DENVER -- Deep into the fourth quarter, when the fans roared with equal parts frustration and enthusiasm, the future seemed like an orange brick road back into the playoffs.
The present, however, was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. In a game they dominated in time of possession and yardage, the Broncos struggled to finish. The Raiders, even with quarterback Derek Carr out with a back injury, operated as the cockroach in the garage that kept hissing despite swallowing a full can of Raid.
The defense checked all the boxes, making the ending even harder to reconcile. Marshawn Lynch ran to nowhere, reduced to an afterthought. Carr delivered one big play, but was otherwise pedestrian before exiting in the third quarter after Adam Gotsis wrenched his back on a sack. Oakland had eight three-and-outs, matching the Denver's defense total before the game.
And yet, here the Broncos stood. Clouds darkened. Music hummed with the Black Eyed Peas insisting 'Tonight's gonna be a good night." The Raiders, guided by E.J. Manuel, attempted one last stab trailing by one score with two minutes remaining.
Manuel lofted the ball down the left sideline. Justin Simmons reacted with fervor, showing off his 40-inch vertical leap with an acrobatic interception.
Victory sealed. Broncos country, exhale.
The Broncos scraped out a 16-10 win, the feeling more of a relief than a reason to boast. But they need not apologize for the victory.
"We were talking about it, that it felt like we were dominating but it was close," Simmons told Denver7. "I had to make a play."
Improvement is necessary. But sitting near the top of the division is a better place to correct mistakes.
The Broncos suffocated the Raiders offense, holding Oakland to 2-of-15 on third and fourth downs and 254 total yards. The Broncos have allowed 203 yards rushing this season, a league-low 50.7 per game. Four straight Pro Bowl running backs -- Melvin Gordon, Zeke Elliott, Shady McCoy, Lynch -- produced 95 yards on 50 carries. To put their astonishing U-turn in perspective, the Broncos permitted 218 yards on the ground last season in a loss at Oakland.
"Running the ball, and stopping the run, that's how you win in the NFL," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "Our front seven did a hell of a job today. When they do that, it makes it a lot easier for (coordinator) Joe (Woods) to call plays and for us on the back end."
There are wrinkles that require ironing, of course. Denver has required a botched field goal and interception to pull of two of their three wins. "We need to clean up the penalties, limit the big plays, and, um, I forget the third thing," linebacker Shaquil Barrett said. That there are only two speaks to the defense's dominance.
The offense continues to evolve, requiring more seasoning. Getting a lead has not been a problem. Running away and hiding has. The Broncos have pumped the brakes, turning their pace car routine into a wild full throttle race to the checkered flag.
It's not one issue as Sunday showed. The Broncos could not produce a touchdown in the red zone in four attempts.
Trevor Siemian knows for the Broncos to win he must play better. For a team built to secure close games, turnovers don't work. The Broncos require boring efficiency. Like a metronome. A predictable beat.
"I think we are hurting ourselves in the red zone. We have to find a way to get touchdowns, not field goals," said Sieman, who completed 16 of 26 passes for 179 yards, while getting sacked four times. "We'll figure it out, clean it up on the bye and be ready to go."
The Broncos jumped out to a 7-0 first quarter lead because of a new weapon. Tight end A.J. Derby emerged from witness protection, catching two passes for 51 yards on an 88-yard march.
"It was the A.J. Derby show," Siemian quipped of the drive.
Derby will never forget his first touchdown. Not because it was the first. Of course that makes it worthy of landing on a shelf in his home. The degree of difficulty, however, made it more noteworthy. Derby delivered a one-handed grab before sneaking into the end zone from 22 yards out.
"His role is to win inside coverage in zone against safeties and linebackers," coach Vance Joseph said. "I am very pleased with him. A big day."
With Lynch futile, the Broncos continued to add on. Brandon McManus clicked a 28-yard field goal as the lead widened to 10-0. The Broncos finished with 140 yards in the first quarter, a terrific launch. Yet had 93 in the second half.
One mistake undermined Denver's potential dominance. Carr discovered an unlikely weapon. with Michael "No Chains" Crabtree watching from the sideline in street clothes, Carr took the shotgun snap and looked to his right.
Why? Glad you asked. Johnny Holton was streaking down the field. He had to be a decoy, right? In 18 career games, the Raiders had targeted him three times. Make it four. Holton jogged under a 64-yard scoring strike, outrunning safety Darian Stewart, who was caught flat-footed on the play.
Control is not measured by statistics, but the scoreboard. And the Broncos' 10-7 lead left some in the sellout crowd of 76,499 feeling squeamish. The difference between the past two seasons emerged. No team was worse than the Broncos after halftime a year ago. The Broncos entered Sunday with 27 third quarter points, good for third best in the NFL.
In a grimy slugfest, the Broncos clenched their fist and stayed on the ground. C.J. Anderson scampered 40 yards up the middle and down the right sideline. He finished with 95 yards on 20 carries. He has 330 on the season, 107 shy of last year's total.
"Some things early were a little frustrating," Anderson said. "I kept telling myself to keep grinding and stay with it. Trust your boys upfront and good things will happen. Andt that's what you saw today."
The drive stalled, but led to points. McManus' 36-yarder pushed Denver ahead 13-7 in the third. He added a 46-yarder on Denver's next drive that featured the kind of break that swings the pendulum on a season.
It was difficult to believe if not seen. Right tackle Menelik Watson, grinding through a matchup with elite linebacker Khalil Mack, left the game for one play after his left ankle was rolled up on in a pile. Donald Stephenson entered. Siemian fielded the snap, and Stephenson had no shot. Mack raced around him into Siemian's back. As the quarterback fell to the ground the ball squirted loose. The Raiders recovered. And then, a surprise reversal. The officials decided Siemian's knee was on the ground before the ball popped out.
The Broncos defense played off the momentum of the 16-7 lead. The group, which made life miserable for Lynch (nine carries, 12 yards), delivered four straight three-and-outs. Marquette King attempted a fake punt that backfired so badly it should have sealed the win. His hopeless gallop followed with King firing the football at Jordan "Sunshine" Taylor, who tackled him. Had Taylor a wry sense of humor, he would have performed the Buckin' Bronco celebration across the field.
He showed restraint. The Broncos, meanwhile, showed mercy. McManus ricocheted a 29-yard field goal off the left upright, providing Oakland a sliver of sliver lining. A comeback proved unlikely with quarterback Carr sidelined with a third quarter back injury following an Adam Gotsis sack.
"We had our chances at the end. I thought we stayed in the fight," Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. "I'd rather be here with a big smile on my face talking about how we managed to pull it off. It just didn't happen."
It was the type of game won in the mud not in the grass. Style matters little in the NFL, other than for your fantasy team. You know what the call ugly wins in the NFL? Wins. The Broncos enter the bye week 3-1 with all of their goals in front of them.
There's nothing bad about boring when you are victorious.
"My issue with our football team right now -- we make a lot of critical errors. That has to stop," Joseph said. "Definitely pleased to be 3-1. That was huge for us today. What I like is that our run defense has been excellent. And running the football, we have been excellent."