DENVER -- Aqib Talib snapped his fingers. Virgil Green shook his head. Derek Wolfe hopped up and down. The Broncos sat at the mouth of the Southwest tunnel at 6:29 p.m. Thursday night, prepared to run out onto the field to what exactly? A light? An oncoming train?
The defending champions began the season shrouded in uncertainty because of an unproven quarterback and a defense nobody seems to believe can produce another hit record. The doubt, fuel for these players, seemed justified. The Broncos trailed at half, and looked like a team in transition.
The tunnel outside the locker room after halftime became a bridge of redemption in a 21-20 season-opening win over the Carolina Panthers.
"It was Deja Vu, huh?" said Broncos president Joe Ellis.
Carolina's Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field wide left with nine seconds remaining. Of course, he made the previous kick but not before the Broncos called a timeout. That kick sneaked inside the right upright. The next kick missed left. Overcompensate much?
It was like last season – when Denver set an NFL record with 11 wins by seven points or less – never ended.
"I wasn't worried. Winning is what we do," safety T.J. Ward insisted. "We never stop. Never underestimate the heart of a champion."
It was easy to find it. It was caught in their collective windpipes. The Broncos staged a second half U-turn, only to sit with a nation watching as the outcome hung in the balance with 3:06 remaining. Last season featured the scoop and score, the pick six in Oakland and the Manning moment in the season finale, among others. Thursday was nearly remembered for 'The Call' against cornerback Chris Harris.
It unfolded like this.
Rookie Riley Dixon hit a 42-yard punt, leaving Carolina at the 40-yard line and staring at a one-point deficit. Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” rumbled through the stadium. False start tackle Ryan Kalil. Sack Todd Davis and DeMarcus Ware. Just as in February, Von Miller raced around the right edge, corralling quarterback Cam Newton. Suddenly, Super Bowl 50 had broken out. It was fourth-and-21 from the 29-yard line. Of course accompany controversey arrived on cue with the call against Harris for illegal use of hands against Kelvin Benjamin. Except he didn't use his hands or do anything illegal.
"He grabbed me. I couldn't believe it," Harris said. "I was surprised."
Offsetting fouls moments later – safety Darian Stewart roughing the passer and Newton’s intentional grounding – set up a final gasp for Carolina with 36 seconds left. Newton connected with Benjamin on a 21-yard completion to the 37-yard line. A short pass left Gano within his range. The Broncos iced him, and the Panthers left stone cold.
"I feel (awful)," said Newton, who completed 18 of 34 passes for 194 yards, but just 7 of 16 in the second half. "I just hate losing."
Of course the Broncos 15th win in their last 16 home openers was like eating nails. Always is with these Broncos. Nothing goes well or down easily.
Down by 10 points against the reigning MVP is ill advised. The Broncos take pride in their characterization as grinders. They put up fists and fought with bloodied noses. The Broncos found themselves trailing 17-7 entering the fourth quarter. The sellout crowd, where only 172 tickets went unused, wanted a reason to go full throat.
"There wasn't a lot of yelling going on at halftime. We were playing terrible, and we knew it," Harris said. "It wasn't us. We knew it wouldn't stay like that."
The Broncos awoke, eliminating mistakes of sloppiness and inexperience. As the final quarter opened, quarterback Trevor Siemian (18 of 26, 178 yards, two picks) learned from his past. He threw an interception with a defender in his face in the first half. He patiently let a screen develop, dumping the ball off to C.J. Anderson. Anderson raced 25 yards for a touchdown, bullying through with help of downfield blocks by Matt Paradis and Demaryius Thomas. The score suddenly made sense: 17-14. At home. In altitude. This is what was supposed to happen, even if the path taken to the outcome was unsettling.
"I've got to get a little taller. That's what I learned," joked Siemian, who had one tipped pass picked and another nearly intercepted. "Sure there were butterflies every time you play. I think something is wrong with you if you don't. I am just super confident in these guys we have offensively."
The NFL’s top defense then dropped its fangs. On a roller coaster evening, Harris made an all-pro play. Beaten early by Benjamin for a touchdown, Harris worked through the hulking target on a slant. He tipped the ball and intercepted it. A late hit on Haris moved the ball to the Carolina 23-yard line where Denver’s offense lowered its shoulder. C.J. Anderson, the Broncos’ best player on this night, promised this season would be different. He reported at 218 pounds. He would be ready to bounce off tackles from jump. He proved his point, slamming his way into the end zone from a yard out to shove the Broncos’ ahead 21-17 with 9:26 remaining.
"1-0. We just keep grinding," Anderson tweeted after rushing for 92 yards on 20 carries and scoring twice. "We don't care about the outside noise. We believe in us."
They tested their fans' faith for several hours Thursday.
Youth brings peril. For all of the wide-eyed excitement of Christmas morning, some presents boast little beyond the bow. The Broncos’ first two drives ended inside their opponent’s 30-yard line. To show it was not an aberration, Siemian made a poor decision, taking an unnecessary chance against a safety blitz, throwing an interception to Bene Benwikere at, you guessed it, the 30-yard line on the team’s first drive in the second half.
These type of mistakes represent Google Maps directions off a cliff. At halftime, the Broncos had three 12-men-on the field penalties, two turnovers and no sacks.
The Broncos came out throwing in the first quarter. Not punches. Passes. Siemian settled in and settled down. He went 3-for-5 for 28 yards on the opening drive before a crowd that looked like a screaming peeled orange. A fumble provided a brief buzzkill as rookie running back Devontae Booker learned the NFL is not the Pac-12. Linebacker Luke Kuechly wrestled the ball from the former Utah star as Carolina’s Shaq Thompson pounced on it at the 29-yard line.
"We knew we were going to have our hands full and that it was going to come down to the wire," Siemian said.
The Panthers capitalized on the mistakes, showing versatility and protection lacking in the Super Bowl. Newton looked like the reigning MVP, willing to step forward in the pocket. He targeted Benjamin, a tight end disguised as a receiver. He converted on third-and-9 at the 47-yard line, then sliced in front of Harris for a 14-yard touchdown. It was a jarring sight, Harris in the end zone, holding his hands in the air in puzzlement.
In these moments a year ago, the Broncos wobbled, regained their balance and swung a crowbar into the opponent’s shins. This wasn’t last year. Peyton Manning was in the NBC booth. Siemian marched the Broncos nine plays, raising the volume of the crowd, which featured only 172 unused tickets. It proved a tease. On the 10th play Siemian was sacked, and on the 11th he carelessly tossed a pass toward defensive lineman Star Lotuelei. He tipped the ball, and Thomas Davis intercepted it.
It proved simply a script to make the ending more dramatic.
"That's how we are built," said Von Miller, whose team finished with three sacks. "It's not about one player. It's about a whole team finding a way to get it done."