JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- They grew tired of the criticism, tired of the fractures in their armor, tired of a two-game trend that threatened to submarine their season.
So with the outcome of a clumsy 'puntapalooza' festival hanging the in the balance, the Broncos defense did what it does best. Cornerback Bradley Roby broke in front of a Blake Bortles pass intended for Allen Robinson. A week ago, Roby failed to stop Tyreek Hill on fourth down, and on a touchdown that placed Denver's playoff hopes in peril.
Sunday's road to redemption included no off ramps or orange construction signs on his way to the end zone. Roby's 51-yard score gave the Broncos a cushion to survive the choppy fourth quarter waters in a 20-10 victory at EverBank Field.
"I was the reason why we lost last week so it was big for me," Roby said. "We needed this."
When Roby hauled in the pass, he might as well have run to the charter bus with his hands in the air. This much is known about the past two seasons. When the Broncos' defense scores, Denver wins. Denver's defense boasts 10 touchdowns over the past 31 games, counting the playoffs. The Broncos own a 9-0 record in those games. Rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch hung onto the coattails of the defense with white knuckles to secure the first win of his career.
"We told him that we had his back," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. who became the fifth cornerback to post multiple interceptions in each of the last five seasons. "This was huge for us. We wanted to come out and make a statement."
Lynch, a first-round draft choice last spring, provided glimpses of stardom, but was kept in bubble wrap for the most part. He finished 12 of 24 for 104 yards. He relied on short passes, quick slants, and when given a chance to throw air it out, badly underthrew Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on potential touchdowns.
Lynch's most important contribution? No turnovers, allowing the Broncos defense to go nose-to-nose without one arm tied behind its back. Trevor Siemian continues to make progress with his sprained left foot, and could return this week. Lynch, for his part, kept the seat warm by doing just enough.
"There's some things obviously that we need to correct on offense. But we got out of here with the win," said Lynch, who had battery of family and friends at the game. "It's a special to get my first one."
The Broncos defense wanted this moment after allowing late scores in regulation to the New Orleans Saints and Chiefs on what cornerback Chris Harris called "dumb mistakes." In Bortles, the Broncos saw an easy mark. No one throws more passes to the other team at the worst time than the Jaguars quarterback. He holds onto the ball too long, and at times appears to look like a pitcher throwing from the stretch while using a slide step.
Bortles survived a pick to Harris early in the game, Denver's offense stalling as it did most of the day. But with 7:45 remaining in the third, risk devoured Bortles (19 of 42, 181 yards). He tested Roby, who mimicked Denver's playoff run last year, refusing to wilt in the spotlight. It represented his second pick six, one coming earlier this season against San Diego on a similar play. This catch led to Denver's eighth win, putting them back in control of their postseason destiny with the Ravens thrashing the Miami Dolphins. The Broncos, if the season ended Sunday, would own the sixth seed.
"We never lost control of our destiny," cornerback Aqib Talib roared. "We know what's at stake."
Of course, this win came with accompanying drama. The Broncos' defense was tired of jabs. And the team was just plain exhausted after a five-quarter loss to Kansas City and a cross-country road trip.
"I told them it's as proud as I have been of them," said Kubiak.
The Broncos defense showed elasticity in the fourth quarter, allowing a 12-play, 70-yard drive. Bortles scampered 22 yards for a touchdown, shaving the deficit to 17-10 with 14:03 remaining.
More resistance would be required as the offense turned to three yards and a cloud of rust, er, dust. The Broncos finished 1-for-12 on third downs, doing everything possible to keep the Jaguars' ineffective attack percolating.
"Paxton came in here and protected the ball and got the W, and that's the most important thing," said Kubiak after the teams combined for 19 punts. "We did what we needed to do."
The offense's conservative tilt could be reconciled based on the defense's performance. However, it applied pressure on the group to produce multiple stops. Against New Orleans and Kansas City, the Broncos lost their edge, playing too loosely in coverage. There were signs of that habit Sunday, but only briefly. The cornerbacks covered more tightly than Saran Wrap. In fact, Talib ended a drive that probably should have been extended with an interference call. Denver need not apologize for a fortunate break after last Sunday.
Outside linebacker Shane Ray put the few remaining Jaguars fans out of their misery, pushing a Jacksonville player into Bortles, causing a fumble that Ray recovered with 1:37 left. Denver has won 29 straight games when it wins the turnover battle.
"I think if you look at that stat in the NFL, there will a lot of teams with winning records when producing turnovers," Talib said. "It's huge."
The Broncos had a slight margin for error because of a certain rush.
About Devontae Booker's touchdown run. You’ve heard of pulling guards. What about a pulling tackle and pushing guard? In the Broncos’ most important play of first half, tackle Russell Okung yanked Booker into the end zone as guard Michael Schofield shoved him from the back.
"I don't know what you are talking about," Okung said of the potentially illegal advantage. "I am not sure of the play you are asking about."
Coaches showed Booker film on the importance of breaking tackles last week. It paid off.
"I just keep my legs moving," Booker said. "It was tough out there."
This play existed in a vacuum when looking at Booker's overall statistics. He finished with 35 yards on 18 carries, with injured Kapri Bibbs leading the team with 49 yards. Only one number mattered Sunday, esthetics be damned. The final score. It veered the Broncos back on track, Roby's return symbolic of a potential expressway back to the playoffs.
"It's big from here on out that we play A-plus football," Roby said. "I let my teammates down a week ago. We can't afford anymore letdowns."
Quarterback Trevor Siemian made a surprise appearance in pregame warmups without a boot on his sprained left foot, a promising sign for his availability at Nashville. Siemian expects to be re-evaluated Monday. Siemian did some light stretching, and moved without a limp. As the Broncos coaches ran through the press box at halftime, Siemian walked behind them. He refused sliders and chicken fingers, for the record.
"It's making progress. It's not up to me, it's up to what the training staff needs to see," said Siemian after the game, while praising Lynch for helping secure the victory. "It's getting better."
Siemian had fun with his injury on Saturday, tweeting a picture of him mirroring Peyton Manning’s pose of soaking his foot in the tub with his iPad in hand and helmet on. He heard from teammates on how Manning looked stronger than him.
"I would like to go on record and say Peyton was flexing," Siemian said.
The former Northwestern standout owns a 7-3 record as a starter. He has missed two games this season – Atlanta, Jacksonville – and has suffered three injuries to his left shoulder, right shoulder and left foot.
Kapri Bibbs left the locker room wearing a protective boot after suffering a high ankle sprain. He remains hopeful it's not serious. However, if he's not available this week, it's fair to wonder if the Broncos will consider signing free agent Justin Forsett. Cut by the Lions last week, Forsett knows Kubiak's offense from the 2014 season they spent together in Baltimore. Bibbs led the Broncos in rushing with five carries for 49 yards, including a long of 24.
Linebacker Brandon Marshall re-injured his left hamstring in the third quarter. He has admittedly been disappointed with his performance this season. The leg injury, which has haunted him for weeks, continues to hold him back. ...
Defensive end Billy Winn suffered a neck injury in the fourth quarter. He doesn't believe it's serious.
Chris Harris (defense), Emmanuel Sanders (offense), Kayvon Webster (special teams), who aggravated his hamstring injury, served as captains for their performances against the Chiefs.
After a wobbly start, Kalif Raymond provided a bump on special teams on punt return. He's not as quick as Kansas City's Tyreek Hill, but he provides burst that Jordan Norwood lacks. Raymond returned four punts for 40 yards with a long of 22. Look for him to continue the role.
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