DENVER — It was late Friday afternoon, and Champ Bailey was standing in front of his Ring of Fame pillar, basking in the glow of glory years when a question stunned him.
What's wrong with the Broncos?
"Something's wrong," he joked with a trademark smile.
Yes, the Broncos stumbled into Sunday with a 1-4 record, holding onto relevancy with white knuckles.
"Give it time," Bailey said. "That's the good thing about playing here. We don't stay down for long."
On a sun dipped Sunday when Bailey entered the Ring of Fame, the Broncos produced an effort worthy of the cornerback's legacy. The Broncos suffocated, swarmed and sacked the Titans in a convincing, if not retina-burning 16-0 victory.
It marked the Broncos' first shutout since blanking the Jets in 2017. And the seven sacks were the most since 2015.
"We played well," said rising performer DeMarcus Walker, "but we are not satisfied."
The inspired effort snapped Denver's four-game losing streak at home and fostered hope of a U-turn. The Broncos host the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday. Denver has not beaten the Chiefs since Peyton Manning guided a comeback in 2015. The streak sits at seven straight losses, but the Broncos enter this critical matchup with momentum.
"It is a great opportunity, especially in the AFC, to go out there and get a win and put this team right back on the map," said defensive end Derek Wolfe, who produced two sacks into between disagreements with refs over questionable calls. "It would put us right back in position where we want to be. To compete in the AFC West, you have to beat the Chiefs. That's what we've got to do."
Watching Sunday unfurl one thought came to mind: This is why general manager John Elway hired coach Vic Fangio. He landed in Denver with a reputation as a professor, a Godfather and an evil genius. The start to his head coaching career, though, was downright cruel – a winless September, including crowbar-to-the-shins losses to Chicago and Jacksonville. The Jaguars game, when Denver's rush defense was "embarrassed, sparked change.
Because of injuries and ineffectiveness, Fangio inserted linebacker Alexander Johnson, nose tackle Mike Purcell and cornerbacks Duke Dawson and Davontae Harris into the starting lineup. Couple that with the return of menacing safety Kareem Jackson and now you got some clay for the pottery project.
The Broncos finished Sunday with three picks and held Tennessee to 39 yards rushing with no first downs on the ground. The last time Denver finished with at least seven sacks and three interceptions? Try Sept. 16, 1984.
The Broncos knew quarterback Marcus Mariota could not beat them, wanting him to throw. Passing kidney stones would have been easier for the former Heisman Trophy winner. The Titans benched Mariota (7-for-18, 63 yards), as Denver boasted sacks from Wolfe, Walker, Johnson, Shelby Harris and Malik Reed.
"Coach Fangio had a hell of a game plan. We were pumped. We wanted the shutout," said Chris Harris, who netted his first interception after listening to misplaced trash talk from Chargers receiver Keenan Allen about last week. "Thank Allen. He woke up the Dawg!"
The show of force was required. On a day when then the Broncos honored their past, they featured a game whose highlights belong in black and white.
But you know what they call an ugly win in the NFL? A win.
"Offensively, we weren't great," said Joe Flacco, who finished 18 of 28 for 177 yards and an interception, "but we did our job."
It was about time. The stat widens eyes. The Broncos entered Sunday 1-7 in their last eight home games. For anyone who has followed the franchise, the record seems inconceivable. Even in their lean years, the Broncos left opponents gasping for thin air. To crawl back into contention, home dominance remains required. If not now, when?
The Broncos opened in encouraging fashion. Diontae Spencer, standing on cracked ice after two ill-advised returns last week, darted 42 yards. Phillip Lindsay followed the Denver Moving Co. for 13 yards, setting up a red zone entrance. The Broncos ranked 22nd in touchdowns inside the 20. That number failed to improve on the first drive -- they went away from Lindsay -- as the Broncos settled for a 31-yard Brandon McManus field goal. However, a lead of anything works for a team too often a stranger to them.
In a game only mothers, punters and linebackers could love, the Broncos mauled the Titans. Mariota looked like a pitcher with no command, and Denver swallowed up Derrick Henry (28 yards on 15 carries). The Titans offense made the St. Louis Cardinals look functional. The Titans finished 2-for-16 on third and fourth down.
"There are no excuses," Henry said. "It wasn't good enough. And it hasn't been good enough."
That explains why the Broncos tilted conservatively. Facing a fourth-and-1 on the 35-yard line in the first half, Fangio elected to kick. McManus, slumping from a distance, improved to 3-for-10 from at least 50 yards over the past two years, splitting the uprights from 53 yards out. It represented his first long-distance make since last year's opener.
The first half was celebrated only for its extinction. The two teams combined for 11 punts, 10 first downs, and converted 2 of 15 third downs. The defenses deserve credit, but within reason. Neither offense instilled fear. Spawned boos? Yes. Fear no.
The Broncos secondary played with passion and edge. Already thin at secondary, Dawson sat out with a foot issue. However, Davontae Harris excelled in his first start, breaking up multiple third-down passes. And Harris Jr., who told Denver7 last week he needed to capitalize on few opportunities, picked off Mariota. It was an impressive display befitting a day when Champ Bailey entered the Ring of Fame.
"The No. 1 thing is we are not giving up big plays," explained Harris after becoming 12th Bronco with 20 career interceptions. "We've been able to eliminate those."
After an inexplicable Flacco interception -- his fifth straight game with a pick, this one snatched off tight end Noah Fant's back -- the Broncos capitalized on a takeaway. Mariota decided it would be a good idea to throw a ball up for grabs in the center of the field. Justin Simmons snared it, his second straight Sunday with an interception.
"It's something we have been preaching: takeaways," Simmons said. "You saw today guys trying to rake out the football."
With Emmanuel Sanders out with a knee injury, Flacco found DaeSean Hamilton for two receptions before Lindsay plunged into the end zone from 2 yards out. The Broncos secured a 13-0 lead with 4:56 remaining in the third. A two-score game felt like a 30-point advantage with the Titans listless and rudderless. Ryan Tannehill failed to ignite a sputtering offense, sacked by DeMarcus Walker early in the fourth quarter, Denver's fourth of the game.
Denver need not worry about style points. They were constructed to win low-scoring, bare-knuckle brawls. Whether it works against Kansas City remains an open debate. But on Sunday, hope lingered because the defense wouldn't let go of a season worth holding onto.
"I had in my mind to put a show for those guys (the Broncos All-Time 100 team, Bailey and late owner Pat Bowlen)," Harris Jr. said. "I am hyped. I can't wait for Kansas City. It's something I have been looking forward to all year."
Sanders injury update
The Broncos offense ground gears Sunday and was not helped by an injured Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders, who returned this season after surgery on his Achilles and ankle, had one catch for no yards in the first half. He has been dealing with a sore quadriceps and landed on the injury report this week with a knee issue. Sanders wasn't in the locker room afterward. However, his knee injury is not considered serious, per multiple sources. While Sanders has not made a big impact the past two weeks, there remains a chance he will play against Kansas City, a much-needed addition against the high-scoring Chiefs.
With Sanders sidelined, DaeSean Hamilton and Fred Brown received additional reps. The pair combined for three catches for 30 yards.
Linebacker Alexander Johnson finished with a team-high nine tackles, 1.5 sacks, a tackle for loss and two quarterback hits. Did he play better than last week? "I need to look at the film. I am always critical of my performance. But it felt good to be out there making plays."…. Mike Purcell has to pinch himself. He nearly retired several times over the last three years after to failing to land an NFL job. Now, the former Highlands Ranch and Wyoming star is anchoring the middle of the Broncos defense with family at the games. "It's surreal," he said. … Defensive end Adam Gotsis had never been inactive in his career until last week. Now, he owns a two-game stretch on the sideline as a healthy scratch. He lost his spot because of two developments. Mike Purcell provides a better run stuffer at nose tackle, allowing Shelby Harris to play more defensive end in place of Gotsis. DeMarcus Walker also has secured a spot in the rotation after appearing in 13 games his first two seasons. ... Other inactives: receiver Juwann Winfree (passed on depth chart by Fred Brown), Troy Fumagalli (behind Andrew Beck), Ja'Wuan James (expected to start Thursday with his left knee recovered), Calvin Anderson, Bryce Callahan, and Duke Dawson (a mildly surprising scratch with a foot issue). ... The Broncos honored their All-time 100 team before kickoff. Those receiving the loudest applause included John Elway, Shannon Sharpe and Peyton Manning. ... At one point, the Broncos defense featured a two-man rush on third down. It was weird and effective as Von Miller nearly posted a sack. It was a mistake, players said afterward. But it worked. … The teams combined for 17 punts and 23 first downs.