TAMPA, Fla. -- The story unfolded like an afterschool special. Unlikely star replaces legend, leads powerhouse team. The kid returns home to make good.
Just not that kid.
Trevor Siemian came back to south Florida as the talk of the NFL – his prep coach once begged the baseball star to play football at Olympia High – but finished the game watching another Orlando product shine. The Paxton Lynch era began 90 minutes from his hometown, his would-be redshirt season interrupted by Siemian’s left shoulder injury.
Siemian became noted for his late charge. It was Lynch, across the street from the New York Yankees’ George Steinbrenner Field, who finished like Mariano Rivera. The Broncos soaked Tampa Bay 27-7 at rain-drenched Raymond James Stadium where Mother Nature intervened with a long fourth-quarter break. The delay lasted one hour, 28 minutes before players returned to a slippery field.
Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston, mud -- nothing can stop Broncos at the quarterpole.
"It's the way we prepare. We practice every week like everyone is going to play," said defensive end Derek Wolfe, who finished with 2.5 sacks. "Paxton is held to the same standard as everyone else. Just because he's a rookie, it's not like he's messing around. He handles his business."
The Broncos extended their winning streak to nine games while preserving their unblemished four-game start. Denver has also won eight of its last 10 road games.
"When we get to play with a lead like today, good luck! Are antenna is up. Horns at you, ears back. That's our mentality. You saw it," safety T.J. Ward said of a Denver defense which produced three turnovers. "We were in attack mode."
If the Broncos have proven anything over the past 13 months, it’s this: they can win with anyone at quarterback. From Peyton Manning to Brock Osweiler to Siemian and Lynch, coach Gary Kubiak continues to navigate the choppy waters and lightning (as happened Sunday with 6:52 remaining). Where most teams react to quarterback uncertainty like a deer in headlights, Kubiak embraces the challenge of letting players prove themselves in the spotlight. With Siemian on the sidelines in uniform available for emergency duty, Lynch made himself at home.
"I think he's really growing," Kubiak said of Lynch. "I thought he handled himself well. He made some big third downs for us. He got the ball downfield. He avoided some bad plays. He was impressive."
Lynch guided the Broncos on three scoring drives, including his first touchdown pass, a 5-yarder to receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders performed a cartwheel in celebration as if the moment needed a reminder of its significance. After some haggling, NFL sideline assistants retrieved the ball as a souvenir for Lynch, trading out another game ball.
Lynch's path to this accomplishment was remarkable. It was a long way from Deltona Trinity Christian School to the Buccaneers’ end zone.
“The first time I went to an NFL game was when I suited up for the Broncos,” Lynch told Denver7 last week. “This has been a dream.”
Lynch grew up a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. It’s a family thing. Safe to say his kin has switched allegiance. Among those in attendance were his father David, mother Stacie, girlfriend, uncle, pastor and multiple friends.
The future became now for Lynch, and gave Kubiak something to think about. Siemian will be evaluated Monday with an MRI anticipated. Siemian departed with 1:47 remaining in the first half after defensive tackle Clinton McDonald slammed him to the turf.
Siemian remains hopeful he will be ready for Sunday's game, but it's uncertain. That it's his left shoulder gives him a chance.
"I have a bum shoulder, so we will see," Siemian said in his matter-of-fact way. "That's part of the game. There are a lot of guys getting dinged up. I just need to try and get better and take it one day at a time."
Lynch’s performance might have bought him time to heal.
The rookie completed 14 of 24 passes for 170 yards and one score. Sanders finished with eight catches for 88 yards with Demaryius Thomas countering with six receptions for 94 yards. With Lynch in the huddle, the Broncos outscored the Bucs 13-0. Lynch showed athleticism and courage. He was unafraid to go deep and settled in quickly after completing his first pass, a 4-yarder to Jordan Norwood.
Calm quarterback nerves follow the chaos created by the defense. The Broncos function like a python. They chomp, then without mercy squeeze the life from victims, their grip strengthening over time. The Broncos held Tampa Bay to minus-4 yards in the third quarter, a stanza highlighted by multiple sacks from Wolfe. The pressure up front works in concert with the sticky fingers in the back. On this day, those belonged to Aqib Talib.
The Buccaneers drafted Talib. He brought excellence, and off-field issues. They relented and traded him to New England midway through the 2012 season, believing they would lose him in free agency. Talib insisted he enjoyed his time in pewter. He bought his first home, intercepted his first pass, many milestones. Sunday, he added a new chapter: best first half. Talib intercepted Jameis Winston twice, setting up 'EZ pass' cruises into the end zone. He received a game ball from Kubiak just hours after Talib addressed the team at the hotel, stressing the Broncos needed to play with "confidence and swagger."
"I am embarrassed that I let a defensive lineman catch me (on a return)," Talib said. "But I am excited I got two picks, for sure."
Siemian made history in his first road start. Sunday, he accomplished something the Broncos hadn’t done all season. He led Broncos to their first touchdown in the first quarter. It came on the first drive, an ongoing issue for Denver. The Broncos didn’t score a touchdown on an opening drive a year ago until Nov. 22 at Chicago.
This start looked too easy. On Winston’s first attempt, he darted a pass into Talib’s stomach. The only surprise was that he didn’t return it for a touchdown, legging out 25 yards before setting up the Broncos offense at the 11-yard line. After a disorganized Tampa Bay called timeout, Siemian zipped a pass to Thomas for the score.
Whispers of a rout, if only briefly, stalled on Tampa’s following drive. Tampa Bay drove 75 yards on 13 plays, punctuated by Winston’s 7-yard scramble for a touchdown, tying the score. The quarterback run has haunted the Broncos defense this season. It was the last time Winston got loose with any meaning. Winston began to spiral as the Broncos attacked. He ended 17-for-35 for 179 yards.
Talib countered with his second interception and third this season. Underrated as a student, Talib knows routes. He left his man in zone coverage, read Wintson’s eyes and zoomed in front of the receiver for second turnover. Chris Conte followed with an interference call on receiver Jordan Taylor in the end zone, setting up C.J. Anderson’s touchdown. The Broncos, at that point, had two rushing yards, one score, and led 14-7. They showed more balance in the second half, finishing with 89 total yards on the ground.
Lynch increased the cushion on his second drive. He guided the Broncos 47 yards in the two-minute drill as Brandon McManus delivered a 38-yard field goal. With Siemian watching in full uniform and a ball cap, Lynch pushed the Broncos on a methodical march to start the second half. They gained 69 yards on 16 plays in 7 minutes, 57 seconds. McManus drilled a 24-yard field goal. A 20-7 cushion felt bigger as the Broncos defense began to smother Winston, whose offense was cascaded by boos from the frustrated crowd. When the near 90-minute delay ended, it appeared only Broncos fans remained.
Before Sunday, Lynch’s most important football highlight in this state arrived in the 2011 Central Florida All-Star game. He went from an unknown to a coveted commodity, drawing the attention of college recruiters at Memphis and Central Florida. He chose Memphis, and built a resume worthy of a first-round pick – the Broncos moved up to prevent the Dallas Cowboys from taking him.
Lynch made steady progress in the preseason, enough for the Broncos to cut veteran Mark Sanchez and let the kid serve as the backup. While this set out as a learning year, Lynch attacked practice like he would play. The moment arrived in the first half. Lynch took over. He looked the part. The only question is which role will he fill this Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
"It doesn't matter who is out there. We hold everyone accountable," said DeMarcus Ware, who will have an X-Ray on his right forearm on Monday and hopes to resume practicing after the Oct. 13 game at San Diego with eyes on playing Oct. 24 against Houston. "We know it's four games. We have more to do. But the guys in this room are special."
Right tackle remains an issue with Ty Sambrailo struggling his second consecutive start. Donald Stephenson tested out his strained left hamstring before the game with the training staff. He hopes to play against surging Atlanta, but there is no guarantee.
Tight end Virgil Green (left hamstring) worked out before the game, and is on track to play this Sunday barring any setbacks. .. The Broncos owned the fourth quarter. The Broncos hold a 52-13 advantage in the final stanza. The delay created injury concerns as Kubiak made it known to the officials he was concerned about the safety of his players. The Broncos were not in favor in returning to the field.
Kayvon Webster (hamstring) left the game in the second half. He told Denver7 he would be ready for Atlanta, that his leg just cramped up. … Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy left the game with an injury in the first half and never returned.