassing performance that led to offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's firing the following morning.
This victory hurt the Broncos' draft status, but was embraced with open arms. Two years removed from the Super Bowl, the Broncos fell from grace with a thud. It brought everything and everyone into question.
Sunday ended the misery, and with an offseason adventure looming, restored a measure of hope.
"We play this game for our families and for each other. But we also play for the fans. We want to entertain them, and we want the fans to be proud of their hometown team," Miller said. "To win this way, it feels great to get the emotions back up."
There's no denying the disappointment in the Broncos' draft class. Only first-round Garett Bolles has made an impact, though the return of tight end Jake Butt next season could change how the group is viewed. Third-rounder Brendan Langley was a surprise inactive, replaced by undrafted free agent Marcus Rios. ... Promising young safety Justin Simmons injured his left ankle during a chest bump celebration following Marshall's first-quarter strip sack. He did not return. ... The only other injury of note was rookie safety Jamal Carter (left shoulder). ... Defensive tackle Shelby Harris, nicknamed 'The Big Germ' as the epicenter of the flu outbreak, continues to play well. In the first half, he notched a sack, pass deflection and a quarterback hit. ... All seven of Brandon McManus' seven missed field goal attempts this season have come at home. .... Having called Colorado home for 44 years, I never underestimate the loyalty and passion of Broncos fans. So the attendance of 70,322 of 75,518 tickets distributed is impressive given the ugliness of the eight-game losing streak. ... Paxton Lynch (ankle) threw lightly during pregame warmups. It remains to be seen if he will play again this season. ... Linebacker Todd Davis re-injured his ankle and entered the concussion protocol, but was cleared.