DENVER — All of us noticed the Broncos' issues with winning the last four seasons. Blame requires a wide net: poor quarterback play, a carousel of coaches, defensive gaffes in critical moments. But the Broncos arrived Sunday with slivers of smiles accenting the sunshine.
They have a young quarterback with enough talent to bring people into their seats and hope into their thoughts. It isn't always pretty with Drew Lock. But he has the talent to turn paint-by-numbers into Picasso. The Broncos survived a miserable start with an impressive finish, scoring on five straight possessions at one point to eclipse the Lions 27-17 at Empower Field at Mile High.
Friday, I talked with Lock in the locker room. He was wearing a Jordan sweatshirt, which took me by surprise. He made it clear that Michael Jordan was his favorite player. "(Michael Jordan) was the man. No one like him," Lock said of the hoops legend. Jordan's career carves into wow moments. One of his signature highlights came in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, heretofore known as The Jordan Flu game. He recorded 38 points in a 90-88 win over the Utah Jazz.
The stakes were much lower Sunday for the Broncos, but Lock had his flu game. He completed 25 of 33 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown, blending bravado with restraint as he improved to 3-1 as a starter and cemented his status as The Guy entering the offseason.
"It goes back to this week. We definitely weren’t all healthy. We were down a little bit, just like in this game. We started off down but like we did this week, we fought through the sickness and everyone not feeling well, we kind of did that today. It’s pretty relatable to how we started off slow and finished off strong," Lock said. "Yeah, if you can’t tell from my voice. I feel alright. My throat and chest were a little buggy this week. The whole cold shebang, it was a blast. I loved it.”
Phillip Lindsay, who rushed for 109 yards in his best home performance this season, put his stamp on the victory with a 27-yard bolt for a touchdown with 6:38 remaining in the fourth quarter. He sits 42 yards shy of reaching 1,000 in each of his first two seasons. Sunday's touchdown was a microcosm of an impressive stretch, amplified in significance because the Broncos were using three reserve offensive lineman the entire second half in guards Patrick Morris and Austin Schlottmann and tackle Jake Rodgers.
"It was kind of ironic that we started moving the ball when we had to put the two offensive linemen in— Morris and Rodgers. Obviously for me to say they did a great job would be kind of a guess because you don’t see the O-line play very well out there from the sidelines, but for the way we moved it those guys must have played very well. We ran our offense. We didn’t have to make any makeshift adjustments because of those two guys being in there. Our credit has to go to those two guys. At that point, we were down to five only," coach Vic Fangio explained. "I thought Drew played well. It’s the first time he’s had a comeback victory. He’s had a lot of stuff happen here the last two weeks—playing in the poor conditions against a really good team on the road, now getting down 10-nothing, not moving it very well offensively, having a punt return against you which can kind of deflate you. I thought it was a good game for Drew.”
It appears the Broncos used the 15-play script for the second half, a delicious twist. They scored five straight times in the game. There were times it felt like they wouldn't score five times in the first eight games. The Broncos are averaging 22.7 points per contest under Lock. They scored 15.9 when anyone else played. And Lock danced in celebration Sunday. Not well. But he busted a move.
"We knew he was special," Lindsay said. "Drew is a character (laughs). Actually, the whole quarterback room are characters. They are. He’s having fun, and that’s what you want in a quarterback, has confidence, is having fun and he’s only going to get better. His dance moves are only going to get better."
Added receiver Tim Patrick, who showed off his dance moves during a postgame live spot on Denver7, "His swagger is contagious. The way he carries himself, it’s hard not to have fun out there. You see him celebrating getting into it with other players. That’s a guy you want to follow."
Nobody is going to confuse the Broncos as prolific, but they percolated with creativity. On fourth-and-one from their own 49-yard-line, the Broncos capitalized on playing without consequence. They went for it. As they should. Offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello lined up Andrew Beck in the backfield with Lindsay. Lock took the snap, pitched to Beck who ran into a time portal and became a 1970s Oklahoma quarterback. He drew the end and pitched to Lindsay for the third down conversion.
Moments later, one of the Broncos' best sequences unfolded: a 12-yard connection to Tim Patrick, a 13-yard burst by Lindsay and a 3-yard touchdown catch by DaeSean Hamilton, who delivered the best game of his career as the Lions focused on neutralizing Courtland Sutton.
"I was hoping it was going to happen," said Hamilton, who finished with a team-high six catches for 65 yards. "Staying true to the process, really and just being ready. Obviously, the pace has been up and down this year, but as long as I try to stay true to myself and stay true to my teammates - they always kept uplifting me and things like that. Yeah, it’s just been a game that I’ve been hoping that had happened a long ago."
The finish served as a jarring contrast to a forgettable start. Even Santa might have booed in the Broncos in the first half.
With weather approaching 70 degrees, fans were comfortably hot, howling in anger in the second quarter when the Broncos finally awoke. And more showed -- consider it the Drew Lock bump -- than the previous game. No shows shrank from 19,094 against the Chargers to 9,674 on a sun-soaked Sunday.
Ditching the sloppiness and leaning on Lock, the Broncos marched 75 yards on nine plays. Lock showed athleticism and elite arm strength, rifling a dart to Hamliton, and Patrick to set up Royce Freeman's rumble into the end zone. Two defensive penalties shoved the Broncos toward the goal line, but Denver need not apologize for help. You take assistance with open arms when you rank 30th in points scored.
Two goals surfaced as more important over these final two games. Reclaim home dominance -- or at least a winning record, which remains in reach with a win over the playoff-contending Raiders -- and average 23 points minimum. The Broncos secured their first lead on their opening third quarter drive. Lock's 16-yard strike to Hamilton created a platform for McManus' second field goal. Angry Brandon -- he hasn't missed since Fangio denied him a chance to make history -- shoved the Broncos ahead 13-10 with 10:23 remaining in the third.
Of course, nothing comes easily for the Broncos. What should have been a statement in pursuit of a convincing win dissolved into an interruption. The Lions responded with a methodical march, gorging 6 minutes, 32 seconds off the clock. The elasticity vanished as the Broncos finally stiffened.
“We just really had to step it up. We weren’t going to let what happened last week against Chiefs happen again," defensive end Shelby Harris said. "We really just had to step up our game as a defense and go out there and make plays. I feel like we did that today.”
The Broncos fell behind 10-0 with 10:52 remaining in the second quarter, a slice of awfulness rivaling the final three quarters against the Chiefs. Fans turned on the team on their third drive, cascading boos after a three-and-out. Typically the anger centers on the quarterback. Lock played fine. He was handcuffed by conservative playcalling and three holding calls on tackles Elijah Wilkinson (two) and Garett Bolles (one).
Losing season bring ghastly sights. The Broncos fell into the darkest vortex in sports: bad and boring. That dynamic has shifted with Lock, his mere presence sprinkling caffeine in the Gatorade jugs. But 6-9 reflects a macro problem of four straight years without a playoff berth and three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1970-72.
A fast start helps get hands clapping and feet moving. That didn't happen Sunday. The Lions, using third string quarterback David Blough, worked over Denver on their first drive. A pair of chunk pass plays set up Matt Prater's 26-yard field goal. The Broncos responded with a three-and-out drive stained by a dropped pass by Devontae Booker. Just when you thought the game had bottomed out, the Broncos pulled out a shovel and began digging.
Embattled punter Cody Wadman lifted a 46-yard punt with minimal hang time that created issues, too often the case this season. Jamal Agnew fielded it cleanly and raced 64 yards for a score, juking Wadman for the final insult on the score. The Broncos have allowed two punt return touchdowns, second worst to the Panthers (three). It's not hard to see the Broncos considering major changes their special teams after this season.
Earlier in the year, this would have led to a loss. The Broncos, though, have shown improvement under Fangio, going 6-5 over their last 11 games. They are tougher overall and improved offensively.
As such, Sunday became defined not by problems but optimism. The Broncos were sick. But they were more sick and tired of losing.
"It takes more than a little flu. We’ve been battling all year, we’re a real tough team," said Von Miller, one of those affected. "It takes more than a simple flu or a cold to stop these guys in the locker room. We’ve got a lot of high character guys out here, it takes more than that to stop us.”
And you thought we forget about Dre. Broncos rookie Dre'Mont Jones notched 2.5 sacks, continuing his late-season push. "It feels good. I hate to get a chance because of the injuries, but I felt like could capitalize with more opportunities. Now, I have to keep improving." ... Rookie left guard Dalton Risner did not start in the second half. The rookie left guard was battling the flu all week. Patrick Morrris replaced him leaving a line of Garett Bolles, Connor McGovern, Austin Schlottmann and Jake Rodgers, in for the Elijah Wilkinson who injured his left ankle in the first half. ... Brandon McManus moved into fourth place all-time in franchise history in field goals made on Sunday. ... Gameday captains: Connor McGovern, Todd Davis and Davontae Harris.