CINCINNATI – Trevor Siemian jogged off the field in pregame with a smile. He grew up in Orlando. The heat doesn’t jar him. He played baseball in these conditions across the country as a kid, including Cooperstown. Big moments don’t create panic. At Northwestern, he upset Notre Dame his senior year in South Bend.
“I was with Russell Wilson when he came into the league. Trevor has those same qualities. Tremendous poise, tremendous confidence like he's been there before. He wasn't wide-eyed," left tackle Russell Okung said. "He's a finisher."
Given the time, the place and the suffocating weather, the Broncos pulled off their biggest win of the season Sunday with Siemian pulling the strings. Rather than wilt in the spotlight, Siemian played the role of Cool Hand Luke, coldly directing an eye-opening, go-ahead fourth-quarter scoring drive in the Broncos’ 29-17 victory over Cincinnati.
"Played well?" cornerback Chris Harris said. "Played well? He was great, man."
Siemian calmed teammates' nerves and broke hearts of the "Who Dey" crowd with a remarkable performance. He finished 23 of 35 for 312 yards and four touchdowns, including his first two in the red zone. True to his nature, Siemian received his first game ball and exited the locker room as if heading to communications class in Evanston.
"It will go somewhere in my apartment," Siemian told Denver7 with a smirk. "I don't have a lot of space."
With the Broncos trailing 17-16, Siemian rolled up his sleeves and created breathing room. He completed seven straight passes. He found receiver Demaryius Thomas for a first down. He connected with receiver Bennie Fowler and tight end John Phillips. He continued to lean on wideout Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders converted a short pass into a 17-yard gain and left cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on a scavenger hunt for his ankles. Two plays later, Siemian fired a strike to Phillips, shoving the Broncos ahead 22-17.
"On that drive, he was amazing," said right guard Michael Schofield. "All the credit goes to Trevor. He's seeing things and making plays."
The Bengals staggering, Siemian landed a throat-punch on the Broncos' next possession. He dropped back and dropped jaws with a 55-yard rainbow into a streaking Thomas’ hands for a touchdown. Thomas flipped a previous forgettable day on its head, finishing with six catches for 100 yards as Denver secured a 29-17 lead. Sanders caught nine passes for 117 yards. Both talked candidly last week about the need to get more touches in this offense. Their stats were more even compelling than their press conference, with Sanders, in particular, hauling in repeated tough catches. They were targeted 17 times.
"We want to get them the ball every week," coach Gary Kubiak said. "We needed to throw the ball to get some points, and those two kids played really well. I am proud of them."
Wasn't this supposed to be the game Siemian became exposed? You know the whole, can’t play in this rowdy environment, can’t function in the red zone? All Siemian did was become the first NFL quarterback to post a 300-yard, four-touchdown, zero-interception game in his first road start. Only one Broncos quarterback has ever pulled off the feat on the road, regardless of experience: Peyton Manning twice in 2013 when he won league MVP honors.
"I loved it (on final play call to Thomas)," Siemian said. "I thought we were aggressive all game long, and that's how you have to be against teams like this."
Siemian enjoyed a fourth quarter that featured shades of Manning, completing 9 of 10 attempts for 153 yards. Kubiak improved to 7-0 against Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis.
"He has that mind control thing going on," cornerback Aqib Talib said.
Winning on the road requires never losing sight of the pace car. The Broncos showed clumsiness on a first-quarter drive in the red zone on Siemian’s errant pass to Jordan Norwood. But they pounced on a mistake – literally – as Shiloh Keo recovered Adam Jones’ fumble on a punt return after a deflating three-and-out drive that saw Russell Okung injure his back.
"I was surprised it wasn't overturned," said Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, who insisted they were the better team. "We haven't gotten one overturned all year. You all realize that?"
With Michael Schofield at left tackle and Darrion Weems at right guard, Siemian went to work on third down. He dropped in a rainbow to Sanders between two defenders for a 41-yard score. Sanders, who had asked for more offensive creativity, showed it in his celebration with a two-pump twerking gyration that should escape fine. Siemian targeted him 11 times in the first half, and he put the team ahead twice with scores.
"It wasn't frustration (on not getting ball in first two games). We just know what we are capable of," Sanders said. "We're the best that does it with the one-two punch."
The Broncos can’t handle prosperity. It would mean not creating ulcers with nervy endings. Cornerback Bradley Roby breathed life into a drive with a third down interference call as he wrapped hand around Brandon LaFell. Bengals respond with a bullish burst, finishing with Hill bouncing off tacklers for a 4-yard touchdown run, pushing Cincinnati ahead 14-10. At that point, Hill owned 85 of the Bengals’ 104 yards rushing. They entered the game with 103 in their first eight quarters. The Broncos settled down, and outside linebacker Shane Ray enjoyed his starburst moment. He finished with three sacks, marking the first time the Broncos have had back-to-back games with a different player getting three sacks.
"We just took a deep breath and went back to work," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said of the adjustments. "We got it fixed."
Denver responded with a long drive that revealed it's better to be fortunate than talented. Twice, Siemian bow-wrapped interceptions to the Bengals, and they re-gifted both with inexplicable drops.
"He hit us in the chest a couple of times and we didn't come down with them," Lewis said. "Those were big plays."
Siemian took advantage with a critical third down conversion to Sanders followed by a 7-yard touchdown to the diminutive receiver, shoving Denver ahead.
But this game will be remembered not for a comeback, but a quarterback. Siemian rallied the team on the road for the kind of win that can define a season.
"We grew up as an offense today," running back C.J. Anderson said. "We showed versatility and balance. It was like Madden. You have eight and nine in the box with no one over the top, we are going to push the ball up and go get you with Trevor."
- Shane Ray produced in DeMarcus Ware’s absence. The second-year player started and netted sacks on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. He arrived at training camp eight pounds heavier and with a more mature approach to his diet and fitness. "They tried to block me one-on-one with a tight end. That's not a great idea," Ray said.
- Linebacker Brandon Marshall, who is donating $300 for every tackle he makes to promote social change, took a knee during the national anthem.
- Broncos safety T.J. Ward raised his fist during the national anthem as a sign of solidarity for social change. "With all the circumstances surrounding equal opportunity for minorities and everyone in this country regardless if you are black, Hispanic, gay, lesbian, I think everyone should be treated right by our authorities. It's not going on right now. I don't know if the rate is higher or just the exposure. But I feel things have to change. I am just supporting the movement, supporting my teammate. It's something I am passionate about."
- Ward hurt his neck and shoulder on a first quarter tackle of Bengals running back Jeremy Hill for no gain. Will Parks replaced him, but Ward returned on the next series. He said he suffered a stinger.
- Russell Okung hurt his lower back on a leg whip. He left the game late in the first quarter and returned during Denver’s final first-half drive. Michael Schofield replaced Okung with Darrion Weems at right guard before the veteran recovered from his injury. "It's just football man. I will be fine," Okung said.
- Ty Sambrailo started at right tackle as expected. He wore a brace on the hyper-extended elbow that kept him out of the preseason.
- Justin Simmons, who broke a bone in his left wrist, was inactive for the first time. Shiloh Keo played in his place, and made an immediate impact with a tackle, punt return and a recovered fumble that set up Emmanuel Sanders’ 41-yard touchdown catch.
- Broncos captains, denoting players of the game from the previous week, were center Matt Paradis, cornerback Aqib Talib and kicker Brandon McManus.